New principal Dr. Avis Williams set to open doors at Salisbury High
By Sarah Campbell
SALISBURY — New Salisbury High School Principal Dr. Avis Williams will have a smile on her face and a plan in hand Monday when the first bell of the school year rings at 7:30 a.m.
“Students need to know that you care, and part of that is getting to know them,” she said. “So I do what friendly people do — I smile and greet them and treat them with respect. They need to see that we’re real people.”
Williams said she’s a “firm believer in relationships, relationships, relationships.”
“Regardless of what we do, it’s not the program, it’s the people,” she said. “We’re all looking at what role we’re playing and how we contribute positively to the learning of our young people.”
Williams, who started in July, told the Rowan Rotary Club Thursday she has a three-pronged approach in place as she dives into her first year at the school, replacing longtime principal Dr. Windsor Eagle.
That plan includes creating a positive culture, increasing rigor and fostering collaboration between the school and community.
“Our goal of course is to continue a tradition of excellence that’s already so prevalent at Salisbury High,” she said.
Williams said an upbeat environment is a pivotal part of any organization.
“I used the word upbeat because, especially in high school, you need the students to be thriving and to be excited about being there,” she said. “Strong arts and sports programs, those types of programs are very instrumental as it relates to the students being involved and connected to the school.”
A stronger sense of collaboration would also help the school thrive, Williams said. She’d like to create more partnerships with civic groups, churches and businesses.
“We have a lot of needs that aren’t just budgetary. A lot of our needs involve resources and that’s where you all can help,” she told Rotary members.
Williams said rigor will be non-negotiable under her leadership.
“It’s making sure that we’re doing what we need to do for our students to reach and stretch beyond what they may even think they’re capable of,” she said. “In doing so, we have a variety of different programs that we have in place and a lot of it involves using technology.
“I’m a very strong believer that no one rises to low expectations, so we have to have high expectations for students.”
Williams said the inception of the state’s new common core curriculum standards will be a positive change for students.
“With common core, we will be able to meet the needs of all of our students, regardless of whether they come from another state or a district within the state,” she said. “At the end of the day, our job is to educate kids, and we can’t do that unless we have a structure and a sound foundation in place to make sure, from an academic standpoint, that their needs are being met in a challenging environment.”
Part of that rigor will be making sure students are exposed to STEM classes.
STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.
“The hope is to push those kids into STEM-related career fields as they graduate from high school and move on, because that’s where the jobs are,” William said.
Williams said safety will be a top priority at the school.
“We do have some challenges as far as creating a safe and orderly learning environment,” she said. “We need to address those because students cannot learn and teachers cannot teach if they don’t feel safe,” she said.
Williams will look to begin using what she calls positive behavior supports.
“We basically have clear expectations where the students and the teachers know what is expected of them,” she said. “But we also have rewards for students who contribute positively to the school.”
She’ll seek feedback from students about the types of rewards that might interest them, including events such as a students-versus-teachers basketball game.
“What we might consider a carrot that’s worth chasing after might be totally different than what kids actually want,” she said.
Williams has brought on a new school resource officer to help get some initiatives off the ground.
Salisbury Police Officer Tim Hunter will replace Lynn Foster.
“I had a conversation with Chief (Rory) Collins and Capt. (Shelia) Lingle and described some of our needs and challenges, and they thought he would be a good fit,” she said.
Williams said Hunter has an extensive background in gang intervention that will help establish a gang prevention and intervention program.
“This is just to address a need that I refuse to sweep under the rug,” she said. “I refuse to pretend the problem does not exist. When I visited the school in May, I saw that it does.
“As an educator, nothing breaks my heart more than watching the news and seeing one of my kids has been arrested or worse.”
Williams said she’s hoping to address the issue head-on and come up with a system to deter students from gang activity.
“As a school, we believe that it’s necessary to have some structure in place so that they’re not turning to negative influences,” she said.
Williams said the school will also be working to identify why students join gangs.
“Some of the reasons are pretty generic and obvious like respect, money and protection,” she said. “But if you dig a little deeper and look at the particular students, oftentimes you find that there are some other factors that contribute.”
An anti-bullying program is also on tap.
“In this day that we live with kids being so connected with social media, we need to have some type of program to teach them to safely interact on the Internet,” she said. “For every problem they have on Facebook and Twitter with their friends, they tend to bring it to school, so we need to have structures so those things don’t affect our school in a negative way.”
Williams said she’d like to create more open lines of communication between the school administration and instructional staff.
She also wants to make sure parents and the community know what’s going on.
That’s why she’ll be updating her blog, www.salisburyhighschool.blogspot.com, periodically with upcoming events and news about what’s happening at the school.
“I welcome the teachers to give me something that they want to put on the blog,” she said. “I’ve already shared information about our virtual reality class and the Marching Hornets.”
Another piece to Williams’ plan for improved communication is teacher accountability.
“This is a labor of love, but it’s also a job,” she said. “So I’m a big believer in individual accountability as it relates to the teachers doing what they need to do to contribute positively to our overall school culture.”
But she also wants to make sure teachers enjoy what they do.
“One thing that we talked about on our retreat is that work should be fun,” she said. “I’m going to look on the bright side and be positive and hope that energy will be contagious.”
Williams, a Salisbury native who graduated from North Rowan High School, said it’s good to be back home.
She enlisted in the U.S. Army after graduating and later went on to teach high school English before getting into administration.
“For a number of years, I’ve wanted to get closer to home because this is home, I was born and raised here, but I never would have thought I would have this opportunity,” she said. “It’s been a dream come true to do what I love to do and be able to do it at home.”
Prior to coming to Salisbury High, Williams served as the principal of J.E. Williams Technology Middle School in Huntsville, Ala., and as an adjunct professor at Middle Tennessee State University.
Her 17-year-old daughter Briahna Williams stayed in Alabama to complete her senior year of high school.
Williams said she’s ready for Monday.
“Having the kids in the building will be exciting. I’m definitely looking forward to that,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of fun this summer working with the teachers and staff, but I’m very excited to get my hands dirty with the real work that starts Monday.”
On the web with Dr. Avis Williams
• Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/DrAvisW
• Read her blog at www.salisburyhighschool.blogspot.com
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.