It’s rare in this day and age to see someone remain with the same employer for so long, and when Garrett finally does retire on March 1, she’ll take all that knowledge and experience with her.
But it’s what she’ll leave behind — a high-performing district on solid ground academically and financially — that will cement her legacy as a towering figure in many Western North Carolina communities.
Growing up in Maggie Valley, Garrett always wanted to be an educator, something she attributed to the teachers she’d had as a child. She graduated from Western Carolina University with a bachelor’s degree in middle grades education and then went right to work at Bethel Junior High in 1978 teaching pre-algebra, language arts and reading. She was promoted to lead teacher and then jumped over to North Canton Elementary School, where she served as assistant principal briefly before becoming principal at the now-shuttered Morningstar Elementary School.
“I had 150 students a day. I had five classes. You could go all the way up to 30 students, and we went to the max,” Garrett said. “But back then, you had like 10,000 students in your school system instead of the 7,000 we do now.”
A lot has changed since then, she said, but those changes have been mostly for the better.
“The biggest change has been accountability, not only for students but for administrators too. Even when I first started teaching we were still accountable, we would do the California Achievement Test, but yet you looked at those scores and you never truly analyzed them to see how you could help the child the next year, or how the next teacher could help that child. We didn’t disaggregate the way that we do today.”
Eight years after she was first hired, Garrett began serving in the central office of Haywood County Schools as a supervisor of cultural arts, elementary curriculum, and math as well as director of federal programs.
In 1993 she returned to her roots at Jonathan Valley Elementary School where she served until becoming principal of Junaluska Elementary School in 1996. The next year, she moved back to the central office to accept the job of associate superintendent.
After serving in that role for seven years, she was promoted to superintendent, earning along the way her master’s degree and doctorate, all from WCU.
When she took the job though, things weren’t quite as rosy as they were today; HCS was a middling operation, ranked 40th in the state — a far cry from the back-to-back top 10 percent finishes HCS has notched the past two years.
“I can honestly say that we are really meeting the needs of each child, because we honestly analyze those test scores,” Garrett said, reflecting on the differences in accountability students face today. “We do benchmark testing, we do so many different types of assessments today that we never did in the past.”
Garrett’s long career has given her hard-earned insight into the processes of the past, and the prognosis for the future.
“I see even more accountability coming up,” she said. “With parents given a choice, we have to be very, very competitive with private schools and Christian academies. We did not have those choices back when I started teaching, so in the future I think it’s going to go entirely in that direction.”
Last November, Garrett’s retirement announcement came as a surprise to many. Since then, she’s been feted in various quarters of the community she’s called home while her remaining days and hours as the leader of HCS ticked down.
“I’ve just been fortunate to have been part of Haywood County,” she said. “I’ve been fortunate to live here, and work here, and I’m just so appreciative of our outstanding community support, our parents, our students, our teachers — everyone has just been very involved in the education of their child.”
Garrett was recognized by HCS Board Chairman Chuck Francis at her final regular board meeting Feb. 12; he said he wanted to recount all the awards she’d received but wouldn’t, because it would take all night.
During her long career, Garrett has been named Haywood County’s teacher of the year, principal of the year, administrator of the year and person of the year, North Carolina’s superintendent of the year, outstanding educator by the American Business Women’s Association, a WCU Peak Performer and also received the United Way’s prestigious Gold Award, among many others.
A shortlist of her accomplishments show those honors to be more than warranted; Garrett helped HCS land a $1 million grant that would be used to establish the Haywood Early College, increased SAT scores by creating a prep course and saw four new elementary schools containing 34 classrooms built.
She also weathered what she called two of the “most challenging obstacles” of her career, the controversial closing of and ensuing lawsuit over Central Elementary School in 2016 and HCS’ $2.4 million budget deficit in 2017.
In light of it all, it’s no surprise that Garrett was awarded the highest honor any North Carolina governor can bestow and any North Carolinian can receive during a retirement celebration Feb. 15 — the Order of the Long Leaf Pine.
Presented by Francis, who through his service on the school board has worked with Garrett for 18 years, the Order of the Long Leaf Pine is given to those with a record of exemplary service to the state.
Since 1963, it’s been given to more than 15,000 people, including the likes of Michael Jordan and Maya Angelou as well as fellow Maggie Valley institution Brenda O’Keefe, owner of the former Joey’s Pancake House.
All those accolades set quite a bar for the next superintendent, who should be in place by the start of the next school year. In the meantime, Assistant Superintendent Dr. Bill Nolte has been named interim and is a leading candidate to succeed Garrett.
Whoever ends up with the job would do well to note some of the qualities and practices Garrett said helped her throughout her own career.
“I think just being able work with different groups of people, and good communications with all the different parties involved, with your board members, with your community, but most importantly with your employees. I have lots and lots of roundtable meetings. That kind of keeps me in touch with different groups of people,” she said.
“I do it I think three times a year, and I mean with every single division. I meet with maintenance, meet with your bus drivers. It keeps me even-keel, where I know what’s going on and they can ask me anything,” she said. “It’s not a gripe session, it’s just where we share things. I tried to be visible in the schools, and school activities and community activities as well.”
A life filled with professional achievement and activity may be hard to walk away from, but Garrett has no plans to slow down any time soon; instead, she plans to channel that intensity into another, more personal arena.
“I’m really excited about this,” she said. “This is a new adventure for me, to write children’s books.”
Well, not exactly. Garrett’s already had 11 books published, beginning more than 30 years ago.
“The first one we ever did [in 1987] I co-authored with Dale Messer, and we did like a sponge activity book, you know when you have like five minutes left at the end of the day, the end of the period, what do you do with 23 students?”
Through the 1990s and early part of the 21st century, her publishing grew from simple activity books to more prescient issues like keeping schools safe, and bullying.
Although it’s been a while since she’s come out with a new one, a press release from HCS says she’s currently under contract to write three more.
“One will be on bullying, and one just on character education, so those are upcoming,” she said.
Perhaps the most interesting and insightful, however, is the third book — a book only Garrett could write.
“The one that’s going to be a real stretch for me to do is on of the lighter side of education,” she laughed. “It puts a little bit of humor into situations that we’ve dealt with over the years, not mentioning names or anything like that, but just purely a typical day at school.”
As someone who has always been focused on long term goals — like she was when she became superintendent and set her sights on a top-10 state ranking — Garrett admits she may have some initial difficulty figuring out what else to do with herself, but it’s clear that the legacy of learning she leaves behind will follow her though the rest of her days, no matter where she spends them.
“Oh gosh I have no idea,” she laughed. “I’ve always just loved coming to work. We’ll probably take a little vacation because we haven’t gone on many, but then when we come back, I have some opportunities so I’m just going to see what I want to do. And then I’ve got to finish those books, of course.”