McGee’s Crossroads Elementary (MCES) Principal Stephanie Leonard has been involved with Johnston County Public Schools for most of her life. The Four Oaks native grew up in the system, and she is now impacting it by taking the reins at MCES.
Leonard graduated from South Johnston High School before attending UNC-Chapel Hill where she studied biology and chemistry. After stints on Capitol Hill and in a lab, she decided teaching would be a way to combine her love for science with her desire to impact young people.
“I didn’t enjoy lab work. I am more of a people person, and lab work wasn’t allowing me the opportunity to fulfill that need,” she said. “I liked being with children, but I loved science. I wanted to combine those two passions, and teaching was the solution.”
Leonard went back to school at North Carolina State University to get her teaching degree in secondary science before returning to Johnston County Public Schools (JCPS) and her alma mater to teach high school science for five and a half years.
“I taught biology, chemistry, earth science, physical science, pretty much every science but physics,” she said.
After seeing the effect she had on her students in the classroom, Leonard wanted to expand her reach and help more teachers and students.
“Stepping out of the classroom you impact a greater number of students in a different way. You can put positive things in place and structures that impact more students. It gives you the ability to work with teachers and help them reach their full potential,” said Leonard.
So she left the classroom for a year to attend East Carolina University full-time as a member of the Principal Fellows Program to get her Master’s in School Administration. Leonard returned to the county as an assistant principal for several years before moving to the central office.
But something was missing for Leonard at the central office—the students and teachers. Leonard missed being with students and teachers and decided to once again return to the schools, this time as a principal.
“I have much more interaction with people now in a school setting at McGee’s. I’m a people person, so it’s just fun,” she said. “I love getting to know people’s stories and building relationships.”
Surrounded by pictures of family and travels, Leonard talked about her love of family and how she thinks it will help her foster strong bonds with parents in the year ahead.
“I understand when parents bring up things, and they’re upset about situations. I understand that they want to advocate for their child,” she said.
Leonard’s three girls are 19, 16, and 4. They have all been raised through JCPS just as she was.
“I’ve gone through the whole education system and college applications, and we’re getting ready to start all over. So not this year, but next year I will have a kindergartner and senior in high school. It’s super fun doing it that way, but I think that’s something that people don’t expect,” Leonard said. “I’ve got two teenage girls and a toddler. So when I say we’re in it with the other parents and families, we’re living it.”
Leonard said her first year as principal will be focused on putting people first. She intends to do this by building relationships within the community.
“People and students need to know they’re valued and that we care about them before we get to any other activities,” she said. “Building relationships comes first.”
To help build a positive community at McGee’s, Leonard has been getting to know her staff over the summer and plans to visit every classroom within the first few days of school.
“I’ve talked to the teachers about being in their classrooms and doing activities with the students and getting to know their names,” she said. “That’s one of my goals is to know all the students names and push myself to know them on a personal level.”
Leonard is planning community events and is organizing the staff to spend one of their upcoming work days out in the community.
“We are going to one or two neighborhoods and giving out popsicles to students. It’s to let families know that we care about them. We’re excited about them being back at school, and it helps them to see us in a different setting,” she said. “We’re real people too, and we don’t always have to be at the school. We can go outside the school and be advocates for the students.”
The focus on relationships and culture at McGee’s is all part of an effort to incorporate the district’s JOCO 2020 initiative, which aims to transform learning for students, into daily life and create student focused education.
“We all have different abilities. All students bring with them different talents and the ability to learn. It’s our responsibility to make sure that we help them reach their full potential,” said Leonard.