By Ginny Wray
As Henry County School superintendent, Sandy Strayer oversees the education of 7,100 students and about 800 employees.
Her inspiration, she said, comes from her mother. The late Glenda Cox was a day maid at Magna Vista High School.
“She took care of people. My upbringing is to take care of people. One day maybe I’ll be half as giving as she was. She brought decorations; she brought food. She was a true caregiver for people in the schools. She always said you’ve got to do that,” Strayer said in a recent interview.
In Strayer’s case, taking of people means working to make sure students have relevant instruction, rich curriculum and rigorous assessment. For teachers, it means challenging them to try innovative things while recognizing that “they’re in the trenches. They make us look good,” she said. For parents and the public, it means making time to listen to their concerns, understanding the skills their businesses need and helping rebuild the area’s economy.
That is a tall order for someone who has been school superintendent only since November. She was interim superintendent before that, but it is her 27 years in the Henry County Schools that have taught Strayer what she wants and needs to accomplish on the job.
Strayer succeeded Dr. Jared Cotton as superintendent. She was a member of his senior leadership team, and she said he encouraged her to be the system’s next superintendent. She also cited the example she saw set by Joe DeVault, retired school administrator and now a member of the Henry County School Board that hired Strayer as superintendent.
“I wanted to follow in Joe’s footsteps,” she said.
Strayer joined the school system in 1992-93, teaching government, drama and economics at Bassett High School for 10 years. She then became assistant principal at Fieldale-Collinsville High School; returned to Bassett High as assistant principal after consolidation; became principal of Collinsville Primary in 2005-06; and in 2010 moved to the school board office where she held a variety of jobs.
“I still have the heart of a teacher,” she said. “My heart is with the students. I love being with the kids.”
Someday Strayer hopes to return to teaching and the satisfaction of having a student say she challenged, inspired or believed in him, that he would not have succeeded if not for her.
Now, she hopes to get a similar reaction on a larger scale.
“I’m all about inspiring people,” she said, whether they are students in the classroom or parents to become more involved or community members to share their knowledge and expertise.
Strayer said she has faced challenges in her first year as superintendent. Foremost among those challenges is finding enough time to meet with people and determine how to improve the schools and student learning.
The system also has been hit by numerous staff vacancies, Strayer said. It was coincidental, but the system lost numerous key people through attrition who had been in critical roles for a long time, and it still is not fully staffed, she said.
“Now we have a relatively young staff,” she said, adding that she just turned 50.
Strayer also has learned that she has to depend on people around her. That includes her leadership team, which is the same as when Cotton was superintendent, as well as people to keep her calendar and answer her phone.
She also has ideas she would like to implement, some of which are updated versions of past programs. For instance, she and Dr. Cotton both believed that all students should have the same opportunities. “I want to expand that, but that’s going back to where we were,” she said, citing the Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs that used to be called vocational classes.
To ensure all county students have the same opportunities in those areas, the system has started the Career Academy with programs in agriculture, cosmetology, heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) and industrial maintenance at the former Figsboro Elementary School. Instead of having some of those programs at each high school, all county students now have access to them at the Career Academy.
Strayer also believes all high school seniors should have internships to help determine their career paths. The O! Henry internship program thrived under Gloria Foley, but since she retired it has been hard to find businesses and organizations that can take interns, Strayer said.
Ideally, Strayer said the school system would be able to offer each child a pathway into the future he or she wants with a broad range of courses.
What she does not want is to hear students say, “‘I’m from Henry County and I can’t do that,’” she said, adding that she wants students to take advantage of opportunities at, say, Patrick Henry Community College, Piedmont Arts and other venues to see orchestras and plays and athletic events and more.
If she could wave a magic wand, she would create “more exposure and opportunities for our students,” Strayer said, adding that in recent years educators have done surveys and taken other steps to ensure they have added programs that students want.
Partnerships are an important part of that, so Strayer has met with local government and economic development groups, attended community meetings, and talked with people to build community relations and let people know she values their feedback.
“The best part is hearing the support” of people when she was named superintendent, Strayer said. “I was pleasantly shocked at all the people who felt I was approachable, who wanted to come and let me know of problems.” She added that she cannot fix everything but she tries to listen to people, to let them know the reasons behind decisions and to know they are appreciated.
Strayer’s competitive nature comes out when she talks about her relationship with Gracie Agnew, also a veteran educator finishing her rookie year as head of school at Carlisle. She and Agnew worked together at Fieldale-Collinsville High School and they, along with Dr. Zeb Talley, superintendent of Martinsville Schools, meet regularly and work together when possible.
“The thing about Gracie and I, if you’re not first, then you’re last. She thinks she’s the best and I know I am,” Strayer said, laughing. “She wants her kids to have the best but I do, too. I’m sure Dr. Talley feels the same.”
But Agnew’s scale is far smaller, with only 340 students, compared to 7,100 in Henry County. Both sizes have opportunities and challenges, Strayer said.
“We are all competitive. We want to win the game,” she said. But, she added, “It’s a good competitive. We want kids to aspire to be better, coaches to work hard” and teachers to do the same.