Off to Be the Wizard

Off to Be the Wizard

William R. McNeal, Wake County (N.C.) Public School System

The national Superintendent of the Year gets by with a little help from his friends

Nearly everyone has seen and loved The Wizard of Oz. But Bill McNeal has lived it.

The superintendent's favorite topic is Oz. He'll teach kindergarten munchkins about respecting those who are different, as Dorothy did. Teachers are reminded of how the Oz characters came to realize their abilities, such as Dorothy's being able to get home by clicking her heels. The takeaway: Get students to recognize what they can do.

McNeal tells and re-tells of the movie's lessons on courage, brains, heart and home. So his Wake County, N.C., colleagues weren't likely surprised when he touched on Oz as he talked to the press after being named 2004 Super-intendent of the Year. He is the 17th leader to receive that honor, in the program co-sponsored by the American Association of School Administrators and Aramark ServiceMaster Facility Services. But perhaps he's the first whose life so neatly mirrors the lessons learned along the Yellow Brick Road.

Courage When your Dad is a Baptist minister and you're his namesake, the family naturally assumes you will choose the same life path. "My mother probably prayed for it," McNeal says.

He convinces parents to want what's best for all- not just their own child.

So off to the military he went. As an instructor, he rather liked having people stand at attention and call him "Sir." Why not give teaching a whirl? Students would surely respect him in the same way.

After a stint in Danbury, Conn., he came to Wake County. There he remains, 29 years later. Since 2000, McNeal has known firsthand how leading a district requires courage. Whether he's up against a parent insisting the roads "look fine" on an icy school-delay morning, or a full e-mail in-box (he prides himself on speedy responses), this leader stands tall.

Facing population growth requiring school re-assignments is also hard. He must convince parents to see what's best for all, not just one. That, says Andre Smith, principal of Wake Forest-Rolesville H.S., "takes a whole lot of courage."

Brains When Smith joined Wake County a decade ago, he saw McNeal present on the achievement gap. "He had the vision and the foresight long before [No Child Left Behind] to say we needed a plan for each child," Smith says. McNeal's ability to promote that vision, he adds, "makes me a better principal."

McNeal has used his smarts to boost achievement, but he also knows not to take himself too seriously. On school visits, he says, "I don't take an entourage." Recently, when he popped into an art room and introduced himself, the teacher's greeting was, "So who's Bill McNeal?" Embarrassing--but their ensuing conversation put her at ease. And she immediately e-mailed to thank him.

"If you care and hold [educators] to a higher standard, they'll not only rise to that standard but set a higher standard for themselves," McNeal says.

Heart McNeal's high standards come from the heart. He's sent teddy bears to hospitalized colleagues and attended funerals for their loved ones. This winter, he went 13 miles out of his way to check up on a teacher who'd been in a car accident en route to school.

As for students, McNeal says he owes them a quality education. That mission may come from him having walked past neighborhood schools to reach his substandard, all-black school as a child. "I've worked extremely hard to not have have-not schools," he says.

Home As McNeal accepted the SOY honor at the AASA conference in San Francisco, he noted the presence of his "village"--including district and community leaders and his wife. "It's a team that supports and protects me--and covers up my mistakes," he quips. They add to his belief that there's no place like home.

Back in North Carolina, McNeal got a gift from the Division of Principals and Assistant Principals--a plaque adorned with Oz quotes and characters, including a Wizard with McNeal's face.

It's an appropriate choice, he thinks. "Not because [the Wizard] was all-knowing--in fact, he was very mortal. I like to think the Wizard sends messages of validation. That's where I see myself."

Melissa Ezarik is features editor.


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