Most principals go the extra mile for their students. But Elizabeth MacWilliams of Carroll Middle School goes many extra miles by meeting with each and every one of her students at their homes.
MacWilliams takes a unique approach to get feedback from her 990 students and their parents, by visiting each one at home. It helps her connect with parents and teachers on a deeper level, and it’s something she has been doing since she was an elementary school teacher in Wilmington.
“When you establish a relationship with somebody at their homes, it deepens trust, their respect. It deepens their motivations on wanting to do right by the community,” she said. “As many home visits as I have done, I’ve never left a home visit disappointed.”
MacWilliams, 34, who has been Carroll’s principal since July 2015, has visited more than half of Carroll’s students so far this year, she said. Even though it’s a big commitment, and sometimes can take away from her husband – also a Wake educator – and 6-year-old son, she believes the time is worth it.
This week, MacWilliams visited the North Raleigh home of sixth-grader Nevaeh Boyd and her mom, Sharmiece Dobson.
Dobson said her daughter had been so nervous to have MacWilliams visit that Boyd cleaned their home and urged her mother to make cookies for the occasion.
“It’s never happened,” Boyd said. “The principal has never cared that much.”
During the visit, Boyd, a gregarious 12-year-old, told MacWilliams about her love of writing stories in class, her excitement about performing in the spring production of “The Lion King” and her clarinet she named “Ella Grace.”
“If you have a relationship with your instrument, I feel you can play it better,” Boyd told MacWilliams.
The principal agreed and told her that when she was a girl her clarinet was named “Charlie.”
Dobson works as a mental health case manager in Durham and moved with her daughter to Raleigh from Kings Mountain less than a year ago, she said. Having a face-to-face interaction with her daughter’s principal made her feel MacWilliams wants her daughter to succeed, Dobson said.
“To know the principal cares enough to come to your house,” she said. “It makes you feel welcomed.”
Visiting the homes of her students was something MacWilliams picked up from her mother, also a teacher, who made home visits to students in her hometown of Syracuse, N.Y.
After graduating from college in New York, MacWilliams took a job in Wilmington’s New Hanover County schools in 2004. She moved to Durham County to teach in its school system in 2005.
She had done home visits before in New Hanover, but felt compelled to continue after a parents’ open house night 12 years ago at Durham’s Southwest Elementary. The students had gotten their classroom and desks cleaned and ready for their parents and some had even written notes, but not one parent showed up.
“It literally tore me apart,” MacWilliams said. “I was devastated, and the kids were devastated.”
MacWilliams said the home visits and notes fulfill part of her job as an educator, to not only work on the academics of her students but on their confidence and emotional well-being, too. She takes time to write notes of encouragement on each of the students’ report cards, and sometimes she picks them up for events in a big school bus.
“I think our job is so deep,” she said. “It’s almost strange in a way that schools are seen as only academic institutions, because it’s so much more.”
MacWilliams has received praise for her approach and was featured in People Magazine’s ‘Human Interest’ section last month. She said the feature was an honor but that she is not the only principal or teacher in Wake County working hard to encourage her students.
“It feels strange, because I would say a majority of educators are going above and beyond,” she said. “We have a tremendously hardworking staff, and I’m incredibly fortunate.”
Chris Cioffi: 919-829-4802, @ReporterCioffi