New superintendent turns a listening ear to students in Kannapolis schools

As a child growing up in West Virginia, Dr. Pamela Cain remembers her mother rising early to shovel a path in the snow from their house to the elementary school she and her younger sister walked to each school day.

"She truly did a path from my house to the school, and it was pretty long," Cain said.

When the winter winds would blow more powder onto the trail during the week, their mom would sweep the path clean again. She wanted the way to her daughters' education to be as clear as possible.

Now Cain, as new superintendent of Kannapolis City Schools, is asking students how she can make their path to education just as clear.

Since replacing longtime Superintendent Jo Anne Byerly, who retired June 30, Cain has spent part of her first 30 days asking the opinions of students about the obstacles that might interfere with their learning.

Besides the normal teenage angst - like permission to wear flip flops, a desire for a few more school dances, and the hope of relaxing the district's dress code every once in a while to allow a casual day - she has listened to the more pressing concerns.

"They keep saying, 'I want you to know what I'm going through, and if you knew that, you'd probably understand me more,'" Cain said.

She knows not all of them have carefree lives or easy home situations, but forging strong lines of communication between home and school proves ideal for student success.

As assistant state school superintendent of West Virginia for the past 10 years, Cain served as chairwoman of the State Parent Advisory Council, which developed a plan to promote parent, family and community engagement in schools.

"That's one of my goals, to have engaged families in schools," Cain said. "And family can be a whole lot of things, because I didn't grow up in a traditional family."

As a child, Cain grew up in poverty. Her father's death when she was 3 left her 24-year-old mother with two young girls to feed.

She watched her mother carry on, taking several office jobs but consistently attending PTA meetings and school carnivals and helping in the classrooms whenever possible.

Cain continued her education, earning her doctorate in curriculum and instruction. Her 20-year career as an educator includes positions at the school, county and state levels. She has been a classroom teacher, school superintendent and college professor.

In Virginia she oversaw curriculum instruction assessment, child nutrition, safe and drug-free schools and foreign language programs. She also supervised education programs for the state's prisons and juvenile detention centers. The appeal of a mid-sized school district like Kannapolis convinced her to leave the state-level position and large office in the capital.

"I really loved being closer to the work," Cain said. "I want to be able to walk in classrooms and sit in the back of class and see students' eyes. I want to go to football games, basketball games."

Settled in Kannapolis with her husband, architect Kent Gandee, Cain will be closer to her son Lucas, who moved to Charlotte five years ago. Her other son, Brandon, lives in Richmond.

Cain said she'll gather what she learned from her conversations with students, as well as discussions with administrators and teachers, to build high-performance teams to help students.

Each evening at 10, Cain calls her mom for what has become a familiar conversation the last few weeks. "You still like your job? Are they being nice to you?" her mom asks her.

"I say, 'Mom, I like my job a lot, and they're still being really nice to me," Cain said. "This is the place that I'm supposed to be. I'm convinced of that."