Posted : 20 June 2016
Thank you, Dr. Bulson, for making the NC NTSP part of your legacy in Wilson County Schools, putting students first.
Looking Back, Looking Ahead: Sean Bulson reflects on tenure as Wilson superintendent
By Lisa Boykin Batts
Times Life Editor
Sean Bulson looked out the large window of his bare office Monday afternoon. “That’s the back door to the jail,” he said, his eyes focused on the stark, white building across the street.
The significance isn’t lost on Bulson, outgoing superintendent of Wilson County Schools.
He said he has thought about it every day of his five years here and the school-to-prison pipeline he wanted to stop.
So in his first days in Wilson, he opened conversations about discipline practices and questioned the length of suspensions. He also worked on ways to engage students so they want to learn and stay in school.
Those conversations need to continue, he said, even after he leaves at the end of the month and Lane Mills returns to Wilson to take over the superintendent position.
Surprising turn of events
Back in February, Bulson resigned from Wilson County Schools and accepted a job at N.C. New Schools/ Breakthrough Learning, but in April, New Schools announced it was closing — leaving Bulson without a job. He learned of the decision to close like so many others — from a television newscast.
“I was in shock,” he said.
Bulson called New Schools an amazing organization doing innovative and cutting-edge work. New Schools focused on developing high-performing schools and districts and working toward college- and work-ready standards for students.
“And, arguably, leading the nation in that work,” Bulson said.
But that work has been derailed, he said, because of management issues.
The Bulsons had already put their house on the market, thinking they’d be moving to the Triangle area. The first people to look at the house bought it. The family packed up their belongings last week and will be living in the Washington, D.C., area this summer.
Bulson is mostly searching in North Carolina for work, he said, hoping to secure another superintendent job, but he’s keeping his options open.
“I’m hoping every turn creates a new opportunity,” he said.
Successes and meeting goals
Soon after Bulson arrived here from his post as community superintendent for Montgomery County Schools in Maryland, he started working on community engagement and partnerships in Wilson. That work led to a Youth Master Plan across the county with collaboration between WCS and Wilson 20/20.
Partnerships grew out of the plan as groups throughout the county stepped up at every turn, he said.
He cited such examples as St. John’s Save-A-Youth’s alternative-to-suspension program, Barton College and its education students and the partnership with Wilson County Emergency Management for first-responder issues and help making decisions when there is inclement weather.
Another big goal was finding ways to measure Wilson County students against a national standard through Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate curriculums and testing students in 11th grade through the ACT.
ACT has national data so school systems can measure progress, he said. “We’ve seen modest growth there.”
Bulson said he also emphasized a leadership development program with teachers and worked on both internal and external customer service at Central Office.
He has enjoyed watching Daniels Learning Center evolve over the last few years as the drop-in program for dropouts who are returning to school was moved from Save-A-Youth to Daniels. At one time, the school was seen as a place to send kids who didn’t belong in other schools, he said. “I think it was often a path to drop out.”
But now, with new leadership, the school is more than that and strives to match the needs of its students, he said.
But the Wilson Academy of Applied Technology is, symbolically, his biggest achievement, he said.
The program, housed at Beddingfield High School, will focus on advanced manufacturing technologies. High school students will attend the school for five years, at no cost, and exit with a high school diploma and associate’s degree in applied technology from Wilson Community College.
The school is connected to other work from his career here, especially the goal of preparing students for college and career.
Bulson is aware that he many people in the community thought he was soft on discipline and that he instructed schools to stop suspensions altogether.
“There was never a statement, ‘Don’t suspend your students,’” he said. Instead, he wanted to talk about the issue.
He had problems with the disproportionately high rate of suspensions among minorities as well as the length of suspensions here, saying some were for 10 days even for a first offense. It’s very hard to miss 10 days in one semester and come back successfully, he pointed out.
He also had a big problem with the school system’s discipline approach for violations of the dress code policy. Students who broke the policy for such offenses as un-tucked shirts or unnatural hair color were given a three-day suspension.
Very quickly after he took over as superintendent, he voiced his opposition.
“I could not support out-of-school suspension for the first offense of a dress code,” Bulson said.
All of these conversations were interpreted in different ways, he said, and the rumor was, “This guy is against suspensions.”
Many of these issues were addressed in a discipline policy in his second year here with ways to manage behavior differently. The goal was to give principals more discretion with discipline options, he said, so they don’t have to start with a 10-day suspension, for instance. Instead, they are allowed room to escalate the level of discipline.
Bulson wanted to get away from zero-tolerance policies and leave room for the school administrators to make decisions.
Bulson said there’s no shortage of things he will miss here.
He laughed, saying he’ll probably never live anywhere else that has as many whirligigs as Wilson.
He’ll also miss the people, including the Wilson mayor.
“I’ll miss Bruce Rose, who has a supportive word for everything,” he said.
He’ll also miss such events as Reuben Ledbetter’s Future Farmers of America banquet at Beddingfield High School that included a variety of entertainment, including the seniors playing songs on tuned cowbells.
Other events also stand out, including the A.J. Rightway Cafe and the time he judged the costume portion of the county’s Livestock Show and Sale.
“Can’t say I’d ever experienced anything like that in my life before,” he said with a smile.
He also said he was rewarding to watch the Central Office staff turn into a team with a mission to support schools.
Bulson will take away good memories of the annual Back-to-School Fair as well.
“If there’s any event in Wilson that symbolizes the community engagement, it’s the Back-to-School Fair,” he said.
He recalls the long line that starts forming in the dark hours of the morning with families eager to get school supplies for their children.
“And yet, across Back-to-School Fairs, we never came up short. We had more than enough backpacks.
“It’s a good way to start off the year on a good note.”
In his five years in Wilson, Bulson said he learned that a superintendent spends a lot of time listening and learning.
“I probably could have invested even more time in that,” he said.
Bulson said you can’t know what it’s like to be a superintendent until you’ve been one.
“The visionary ideas have to confront the day-to-day reality,” he said.
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