Byerly retiring from Kannapolis schools

As superintendent of Kannapolis City Schools, Jo Anne Byerly has had to make countless decisions.

Her latest, to retire at the end of this school year after 40 years in education, has been one of the tougher choices.

"It's a good-sized school system, because you do get to know the people," she said. "I'm going to miss seeing them on a daily basis."

Ned Robinette, a former associate superintendent, knows about making decisions. He decided 29 years ago to tap Byerly, then a first-grade teacher at Fred L. Wilson Elementary, for her first administrative role.

"It was not an easy process," he said, remembering the young teacher grappling with the offer. "She had been very effective as a teacher. The children were showing a lot of progress, and she enjoyed teaching so much."

"It was a big decision, because I loved teaching. I love children," Byerly recalled of her initial hesitation to leave the classroom and become reading director for the school system in 1981.

Robinette is not surprised the person he hired went on to become superintendent: "She makes the right decisions."

One decision that came effortlessly for Byerly was to become an educator in the first place. After graduation from Appalachian State University, she taught in Caldwell County for six years, then moved to Kannapolis after her husband, Ron, landed a job within the school district.

She was in her sixth year of teaching when Robinette put the fork in her career path.

From reading director, Byerly was promoted several times, to communication skills coordinator, director of instruction, assistant superintendent and associate superintendent.

"Doors have opened at the right time," she said. "I've enjoyed every phase of my career."

Under Byerly's leadership, the district has launched a freshman academy to reduce the dropout rate, secured millions in technology and student grants, established school dress codes and even eliminated junk food from the cafeterias.

Her success can be measured by student achievement, which has consistently come in above the state average throughout the past decade.

The district's latest accomplishment has been getting approval to build an $11million biotechnology academy, which will offer classes such as molecular biology, biophysics and medical science.

When the North Carolina Research Campus first came to town, Byerly sought to educate her school leaders, inviting scientists to speak at the beginning of each principals' meeting.

"Early on, she and her staff embraced the research campus," said Mayor Bob Misenheimer. "She has been a tremendous asset to the city and the entire county."

From city hall to the students she taught, Byerly has left a legacy.

Empsy Thompson Jr. remembers sitting in her first-grade classroom in 1976 and never wanting to disappoint this teacher. Her encouragement made everyone want to try harder, he said.

Thompson went on to become a teacher. He teaches and coaches at A.L. Brown High School, and still strives to please Byerly. "She gets that response from people."

That may be because of how she herself responds to people. Year after year, teacher surveys about working conditions come back well above state average.

"She's truly a genuine lady," said Nancy Barger, her executive assistant for the last 12 years. "She cares for everyone. She has put her heart and soul for 40 years in education."

It's been relatively easy, Byerly said. "You do what's in the best interest of the children. Every day."

Byerly's last day will be June 30. Pamela Cain, West Virginia's assistant state school superintendent, will become the new Kannapolis superintendent July 1. Cain, a 20-year educator, was chosen by the school board from a pool of 20 candidates in May.

"The school district is in a good position to move forward. The next person can take it to greater heights," Byerly said.

Through all her accomplishments, Byerly stressed, she has never acted alone. "The key is hiring the very best people you can find," she said.

That's what Ned Robinette believed 29 years ago when he hired her.