Profile: James G. Merrill
A Trifecta Winner With a Steady Hand
BY PAUL RIEDE/School Administrator, August 2017
When James Merrill took over as superintendent of the Wake County Public Schools in North Carolina in August 2013, he identified an unusual priority: Lower the profile of the district.
“Don’t be the lead article in not only the (Raleigh) News & Observer, but in Education Week,” he recalls thinking. “Just get down to business and focus on teaching and learning.”
Merrill, an educator for 40 years, took over a district under the glare of intense media attention for its ongoing battles over its school integration efforts. A year earlier, a politically fractured school board had voted 5-4 to fire Anthony Tata, a former brigadier general and Broad Academy-trained superintendent who had led the district for a turbulent 21 months. After a brief period under an interim leader, a newly elected board turned to Merrill to calm the waters.
It was a logical choice. Merrill had held a variety of posts in the district from 1984 to 2000 before moving on to two superintendencies, in North Carolina and Virginia. In both of those posts, he earned state Superintendent of the Year honors. This year, at 66, he received a third state Superintendent of the Year award and was named one of four finalists for 2017 National Superintendent of the Year.
“I still can’t believe it, but it’s true, it’s a fact,” he says of his SOY trifecta. “It says something about how long I’ve been hanging around, I think.”
With nearly 160,000 students, Wake County, which includes Raleigh, is the largest district in North Carolina and the 16th largest in the country. When Merrill arrived back in the district, he found a graduation rate of 81 percent, a yawning achievement gap and a system yearning for steady leadership.
Early on, he focused resources to help at-risk students and hired an assistant superintendent for equity affairs. In three years, the achievement gap dropped from 21 points to 12.
Larry Nilles, past president of the district’s teachers association, says his meetings with Merrill showed him to be deeply knowledgeable. “He just came across as a really composed, really in-control person whose thoughts were exceedingly well-organized,” Nilles says.
Hardin Engelhardt, president of the Wake County PTA Council, credits Merrill with unifying the district by guiding a lengthy, inclusive process to create a new strategic plan. The latter has a single ultimate goal: to increase the graduation rate to 95 percent by 2020. But embedded in that is an understanding that graduates will master the “4 C’s” — collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking — that Merrill says are imperative in a changing world.
Merrill’s upbringing did not suggest he would find success as a Southern school superintendent. His father, a World War II veteran without a college education, found his way into country club management. The family moved from club to club around the Northeast. When Merrill was entering high school, his parents bought an inn on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. Merrill worked there in various capacities, including dishwasher and breakfast cook.
When he went south to the University of North Carolina, he endured what he calls a “cold water bath” of culture shock but soon found his way into literature, writing and teaching. He began teaching at a Winston-Salem high school and hasn’t looked back.
His advice to aspiring school leaders?
“Hire well and let people experiment,” he says. “Don’t over-engineer or oversteer.”
is a journalism instructor at Cazenovia College in Cazenovia, N.Y. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
BIO STATS: JAMES MERRILL
superintendent, Wake County Public Schools, Cary, N.C.
superintendent, Virginia Beach, Va.
Greatest influence on career:
A professor at UNC Chapel Hill saw in me the potential and set me on this path. Amazing what influence a person can have when sharing with you a possibility you had not seen in yourself.
Best professional day:
When students graduate. The week when we see more than 10,000 young people commence their next journey is incredibly satisfying.
Books at bedside: Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools
by Michael B. Horn and Heather Staker; and Heavy Weather Sailing
by K. Adlard Coles
We were all guaranteed snow by early morning. The weather officials assured us. We closed school. By sunrise? No snow. By 9 a.m.? Sunshine.
Why I’m an AASA member:
We are all part of a larger enterprise called public education. AASA is the best organization for school leaders from which to learn. We also contribute to our profession when we give back to AASA.