A Thoughtful leader
A fixture in North Carolina public education, Todd Wirt ’98 is not afraid to tackle challenges head-on, with compassion and determination.
By Jonathan Black ’15
If there’s been a common thread in Todd Wirt’s role as an educator and administrator in North Carolina for nearly 16 years, it’s one-on-one interactions with students.
When he was principal at Mooresville High School, he made it a point to meet with each graduating class. After giving advice and encouragement, he told the students to keep in touch whenever they reached an important milestone. He now gets weekly Facebook messages from those former students.
Personal connections are a reminder that despite the challenges and difficulties that come with being an educator, he chose the right profession. Not that he always knew that. When Wirt arrived at Elon in 1994, he was planning to major in sports medicine. He grew up in and around schools in the Newport News area of Virginia. His father volunteered as a high school baseball coach and his mother worked as a teaching assistant. An education elective led him to explore education as a career and shifted his focus to middle school education. “The beauty of Elon’s School of Education is you are required to spend quite a bit of time in schools,” Wirt says. “I was given the opportunity to get in front of kids, of all age levels, and had a great student-teaching experience.”
Wirt’s career trajectory took off from the moment he walked across the stage Under the Oaks in 1998, and eventually led him in July to his position as superintendent of Orange County Schools in North Carolina. He is now a fixture in North Carolina education, a respected leader who doesn’t shy away from the problems that plague public education. “He’s really one of our bright stars in public education today,” says Mark Edwards, superintendent of Mooresville Graded School District. “He’s a people person, highly motivated, with strong knowledge of school leadership. He’s a guy who puts children first. Parents and community members like that.”
The road to the top
Shortly after graduating from Elon, Wirt joined Woodlawn Middle School in Burlington, N.C., as a special education teacher. After teaching a year and a half, he was promoted to assistant principal by the school’s principal, Lynn Briggs. “It was a very quick jump, but he had the skills and qualities to be a good administrator, to be a good teacher,” Briggs says. “He had a good relationship with the kids and was an excellent role model.”
When Briggs became principal of Graham High School, Wirt followed, retaining his title of assistant principal. During this time, he received a master’s degree in school administration from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He would later become principal at Mebane’s Hawfields Middle School, Graham High School and Mooresville High School. During his time at the latter, he earned his doctorate from Wingate University.
Wirt continued to move forward, becoming executive director of secondary education in the Mooresville School District and, later, assistant superintendent for academics at Wake County Public School System—the 15th largest school district in the country. It was only natural that Wirt’s next step was the top job. “I was interested in being superintendent,” Wirt says. “I’ve worked with some exceptional ones and knew you can make a huge impact.”
Adapting the learning process
Since Wirt arrived in orange county, he has seen a newly developed strategic plan— created by elected officials, employees, parents and other community members—come to fruition. Their plans include creating engaging experiences for students in a project-based setting, a teaching method that allows students to gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period on an complex question, problem or challenge. Such experiences allow students to collaborate and demonstrate mastery of a subject in many ways, be it through technology, writing, artistic ability or a presentation. “[These experiences] shouldn’t be events that happen once in a while,” Wirt says. “When you’re strategic and teachers are well trained, it becomes part of the fabric in what you do.”
Making sure these experiences are effective means all 7,500 students under Wirt’s supervision have access to the same resources, with a specific focus on technology. In Orange County, every student between third and 12th grade has access to a laptop. To see how students are best using the technology available to them, Wirt just has to head home. There, his two kids, sixth-grader Mary Moss and third-grader Gib, with the help of wife Kelly White Wirt ’98, can show him how they learn. This easy access to technology has revolutionized how information is delivered in the classroom.
With so many resources available for students to learn today, teaching goes beyond communicating information. The focus is on creating an experience in which they learn how to validate and present information. From the perspective of an educator, technology shows teachers where students excel and where they struggle. Wirt went through the digital transition as a principal in Mooresville. Changes meant not only guiding students, but parents as well. Briggs says Wirt has a knack for building and maintaining relationships, something that has helped him along the way. “You’ve got to be a cheerleader for people and to believe in people and to get them to believe in you,” she says. “He has those qualities that make you want to strive to be better.”
The plight of public education has been well documented in North Carolina. WalletHub, a personal finance website, ranked North Carolina as the second worst state in the country for teacher pay, just beating out West Virginia. The state ranked 40th in average starting salary and 49th in 10-year salary change for teachers. Wirt is well aware of these challenges and has made an effort to support his staff and students despite a shrinking budget. Professional development, support for understanding a new curriculum and celebrations can keep morale up. “Teachers feel undervalued and underappreciated,” Wirt says. “The way to combat that locally is providing an exceptional level of support. Celebrate teachers’ successes and make them feel valued.”
On the student level, it’s still about keeping the focus on the individual. At the core of what Wirt does, is building relationships with students, some of whom have little time left to decide their academic career. “Often the students’ environment puts them on a specific path,” he says. “You have opportunities to enrich a student on a good projection or change the projection of a student on a bad one.”
He still remembers one such student he met while he was at Mooresville High School. “It was clear he was a very bright young man, but without somebody reaching out and encouraging him to be a great student-athlete, he could have followed in the same footsteps as some family members,” Wirt says. He met with the student regularly, discussing personal, historical and environmental challenges and helped schedule him into advanced placement classes on top of his football schedule. The student graduated on time with multiple advanced classes under his belt. He even managed to receive a football scholarship and is now playing for the Elon Phoenix. Wirt looks forward to the day when he walks Under the Oaks.
“If you love a kid, you can turn it into action and make sure they reach that spot you believe they can,” Wirt says. “For me, that’s what it’s about.”