ASHEBORO — Now beginning his fifth year as superintendent of Asheboro City Schools, Dr. Aaron Woody has encountered more obstacles during his short time than many superintendents have during their entire careers.
Stepping into this position on July 18, 2019, this proponent of learning and growth would be in for a whirlwind just a few months into this chapter of his life.
But first, how exactly did Aaron Woody become the man we know today?
Growing up in Crestline, Ohio (about an hour from Cleveland), this Cleveland Guardians, Browns and Ohio State Buckeyes fan migrated from Ohio State to Virginia, finishing his undergrad at Liberty University. Later, Woody signed an early contract as a teacher, coach and assistant principal at Guilford County Schools for a few years. Continuing his growth, the superintendent earned his masters, education specialist degree and doctorate at UNCG. He later became a principal in Randolph County at John Lawrence Elementary for five years.
Through these different undertakings and positions, Woody built connections in Guilford and Randolph County Schools. He left Randolph for a few years to become principal at a Guilford County middle school, then to Orange County as the executive director of secondary schools (which saw him working with high schools and middle schools in the county), but it was not too long until he was back in Asheboro. Describing his relationships and affinity to Asheboro, Woody could not have been more happy to take on being the assistant superintendent.
When the previous superintendent retired, the school board and district conducted a nationwide search — even though the current one turned out to be right under their noses.
“For a variety of reasons, I threw my name in the hat — wanting to continue to grow and grow the district, and see some exciting things happen. I was very blessed that the board took a chance and selected me as superintendent. Right off the bat, we hit the ground running … . There were some challenges because I was already working with people and people were working with me, so they got to see me at my very best and my worst, and vice versa, and so we had quite a bit of trust that was already established.
"The challenge to that is you have to make some decisions because your role is different, and sometimes that can alienate people. But for the most part, the blessings of having been in the district is that we had a team already established. All of us knew we had low hanging fruit like some things we could do with our budget, technology, policy and how we could restructure things. So, the first six months I was superintendent was incredible. We were moving quickly to really get some key things in place for young people to open up new opportunities and pathways, as well as create more communication strands with families… and then COVID-19 hit.”
Woody knew there would be challenges, but no one could have anticipated a global pandemic.
He cites the synergy and trust created during those first six months through the relationships and networks within the board and district as a reason he was able to hold so much autonomy. Woody could make decisions during the foggy early months of the entire world shutting down. In late February, 2020, Dr. Woody and his team were able to forecast that something big was about to happen. With universities shutting down left and right, the board knew it would only be a matter of time until elementary, middle and high schools were next.
“The board was proactive about giving me a lot of autonomy to make critical decisions in real-time in terms of policy and safety for students. The governor pretty much shut the state down on a weekend, and we had to make key decisions immediately. The best way to describe it was a very conscious roller coaster and feeling the depth and the gravity of the responsibility. During the time of COVID, I became an ‘expert’ (and I’m saying this sarcastically) on medicine, on the pandemic, and on health concerns. The expertise that was involved in decision-making changed daily, so that was the roller coaster ride. We were depending upon health agencies in our community, state and the federal government. We were depending on actual experts that were charting data. We were depending on politicians and leaders. We were even depending on other school districts.
"Keep in mind, we thought this would be a week, or two, or three, or even a month, and it extended into years. We saw some very tragic and unfortunate things. We saw people in our community pass away, and we were worried about students transmitting the virus to parents and grandparents. There became monthly discussion on a global perspective in Asheboro City Schools on masks, no masks, and other options for students.”
Woody is a glass-half-full kind of guy, so he managed to scrape out some positives during those months.
“Let’s talk about some of the blessings. Some of the ways we were prepared, and I was prepared as a superintendent, is that leading up to the pandemic, we were already one of the few school districts in North Carolina that were a one-to-one school. Every student in Asheboro City Schools, Pre-K through 12th grade, had their own device. We had already pushed in a lot of digital work, and so our teachers were pretty adept about delivering content remotely already. So, as I reflect on this time in my life, I don’t think I would have done anything different because I think we did the very best we could with the information we had about the sanctity of life in our school district and really supporting the work of the school with safety as our top priority, and we still do.
"It was a Saturday afternoon when the governor shut the state down, and that Sunday morning at 8 o’clock, we had an emergency meeting with the superintendent and the cabinet of Asheboro City Schools, and we met for an hour. At 9:30, we met with every principal, assistant principal, instructional facilitator and some department leaders at the media center at SAMS. Walking into the media center, I thought we may have only five people show up, but it was packed. We had around 60 people in that room ready to get to work and have materials ready. That Monday morning, because we already worked with the FDA to have mobile food delivery services provided, we started delivering meals. I will always be super proud of the work that Asheboro City Schools did as a district, as leaders, to continue to put learning and safety at the forefront, but also making sure students were fed.
"During the time of COVD, we provided almost 700,000 meals to students. There were a lot of takeaways during that time about what was lost, but we were prepared and strategic about how we approached and problem-solved. There are a lot of students and communities across America that continue to struggle, but I think we’re making leaps and bounds, and gains, because of the work we did before COVID, during, and after. It’s something I’ll think about for the rest of my life. There were times when we’d make a bunch of decisions, roll them out, and then have to completely change things one or two days later. And we did that for a year. That was very taxing as a leader, but I think it brought all of us together, and I think our community was very gracious in how we approached that.
"A couple of things that came out of COVID that I’m so proud of is that we did the mobile meal deliveries. And we did that through the yellow buses, approved by both the state and the Feds, to load up food with staff to go to drop locations across the community. Then, we started to deliver to actual homes before pulling back to delivering through schools and other public locations that were safe for folks. Meals were prepared every day, and we had staff and people across the community to help deliver to students, and it was a great experience. We also had food trucks that would park at the public library, Walmart and different places, so young people could come with their families. Ya know, it was ages zero to 18, and we just wanted to make sure students were fed. We had emergency hotlines where families could reach out to us at any time and give us information to help supporting instructions, supporting food and even supporting health issues. We had mobile hotspots where we had activity buses equipped with hot spots at places across the community and schools.
"We tried to eliminate as many barriers to learning as possible so we could provide equitable access to meaningful instruction. Heading into the 2023-2024 school year, the same themes are there. We left those hotspots in those places. We’ve tried to further advance digital technology through building programs all across our campuses. We’ve tried to create more equitable, meaningful and open spaces for learning to happen. We have really tried to move beyond COVID, and even say that we learned some really cool things during that time that we have not let go of. We want to do everything we can to make sure everybody has the opportunity to learn. We try to reach all kids, but all doesn’t mean a group. There are individual human beings in that ‘all’ and individual human beings deserve individual learning plans. All kids deserve an individual educational experience because each student is different. We want to make sure that all students have classrooms and spaces that are equipped, so that they can become the best versions of themselves.”
While most graduates of the class of 2020 had drive-by graduations, where students would roll around bus and school loops to be handed their diplomas, Asheboro High School seniors were fortunate to have something more exciting and innovative. The graduate along with family members and guests were accompanied by staff throughout the school during one of the hundreds of slots across hours-long days from Monday through Friday. They would be taken to a room where the welcome and class speech were played, pre-recorded, and then to a stage to physically walk across (there’s just something special about this little component) and be handed their diploma. After pictures were taken by crying family members and guests, graduates were escorted to the exit where the closing speech was being played. Whereas traditional graduations (pre-pandemic and post-pandemic) take place over a couple of hours, three at most, the AHS graduation for the class of 2020 took place over an entire school week.
What makes Asheboro City Schools special?
Woody is not shy about gushing over the continued and projected growth of the district. When asked about the Spanish immersion program, he had the following to say:
“Something I’m super proud of, a point of pride, is that if you want to see diversity in Randolph County, it’s in Asheboro. If you want to see diversity in the school system, it’s Asheboro City Schools. We are around 51% to 52% Latinx as a school district, and that is a huge point of pride. We are about 14% African American, and then we have Asian students, Native American students, Muslim students. There are multicultural layers within our schools, and it is a beautiful, wonderful thing that we want to exalt and lift up. So, on one hand, you can say the Spanish immersion program is great because it is connecting diverse students to one another, but that’s not the entire rationale behind the program. Being here for about eight years, I was on the initial planning of the program, and we looked at a lot of data and research to know that immersion programs where students have the opportunity to become bilingual make them far more successful in life moving forward.”
The program initially started at Balfour, Lindley Park was added a year later, and Teachey was added last year. There are dual-language programs at these three elementary schools and at one middle school, NAMS. The vision of the school board is to see this program become fully immersed at all the elementary, middle and high schools.
“As a school district, we are constantly trying to find ways to better connect with our community, to better connect with parents, to better connect with our faith-based communities, and our business community. We have a Black advisory council, a Latinx council … We are trying to be better listeners to provide spaces that capture the needs of all learners in real-time, today. We want to show everybody what Asheboro City Schools is about and show people we are a safe place, a relevant place and an innovative space where young people are going to be given exposure to opportunities to meet their full potential. To do that, we have to tell our own stories, and we have to tell it better. If we don’t tell our story, somebody else will. We want our district to be where everybody belongs and everybody has a hopeful future.”
Things you can look out for
Woody is no complacent man. While his first years as superintendent were swamped in ramifications of the pandemic, the years to come are stacked with new opportunities and pathways for students. Some of his and his team’s plans include:
Now that you know about Dr. Woody’s rise to superintendent, how he handled the pandemic, and his plans for the future, how about knowing him outside his position?
So who is he on a personal level? He is a(n):
His favorite places to eat are Brewskie’s (every Tuesday morning at 6:30, he participates in a Bible study group), Positano, CookOut, Dairi-O (“They have the best hot dogs in town because they toast the bun!”) and Paw-Paw's Place. His favorite movies are from the “Rocky” (“Rocky III” specifically) and “Creed” franchise because he loves an underdog story.
One of the biggest things he wants people in the community to know about him is that he is a “people connector” — he wants to connect people together. Dr. Woody is also a learning leader and truly wants the best for young people in the community.
“When my girls were born, all of a sudden, I wanted them to have the best car seat, the best crib, the best toys, and I still want it that way. I want my daughters to have the very best experiences, and they’re both at Asheboro High School. So, as a parent, I want them to have the very best opportunities that will lead them to successful lives. If I’m honest, that’s what I want for every student in Asheboro City Schools. I want every student to have the same opportunities my kids have, and I want the absolute best for my kids. I’m committed to this work because I believe in it, our young people and our community. We are at the crossroads of something very special with industry and opportunity coming, and I feel compelled to ensure I am modeling the kind of thinking that I believe is helpful. We are going to have really great opportunities here to get in front of change and bring hopeful prosperity for everybody. Our community is on the cusp of even greater things.”