Portia Weatherly remembers when her daughter decided she wanted a career in education.
She knew in second grade, says Weatherly. She wanted to be a teacher, and she never changed.
Her daughter, Tonya Kales, is a principal now, in her fourth year at Ashley Park pre-K-8 school in west Charlotte. And Thursday, she was named Principal of the Year by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
Im really surprised, says Kales, a product of CMS who has spent 21 years with the system as an educator. I was up against some very good principals, and I didnt know if someone from Ashley Park, a smaller westside school, could win.
Media specialist Jennifer Hibner wasnt surprised.
Shes the real deal, Hibner says of Kales. She has a great perspective. She understands the teachers point of view, students point of view, and families point of view.
Tyler Ream, superintendent of CMS Central Elementary Zone and Kales supervisor, adds: We use the term visionary too much in this business. But she really is a visionary. She sees the way things should be. And she pushes to get there.
Kales, who now advances to the regional competition, admits to being demanding.
Im relentless in my pursuit of excellence in this school, she says of Ashley Park, where more than 95 percent of students were on free- or reduced-price lunches last year. I wont accept anything less.
The work were doing here is important. Its game-changing.
With Kales as principal, the school has achieved high growth in state end-of-grade tests each year. The percentage of students scoring at or above grade level has climbed from about 30 percent to more than 65 percent.
Kales was fresh out of UNC Charlotte more than two decades ago when she was offered a job as an interim first-grade teacher at Smithfield Elementary School by then-principal Lawrance Mayes.
Shes committed to children, and shes always been like that, says Mayes, now principal at the Military and Global Leadership Academy at Marie G. Davis.
Weatherly, Kales mother, adds, She will only hire the teacher she thinks is perfect.
Kales was principal at McAlpine Elementary in southeast Charlotte when she was asked by CMS to move to Ashley Park as part of the Strategic Staffing Initiative, which reassigns top-notch principals to schools with large numbers of at-risk students. Those around her say she made it clear immediately that the school needed a family atmosphere.
She brought the theme of school family here, says Assistant Principal Jeanette Reber, who has worked with Kales, off and on, for 20 years. She stresses the community concept.
Kales mother says her daughter makes me and her daddy (Harry Weatherly) come to the school and tutor. Kales herself tutors a student several times a week.
We all know she cares about us, says eighth-grader Algia Clark. Shes a very caring person. She seems to love working with us.
She pushes us, but we know thats because she wants us to succeed.
Kales admits to feeling challenged when CMS expanded Ashley Park last year from a K-5 school with 250 students to a pre-K-8 school with more than 600 children.
That was challenging, she says. But I held firm to our school values. And now I think were doing well.
Mayes recalls getting a call from Kales when she moved to Ashley Park.
Mr. Mayes, what should I do? Mayes recalls her asking. I just told her to use her skill set, to do what she knows how to do. I knew that would carry her a long way.