Malishai Woodbury talks about improving Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- It would be hard to find a more qualified person to lead a local school board.

Malishai Woodbury (most know her as Shai, pronounced “Shay”) is currently working on her doctorate in education. This will be on top of her two master's degrees and undergraduate degree.

Oh, and did I mention she’s on the adjunct faculty at North Carolina A&T State University? She’s also on “education leave” from the Guilford County School System where she works as a school turnaround specialist. She’ll stay on leave while she works on her doctorate.

Woodbury has come a long way from her childhood. She grew up in southeast Winston-Salem’s historic Happy Hill Gardens Community, a historically black neighborhood that was settled by freed slaves from the village of Salem after the Civil War.

“We always gave love,” Woodbury told me about the people in Happy Hill during a recent interview. “And everybody was responsible for everybody’s child and each other.”

Today, Woodbury is working to uphold that Happy Hill Gardens-style of nurturing as the first African-American chair of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board.

It’s a board to which she was elected last year as the representative of District 1, the district whose schools she attended. (She graduated Carver High School in the early 1990s before heading to UNC-Chapel Hill.)

She didn’t hesitate when I asked her to name the school system’s biggest challenge:

“A concentration of low-performing schools in District 1,” she said. “And so what that says is children who live in a particular area of our county are not learning. That’s unforgivable.”

She says school choice is at the root of the problem. (For more information on school choice in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, click here.)

But she doesn’t want to get rid of school choice. Instead, she says, the system needs to work to turn low-performing schools into schools parents want to send their children to and the best teachers would want to work at.

Many school systems have, over the years, done this by turning low-performing schools into “magnet” schools which offer, in addition to the standard curriculum, specialty curriculums like science and technology or the arts.

“That could be an option,” Woodbury said. “They (low-performing schools) would become magnets based on what people want.”

Also of concern: what she calls the 30-plus point achievement gap between the system’s minority and non-minority students.

“We’re going to have to have some serious conversations about race, about socioeconomics and start to really help people on the ground with our students, meaning the teachers, the principals and others,” she said. “(We need to) give them that training in diversity and equity so that we can start thinking differently about how we personalize learning with all our students.”

Other goals include: making teacher supplements more competitive and developing what she calls “a verifiable active shooter plan” for the school system.

“The students that we serve, they don’t really care if the first African-American woman is serving on the school board,” she said. “They just want us to make sure they have access to a great education so that they can have a good and peaceful life.”

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