Dorothy Woodard loves teaching math, but, ironically, may have changed more students’ lives by championing reading.
For the three-time Wachovia Principal of the Year in Newton-Conover City Schools, the irony was simply part of her commitment to follow the example of her grandmother, Lula Phifer, in making a difference for others.
“She only had a 3rd grade education, but I watched how my grandma helped people,” Woodard said. “Whether it was growing a garden and giving away the food to people in need or mentoring kids, she was always trying to help the community. And I think there’s why I wanted to be a teacher.”
Born and raised in Statesville, NC, Woodard attended Livingstone College in Salisbury, earning a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. She then enrolled at Temple University in Philadelphia, where she pursued a master’s degree in education. She received a full scholarship to cover her tuition with the stipulation that she teach for three years in the school system. Her first job after undergraduate school was teaching math at Shoemaker Junior High School, located in West Philadelphia.
“The school was in a rough part of town,” she said. “I was there three years and when I graduated from Temple, I was ready to come home.”
She moved back to Statesville in 1969, primarily to help care for her grandmother, and began teaching math at Oakwood Jr. High in Statesville. Over the next 24 years, Woodard would also teach math at West Rowan High and serve as assistant principal at Knox Middle School in Rowan-Salisbury Schools.
In 1991, Woodard completed her education specialist degree from the University of North Carolina — Charlotte and, in 1994, was appointed principal at Thornton Elementary, a chronically low-performing school.
“You can’t do math if you can’t read,” she said. “In fact, if you cannot read, you can’t do much of anything else.”
She set aside the first hour of the school day for intensive reading focus for all students. No interruptions were permitted and every faculty and staff member pitched in so the students could receive as much personal attention as possible. “We even had the counselors, teacher assistants and bus drivers helping with groups,” Woodard said.
The efforts attracted community volunteers, including many senior adults, and the results were striking. Within seven years, Thornton was the highest-performing elementary in the system.
“To have touched the lives of so many kids over all these years, it just makes my soul happy,” she said.
Woodard retired in 2001 and was promptly recruited for an innovative team being put together in the Iredell-Statesville schools. Dubbed “SWAT,” the System-Wide Assistance Team was designed to provide mentoring and support for administrators and teachers. Woodard continues to be involved in short-term projects.
Outside the classroom, Woodard created a recognition program dedicated to high school seniors graduating with honors from Rowan-Salisbury Schools. She wanted student scholars to receive the same praise and recognition that student-athletes received. Selected students were also awarded scholarships from a local businessman.
“I wanted to recognize the students for their academic achievements,” she said. “The schools always had an athletic banquet. But the kids who were achieving academically were never recognized.”
Woodard’s impact in the community extends far beyond public schools. She is a Diamond Life Member and Membership Chair of the Statesville Branch NAACP, an organization she has supported since her high school days. Being active in civil rights at an early age, she was one of eleven students arrested in 1960 at the local Woolworth’s store for sitting in at the segregated lunch counter.
“My grandmother used to take me to meetings,” she said. “I have always supported how the NAACP works for equality, education, and economic opportunity for everyone. And it makes a great impact on voting rights.”
Woodard was also President of the Chestnut Grove Community Center, a non-profit founded by residents to foster a sense of community and to preserve the old elementary school Woodard attended as a child. She was also the 2018 campaign chair for the Iredell County United Way, a Board member of Crosby Scholars, and the church clerk and chair of the Education Scholarship Committee at Chestnut Grove Baptist Church.
It is all part of a commitment she made to herself when, as a student teacher, she asked her former basketball coach how she could repay his kindness for helping with a transportation problem.
“He said ‘you pass it forward’,” Woodard said. “That stuck with me and I’ve tried to live by that my whole life.”
By Bria Lindsay