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UCPS announces 2021-2022 Principal of the Year finalists

Excitement and joy filled the air on Oct. 4 as Union County Public Schools (UCPS) Superintendent Dr. Andrew Houlihan, senior leaders, and Board of Education members revealed the names of the top 10 UCPS Principal of the Year finalists by surprising the leaders at their schools. Catching finalists by surprise, the group popped in on staff meetings and classroom observations to congratulate the finalists.

Every year, UCPS recognizes principals who not only exemplify outstanding leadership and guidance but who go above and beyond to create an environment of academic excellence for UCPS students, teachers and staff.

Congratulations to the following 2021-2022 Principal of the Year finalists:

Jared Worthington - Marvin Elementary

Jared Worthington began his career as a high school history teacher for the Public Schools of Robeson County. Prior to coming to UCPS, he served as the principal of Edgewood Elementary School in Whiteville, N.C., for four years. Mr. Worthington joined Marvin Elementary as principal in 2018.

When asked about being a finalist, Worthington said “It’s easy when you work with so many people who are good at their jobs, and passionate about the kids and the school.”

Link to Mr. Worthington’s surprise announcement:

Dr. Gina Chisum - Indian Trail Elementary

Dr. Gina Chisum began her educational journey while her children attended school at Indian Trail Elementary. She volunteered as their room mom and as a PTO parent, later as a substitute and interim teacher and soon began teaching second, third and fourth grade. This is Dr. Chisum’s fifth year as principal at Indian Trail Elementary.

Dr. Chisum was surprised as she was working quietly in the media center observing a class. When asked what does this recognition mean to her, she said “It’s a huge honor. It’s really humbling to know the level of leadership that is in Union County and to be counted worthy is a big deal. I don’t take it lightly.”

Link to Dr. Chisum’s surprise announcement:

Ashley Smith - Sun Valley Middle

Ashley Smith began at Sun Valley Middle as an assistant principal in 2016 and became principal in 2018. Mrs. Smith began her career in education teaching elementary school in 1992 in Gaston County. She moved to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in 1996 and taught until 2011 when she transitioned to a central office position as a professional development specialist.

Kevin Beals - Sardis Elementary

Kevin Beals began his teaching career education in New Hampshire. In 2006, Mr. Beals and his family moved to Union County where he resumed his teaching career at Sun Valley Middle. He transitioned to the role of assistant principal at Sun Valley Middle in 2011. In 2015, Mr. Beals transferred to Sardis Elementary as an assistant principal. After serving at Sardis Elementary for nearly three years, Mr. Beals was named interim principal to close out the 2017-2018 school year and, shortly thereafter, named principal.

After Dr. Houlihan and the team found Mr. Beals working in his office and congratulated him, he said “I never could have imaged it to be honest. I’m absolutely, completely and utterly surprised.”

Link to Mr. Beals’ surprise announcement:

Laura Gaddy - Stallings Elementary

Laura Gaddy began her career teaching sixth grade in Elon College, N.C., and eighth grade for nine years in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School System. She served as an assistant principal at Shiloh Elementary for one year before moving to Stallings Elementary as the assistant principal in 2008. In 2012, Mrs. Gaddy became the principal of Stallings Elementary.

With a look of confusion followed by a smile, Mrs. Gaddy was excited to see the visitors at her school as she was named a finalist.

“I feel honored,” said Mrs. Gaddy. “I attribute all of it to our school community, our staff, the parents and kids – they are the best.”

Link to Mrs. Gaddy’s surprise announcement:

Dr. Kim Fisenne - Porter Ridge High

Dr. Kim Fisenne has worked for UCPS for 15 years and has served as a high school principal for the past five years as well as assistant principal in both elementary and high schools. Dr. Fisenne began her education career as a science teacher in a neighboring county and prior to that worked in a research laboratory studying genetics.

As a true pirate, when asked about this honor, Dr. Fisenne said “This is exciting, but it’s not really about me, the teachers have worked so hard especially over the past two years. They have made the school what it is.”

Link to Dr. Fisenne’s surprise announcement:

Dr. Cassie Eley - Piedmont Middle

Dr. Cassie Eley is in her third year as principal at Piedmont Middle. She is originally from Union County and graduated from Forest Hills High. Prior to joining Piedmont Middle, Dr. Eley served as principal of third through fifth grades at Walter Bickett Elementary. She also served as an assistant principal at Parkwood High and an English teacher at Forest Hills High.

When Dr. Eley was called to main office, she had no idea what was happening. Surrounded by her leadership team, she was named a finalist.

“It’s nice to be thought of in this way, especially with the last two years it’s been difficulty but we’ve got a solid group of principals in this county. I’m honored to be selected,” said Dr. Eley. 

Link to Dr. Eley’s surprise announcement:

Dr. Kevin Plue - Forest Hills High

Dr. Kevin Plue is in his 11th year as the principal at Forest Hills High and his 17th year as a principal. He has spent all of his time as principal in the Forest Hills Cluster of UCPS.  He spent four years as principal at East Union Middle and two years at Union Elementary. Dr. Plue has been in public education for 29 years. He began his teaching career at an Augusta, Georgia high school in 1992.

The team surprised Dr. Plue as he was leading an administrative meeting during spirit week. With chuckles in the room as Dr. Houlihan entered, Dr. Plue was recognized in Disney attire, mouse ears and all.

“I’ve got a phenomenal team,” said Dr. Plue. “It is a wonderful place to be and I’m just blessed to come here every day and work.

Link to Dr. Plue’s surprise announcement:

Kristy Thomas - Rock Rest Elementary

Ms. Kristy Thomas has been the principal of Rock Rest Elementary for 10 years. Ms. Thomas began her teaching career as a biology teacher at Sun Valley High. Later, she served as the assistant principal at the Shiloh Elementary.

What made Ms. Thomas’ surprise special is that she was honored during a classroom observation.

“We are all about the students, so this is nice but at the end of the day it’s about them,” said Ms. Thomas.

Link to Ms. Thomas’ surprise announcement:

Les Deming - Wolfe School

Les Deming is in his seventh year as principal of Wolfe School. Prior to arriving at Wolfe, Mr. Deming was an assistant principal at Piedmont High and Sun Valley High. Mr. Deming began his career as a special education teacher, where he spent 15 years in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School System.

Last, but not least. Les Deming graciously accepted the recognition from Dr. Houlihan and the team. When asked about being a finalist, he said “This is awesome, it means a lot.” I love the kids, the community and parents here are unbelievable.” 

Link to Mr. Deming's surprise announcement:

UCPS Principal of the Year finalists were selected from a pool of 53 principals. The Principal of the Year winner will be announced later this month.

Please see the pictures of the surprise visits in the photo gallery below:



Published Oct. 5, 2021