The surprise announcement by WCPSS Superintendent Dr. James Merrill that he will retire effective Feb. 1, 2018 will end an era unlike any other in the school system’s history.

Merrill read from a statement at the school board meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 21, saying that the school system is in a “good place.” Many would agree with him, and that is largely thanks to his strong leadership and bold vision.

Not long after arriving in the summer 2013, Merrill embarked on an organizational evaluation which included the rearrangement of Central Office staff, and a renewed trust in building principals to grow their own school communities. At a time when student outcomes are the barometer of effectiveness, Merrill allowed his staff to focus on the “intangibles” to rebuild the brand of the Wake County Public School System.

Part of that organizational evaluation was the completion of a strategic planning process which laid bare the many mountains the school system needed to climb to make it a world-class model. The result was a five-year blueprint known as Vision 2020, which had a single goal: graduate 95 percent of students on-time who are prepared for college, career, and citizenship.

Vision 2020 was a tremendous organizational shift which included changing long-held paradigms about education. Implemented in 2015, the strategic plan has been the guiding document for a systemic change that will have long-lasting effects beyond 2020. By many measures, the school system is making major changes successfully, and school leaders and community members acknowledge there’s more work to do.

Along with Vision 2020 came a new emphasis on the 4 C’s of education: creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration. These “soft skills” are another intangible in education which drive academic inquiry and effective problem solving, and they are the skills in highest demand in today’s workplace. By incorporating these skills into the strategic plan’s ethos, teaching in the 21st century starts with content mastery as the baseline and not the finish line. The new finish line is adaptability and collective improvement.

Such an organizational shift can go wrong quickly, unless it has a leader at the helm who can clearly communicate that vision and guide others through the changes. Merrill has been doing just that. It has allowed for creative visioning from his staff in all aspects of the organization from the classroom teacher up to the superintendent’s leadership team. The process of transformation has now built enough inertia that the mission will continue long after Merrill has sailed into retirement.

WakeEd is grateful to have been a partner to Merrill and WCPSS since he was hired. The school system and WakeEd have benefited from a strong and mutual relationship which has transformed the practice of hundreds of WCPSS teachers through SummerSTEM, World Café, and Teacher Innovation Grants. Their successes wouldn’t be possible without the support and mission priority Merrill has afforded WakeEd over the years. We are grateful for his leadership, partnership, and fellowship, and we wish him well.

And to borrow a line from an Irish blessing: May the wind always be at your back, Jim.

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