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Executive Profile

Right: Causby shows off the new West Johnston High School, 
one of many new schools built in the fastest growing county in North Carolina.

Learning Curve
Jim Causby's determination and compassion transformed
a challenged school system into one of the state's best

By Phil Kirk

A sharp focus on high expectations and high standards, coupled with an ability to persuade elected officials and the taxpayers to provide the necessary resources, has proven to be a winning formula for Johnston County School Superintendent Jim Causby.

Add a hefty dose of common sense, plain talk, sincerity and compassion for all students and that is what Johnston County has received from its award-winning superintendent for the past eight years. He has pulled the school system from the bottom third in the state into the top 10 percent and been named the state’s best superintendent three times.

And to think Causby, 56, almost entered the business world rather than education. Born and raised in mountainous McDowell County, he received a B.S. degree in business administration from Western Carolina University, but a number of his fraternity brothers were going into education. Despite several offers from the business sector, Causby decided to teach.

Before making that decision he had worked in retail, manufacturing and service jobs while growing up in the community of Mud Cut between Marion and Rutherfordton. His father died shortly after returning home from World War II as a result of diabetes. His mother, the former Lula Arrowood, later married Lewis Ray, a Broyhill Furniture employee.

Causby graduated from Glenwood High when he was only 16. He skipped the third grade, but says it was because there were too many kids in that grade. That seems a dubious reason, as he was known for his intelligence and wit even then.

He was a self-proclaimed benchwarmer on the baseball team and served as manager and scorekeeper for the basketball team. “We were just country folk,” Causby says about his family, which includes a half-sister, Glenda Dockery. “I was the first in our family to graduate from high school.”

Going west to further his education, he enrolled at Western Carolina. Adding to his resume, he was a radio announcer on the Western Carolina campus radio station and at stations in Bryson City and Waynesville.

The aspiring young educator initially accepted a position teaching business courses, including typing, in Georgia. But then he was offered an opportunity to enter the National Teacher Corps program in Swain County. It required a two-year commitment, which he agreed to, and he and three other non-education majors received $75 a week for 24 months.

The four were assigned to Juanita Sherrill, a master teacher, according to Causby. He also fell under the influence of the late Corvan Winkle, whom he calls “a wonderful mentor and a father-like figure.”

At Western, Causby met his wife to be, June Robinson, a native of Canton. “We dated a couple of years and were married in the summer of 1968 while we were teaching in Swain County,” he says. She was the librarian at the high school and remains in education today as the media coordinator for Smithfield-Selma High School.

Teaching and coaching in Henderson County were next in Causby’s education experience. There he taught math, science and physical education, in addition to coaching boys and girl’s basketball and track.

The ambitious Causby applied to be a principal in Henderson County at age 23, but then Superintendent Glen Marlowe told him he wouldn’t consider him for such a position until he was 35. “So I left and went to Burlington, where I was an assistant principal and director of a Title III federal grant program,” Causby remembers.

It was during his one year in Burlington that he came under the influence of Dr. Betty Bowman, the principal. “She was a great leader. I had a great year and a great experience.” Because the school was an experimental one, visitors came every Tuesday and Thursday during the school year, leading Causby to receive a slew of job offers.

His next step was a three-year stint as principal of a K-3 school in Mooresville, a move that took him closer home to the mountains. Then he ventured across the border into South Carolina, where he led elementary, middle and high schools in just four years.

“Greenville High School was a tough, challenging inner-city school,” Causby recalls. “But I knew I needed that kind of experience. We turned that school around from a failing school to an improved one.”

Sure that he was ready to be a local superintendent, Causby returned to Swain County, where his teaching career had begun. “We tracked every child every year,” he says. “It wasn’t as scientific as we do now, but not many were doing that back then.”

In Swain, he also focused on school construction needs, an emphasis has followed him throughout his career as an administrator. In fact, he served as a member of the steering committee for the statewide schools and highway bond issue in 1996.

Causby has never encountered a challenge that he didn’t conquer, but those successes haven’t always come without difficulties. One such instance was in nearby Polk County, where a merger was occurring between the Tryon and Polk county schools that left Causby as the superintendent for two systems, Polk and Swain, for a four-month period in 1985.

“Some thought the merger wouldn’t happen, but Dr. Causby worked well with all groups to make it work,” says Georgia Pack, the chair of the Polk County Board of Education during much of the time that Causby was there. “He always put students as his No. 1 priority and he was effective at getting a school bond passed at a time when few thought that was possible.”

After successfully merging the schools, leading the passage of a $14 million construction bond, and seeing student achievement rise, Causby decided to go east to Johnston County for his next — and probably last — local superintendency. “I saw a real opportunity to take the reins of a good school system that wanted to be better,” he says.

Again, challenges had to be met. Johnston was the fastest growing county in the state and faced space problems, but Causby was undeterred. “I saw a potential in the people to really make the schools work for all kids,” he says.

Under Causby’s leadership, Johnston County’s accountability program has been consistently praised for narrowing the achievement gap between white and black students and for raising standards and expectations for all students. “We have focused on the curriculum and training our teachers how to do hands-on learning,” he says. “We’ve been able to help move a lot of kids to greater achievement levels.”

Johnston County’s test scores continue to increase and its testing program, which preceded the state’s ABC program, has withstood a court challenge.

The Johnston County Board of Education saw in Causby an administrator who would focus on student achievement and school construction. “The board felt he had the ability to transform vision and ideas into reality,” says Kay Carroll, its chairman. “That’s something a lot of people can’t do”

“Causby came across as an individual who could help us accomplish what we needed to do. Student achievement is up, tremendous progress has been made in meeting building needs, and morale is very much inspired.”

Education and business people from inside and outside the borders of North Carolina have come to Johnston County to observe a school system where achievement test scores have risen from the bottom third to the top 10 percent in North Carolina.

Causby himself spreads the word across the nation about the Johnston County experience. As a senior consultant for the International Center for Leadership in Education, he has spoken in 46 states, Canada, England, Israel and Washington, D.C.. Among his topics are school restructuring, total quality education, school bond campaigns, accountability and employee motivation.

He also draws on his education experience at Western Carolina and his various jobs while a student, which have led to his becoming a staunch advocate for business involvement in school. “Schools really began to change for the better 20 years ago, and business and industry have caused it to happen,” Causby says.

“North Carolina is unique,” he adds. “The biggest reason why we are different from other states is because of the positive, supportive way business and industry are involved in our schools. We are very focused now because of the accountability piece.”

The three-time North Carolina Superintendent of the Year constantly praises his teachers and administrators. “Teachers are better now than they have ever been,” he says.

Dr. Peggy Smith, who works for Causby as principal of East Clayton Elementary and last year was named the Wachovia Principal of the Year, says she has had 13 different “bosses” in her educational career, but labels Causby as “the best in every area. He is so supportive and gives us backing — not just financial resources — but the moral supports we need. When we make mistakes, he shows us how to do it better. He is compassionate in every way.”

Causby sees more changes ahead for schools but hopes the focus on student achievement “remains the greatest it has ever been.” He praises system design, top-to-bottom alignment, and the lack of waste of time during the school day and year, and the focus on reading, writing and math without excluding other courses. “We have more resources, more individual instruction and smaller class sizes than ever before,” he notes.

He sees increased use of technology in the future, but no drastic overhauling of schools. “We need to refine and improve what we do, and we need more integrated instruction and public school choice.”

Causby also wants to make sure the business community remains an engaged leader in school improvement. “Business and industry have the ability to get the different parties together on education,” Causby says. “They have the ability to get the attention of the governor, legislature, State Board of Education, and both political parties.

“In fact, business and industry is the only group that can maintain everyone’s focus on education. I hope to see a resurgence from the business community on education issues and less partnership from our elected officials.”

John Dornan, executive director of the Public School Forum, is lavish in his praise of Causby. “Since arriving in Johnston County, he has been unrelenting in keeping the entire school system focused on reaching higher and higher student performance standards,” Dornan says. “He was the first in the state to end social promotions. He and his local board spend countless hours reviewing school improvement plans building by building — and it has paid off. Even with a demographically challenging student population, Johnston County young people keep reaching higher standards year after year. He is the kind of ‘can do,’ ‘no excuses’ school leader you wish you had in every system.”

Causby has achieved a long list of honors and recognition, and draws continuous accolades from statewide education leaders. “Jim is smart, he’s persuasive, and he insists on making the system work well for all kids,” says State Superintendent Mike Ward. “I don’t know of a superintendent who enjoys greater respect among educators, policymakers, and community leaders.”

Causby says that he will end his formal career as a local superintendent following the 2003-04 school year. While not sure what the future holds, he is likely to continue as a speaker and consultant.

It is for certain that he will spend more time with his wife, three sons, two daughters-in-law, and the family dog.

Son Cory, 32 is a member of the human resources staff at Western Carolina University, and his wife, Kristel, is an optometrist in Waynesville. He has degrees from the University of South Carolina and Western Carolina.

John, 28, is married to Amber Causby, a nurse at Thoms Rehab Center in Asheville. He works in construction with his father-in-law. He has a degree in business administration from Western Carolina. Kent, 21, has studied at Appalachian State University and Caldwell Technical Community College and plans to enroll in the college transfer program at Johnston Community College.

To be sure, family fun will consume some of his time, but Causby hopes that there are also available hours to work on his golf game. “I flog around the course,” he says, showing his wit. “That’s golf spelled backwards.”

While Causby’s rounds of golf are rarely filled with birdies, his successes in education have certainly been bogey-free. Thousands of students are better prepared to enter today’s workforce because of Jim Causby — the highest tribute an educator can be paid.

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