Zoe Woodell Locklear
From a student at rural, segregated schools to the chief academic officer of a public university serving a culturally diverse population, Zoe Woodell Locklear’s lifelong commitment to education took her on an incredible journey.
And through her teaching and leadership, she impacted thousands of lives and families, including many special-needs students sometimes overlooked by society.
Locklear was born in Robeson County, a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. She was one of eight children in a family marked by much love, but enjoying few material resources.
Her parents believed strongly in the benefits of education, for themselves and their children. Their own formal education had been limited, with Locklear’s father only having completed elementary school. But in the rural South of the 1940s and 1950s, opportunities were scarce for many individuals from minority populations, such as American Indians.
As a young girl, Locklear attended segregated American Indian schools staffed by American Indian faculty. In 1970, when Locklear was an 8th grader, Robeson County merged the three separate school systems that had existed for many years for Caucasian, African American, and American Indian students. Yet the resulting community schools still had sharp demographic divisions.
“I remember perhaps five Caucasian and ten African-American students in my high school,” she said. “We had one Caucasian and one African-American teacher.”
In 1974 she enrolled at Pembroke State University — today’s University of North Carolina-Pembroke (UNCP). Her first real experience with ethnic groups other than her own made her feel self-conscious about her appearance, dress, and mannerisms. She was particularly sensitive about her regional dialect, which had been heavily influenced by her father, who had lived and worked outside the state for many years.
One unexpected challenge was others’ perception of her ethnic identity. She had inherited a fair complexion from her father and her maiden name, Woodell, was an uncommon Lumbee surname.
“I definitely viewed the world through ‘Native’ eyes, so it was often confusing to find myself in an environment where other people mistook me as Caucasian,” Locklear said. “Unfortunately, I had a few experiences when some people at the university spoke to me in very derogatory terms about the ‘local Indians’ because they assumed I was white. They wanted to ‘warn’ me, they said, and made very negative comments about local people.
“When this happened, I was extremely embarrassed, hurt, angry, and confused,” she said. “But with age and increased confidence, I learned how to handle these experiences.”
Years later, as a professor, Locklear helped students of color process and deal with similar experiences they were having.
Having never missed a day of school in 12 years, Locklear was drawn to a career in education and originally considered majoring in elementary education and psychology. Then, after observing at a sheltered workshop the impact the program had for adults with special needs, she chose special education as her major and “never looked back.”
She graduated magna cum laude in just three years and moved, at the age of 19, to Durham, where she taught K-5 children with developmental disabilities. During the summer of 1977, she also taught adults with severe and profound disabilities at Murdoch Institution in Butner, NC.
“These were wonderful months for me,” she remembers. “I was very happy as a teacher of individuals with disabilities.”
She earned her master’s degree in special education from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) in 1979 and began teaching children with severe disabilities, such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy, in Alamance County. She returned home to Robeson County two years later to direct a school for children ages 3 to 21 with moderate, severe, and profound disabilities.
Locklear, who holds state licenses as both a superintendent and a principal (K-12), completed work on her doctorate in special education at UNC-CH in 1989. While completing her dissertation, Locklear began what would be a 25-year career as a UNCP faculty member, teaching courses in special education.
When UNCP created a School of Education in 1999, Locklear was selected as its founding dean and served until 2002, when she left UNCP to become an assistant superintendent of the public schools of Robeson County and, later, associate superintendent for the state Department of Public Instruction.
She returned to UNCP in 2004 to teach and direct the Master of School Administration program. She was appointed dean a second time in 2005 and a third time in 2012, before being named Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs in 2015.
“We are fortunate she chose to serve the institution where her journey of higher education began,” said Chancellor Robin Gary Cummings in a news release announcing her retirement in 2017. “Her impact on our campus will continue for years to come through the academic leadership team she cultivated, faculty she led, and students she inspired.”
As a professor, Locklear taught graduate and undergraduate students pursuing degrees in special education, birth-kindergarten education, elementary education, and school administration. As an administrator, she led the reorganization of multiple campus departments to better align operations with the university’s mission, vision and values and expanded key academic partnerships through the new Center for Student Success to enable students to pursue pathways toward successful careers.
Locklear said the need for teachers of color was particularly pressing in many southeastern North Carolina school districts, which had high populations of American Indian, African-American, and, increasingly, Hispanic students. While recruiting students who would ultimately become teachers, she aggressively pursued grant funding from the U.S. Department of Education and the Ford Foundation, which involved working in collaboration with a sister UNC institution, Fayetteville State University.
“I knew teachers of color would be seen as role models by students of color,” she said. “Both programs were highly successful, producing more than 100 teachers with the majority remaining in education into 2017 as teachers, principals, and central office administrators working primarily in school districts throughout southeastern North Carolina”.
In addition to her campus responsibilities, Locklear served on numerous panels and task forces, including the Governor’s Education First Task Force and the North Carolina Title II Teacher Diversity Standards panel. In 1999, she became the first American Indian woman to serve on the N.C. State Board of Education, following appointment by Gov. James B. Hunt.
By Jasmine McAlister