Judy Gilreath has no plans to slow down these next few months, despite her planned retirement at the end of June as superintendent of Whitfield County Schools.

"I intend to work as hard on my last month in this position as I did the first month I was superintendent, (because) the students, staff and parents deserve the best that I can give them for (my) entire tenure," she said. "I want to make sure that everything is in good shape for the new superintendent, whoever that may be, (so) I want to have teachers hired and the school budget approved before I leave."

"It is with mixed emotions that I am announcing that I plan to retire at the end of June," said Gilreath, who has been with Whitfield County Schools since 2001 and took over as superintendent in March 2013. "I will miss the wonderful friends that I have made over the last 20 years but am looking forward to new opportunities as I move into retirement; I am not one of those people who can just sit at home, so I am sure that I will be pursuing other adventures."

During her time in the system, she's "had the honor of working alongside some of the finest educators and support staff in the world of education, (and) the community support has been tremendous," Gilreath said. "Whitfield County Schools has been a wonderful place for me to work, but, more importantly, Whitfield County is a special place for our children."

'Common-sense leadership style'

Gilreath and "I have worked together for the 17 years that I have been in (Whitfield County Schools), and I have learned so much from her about education and leadership," said Mike Ewton, assistant superintendent for operations and student services. "Her common-sense leadership style makes her one of the best communicators I have ever known, (and) even when the message is not what the others want to hear, Judy's ability to actively and empathetically listen and treat others with dignity and respect serves as a model for any leader who has had the privilege of working with her."

She's a modest leader, too, Ewton said. She "deserves our gratitude for putting Whitfield County Schools on a positive path forward, but in her usual humble and self-effacing style, she would just give the credit to others, (because) that's the kind of leader she is."

Gilreath "is a wonderful person, a loving mother and grandmother, an awesome teacher, beloved principal, a loyal friend, and a truly inspiring superintendent," said Karey Williams, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning. "By being willing to make the tough decisions these past eight years, her decisions have truly changed the direction of the district in a very positive way."

National recognition

Gains in literacy have been one highlight of Gilreath's tenure. In the spring of 2019, 78% of Whitfield County Schools' third-graders read at or above grade level as measured by the Georgia Milestones Assessment System, and, that same year, the percentage of third-graders meeting English Language Arts milestones was 43%, a 15% leap from 2015.

Whitfield County was recognized as a Pacesetter in Grade-Level Proficiency for the second consecutive year in 2020, honored both for strides made in early literacy as well as in the category of Bright Spot for Parent Success for parent outreach efforts. The accolades were from the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a collaborative effort of funders, nonprofit partners, business leaders, government agencies, states and communities across the nation working to help children from low-income families succeed in school and life.

Gilreath restructured the system's teaching and learning department, which improved curriculum and instruction, Williams said.

"She selected three curriculum directors, one for elementary, one for middle, and one for high school, to help align the K-12 curriculum and improve instruction."

'The kids are her focus'

Tony Stanley, who served two terms on the school board from 2012-20, said hiring Gilreath was perhaps the best decision the board made during his time on the board.

"She had a big job in front of her, but she did the work and turned it around," Stanley said. ""She is absolutely awesome, and the system and the kids are her focus, not personal gain."

Carolyn Weaver, who was administrative assistant to the superintendent from 2012 until Dec. 1, 2019, worked closely with Gilreath and called her "one of the finest ladies I've known."

During their time working together, Gilreath often solicited perspective from Weaver, and she "always included and involved me in everything," said Weaver, who joined the Board of Education last month, replacing Stanley. "Sometimes, (Gilreath) has to do some tough things, and I know it hurts her heart, but she always puts students first."

Gilreath genuinely cares about people, especially children, Ewton said.

"With her and the rest of the cabinet, I have been involved with many strategic, and often difficult, discussions and decisions, (but) she always used the standard of 'what is best for kids' as her touchstone for determining the path forward."

Gilreath "has made all the difference in our district as we have moved forward through the state educational changes and financial challenges," Williams said. "I am so blessed to have been able to work with her and to learn from her."

"She fully supports the work we do and cares deeply about the students, families and employees," Williams added. "You will not find a leader who does more than that."

Gilreath "has meant so much" to the system, and she "will be greatly missed," said Bill Worley, chairman of the school board. "She is a phenomenal leader and a fantastic person."

Gilreath praised past and current members of the school board, who "never failed to champion our efforts to provide a high-quality education for our students and a supportive working environment for our staff."

"I have often bragged to other superintendents about the quality and support of our board, (as), together, we have faced many challenges, not the least of which was trying to continue providing our students instruction in the middle of (the COVID-19) pandemic, but we have survived and have grown stronger as a system because of those challenges," Gilreath said. "I am confident that our board will find the best person (to replace me), and that under their guidance our system will continue to shine."

What's next

School board members will begin discussing the search for a replacement on Monday, and "ideally sometime in May would be good to have someone named, but that will depend on finding the person by then and (his or her) ability to" start, Worley said. The next superintendent will need to be a strong leader with "high moral standards (and the) ability to make tough decisions."

If Gilreath were hiring her replacement, "I would look for someone who loves kids and loves working with teachers and parents," she said. "I would want someone who wants to be superintendent not because they want the power but because they want to serve and make our community better by providing a high-quality education for our students. The new superintendent needs to listen more than speak and value the hard work and progress that our district has made."

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