“If you don’t know where you’re going or why you’re doing the work,
then you won’t make any sort of transformational change.”
–Elena Ashburn, principal, Broughton High School
by Jessie Ammons
photograph by Travis Long
As the Wake County Public School System begins its academic year this month, Broughton High School is kicking off work on a 10-year strategic plan. The undertaking is significant. “If we’re serious about doing the work and we’re serious about doing it well, that takes time and it takes a lot of input,” says the school’s new leader, principal Elena Ashburn.
Ashburn assumed her role last February, after her predecessor moved to a position at Athens Drive High School. Arriving in the middle of the school year gave her the time to meet one-on-one with all 175 school employees and with every single student in small groups. By June, Ashburn says the feedback she gathered inspired this long-range planning.
Ashburn says her motivation to think ahead comes from the Triangle’s “excellent” public school system itself. She also comes to the job with the perspective that only significant experience and a passion for teaching can provide. After a Teach for America job brought the Virginia native to Durham in 2007, she earned a master’s in school administration from UNC-Chapel Hill, become assistant principal of Fuquay-Varina High School, and then principal of East Garner Middle School.
Along with her current Broughton principalship, she’s currently a doctoral candidate in the educational leadership program at UNC-Chapel Hill. “I just loved it, and I still do” she says of both the area and the profession, which she describes as a calling. “I believe that teaching is the most important job in a school building. Your lens is just much wider in the principalship: You have multiple priorities running at the same time.”
One of those priorities is to encourage the staff to create a passionate team. “It’s very easy in our jobs to get bogged down in things that, one, we can’t change; or, two, things that didn’t go the way we think they fundamentally should,” Ashburn says. “Let’s talk about all the amazing things that are in our ability to change and effect. When you’re trying to continuously improve, it helps people remember their ‘why.’ I truly believe people arrive at this school building every day wanting to do the best thing by kids.”