“‘No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.’ I’ve heard that a million times, and it’s been attributed to a ton of people.
“But it’s true. If we don’t build every relationship — with students, families, teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers — where people know that you genuinely care about them, everything else is moot.”
That’s the approach Daniel Watson (’18 M.S.A.) said he brings to his work every day as an educator. The Person County native who has worked in the neighboring Alamance-Burlington School System for more than a decade, will serve as principal of the Carolina Community Academy, an innovative school for K-2 students at North Elementary School in Roxboro, North Carolina.
The Carolina Community Academy is a partnership between UNC-Chapel Hill and Person County Schools. The UNC School of Education leads a cross-campus coalition to provide services and opportunities in conjunction with Person County Schools for students and families.
Watson takes over from Renee Carmon (’88 A.B.Ed., ’05 M.S.A., ’09 Ed.D.) who has led the Academy as interim principal since opening its doors in August. He has served as principal of Pleasant Grove Elementary School near the Caswell County line since August 2020.
“Daniel’s leadership style and personal narrative are so closely aligned with Carolina Community Academy,” said Amy Richardson, Director of Carolina Community Academy and PK-12 Partnerships. “Having someone who is a product of Person County Schools and UNC-Chapel Hill, and who understands that community is at the heart of our work, it’s clear to see that the sky is the limit for us.”
Grounded in the Person County community
For Watson, leading Carolina Community Academy is a bit of a homecoming. His mother grew up on Peachtree Street, a stone’s throw from North Elementary and Carolina Community Academy. He attended Oak Lane Elementary School and graduated from Person High School.
“I went to church this weekend with my mom, and a lady I’ve known forever — but I never knew her job — walks right up to me, and says ‘We can’t wait for you to start,’” Watson said. “She’s the cafeteria manager [at North Elementary and Carolina Community Academy].”
There’s a professional network of people working and leading in Person County Schools — people he’s known from various stages of his life — he’s excited to work with. He went through the MSA program with Michelle Honeycutt (’18 M.S.A.), principal at Person High. He went to high school with Dwayne Johnson (’20 M.S.A.), a longtime Person County educator who recently became principal of Woodland Elementary School, and Joseph Warren who serves as director of federal programs for the district. Carol Bowes, whose husband was his pastor growing up, leads Person County Schools’ transportation.
But more than a homecoming, leading Carolina Community Academy is an opportunity he takes personally. It’s an opportunity he said he couldn’t have envisioned growing up.
“This opportunity doesn’t happen to people like me,” he said. “Being a principal doesn’t happen to people like me.”
Watson grew up in a household full of love, he said, but one that was close-quartered with three siblings and, at times, filled with uncertainty.
“I remember mama calling the power company to say the check was on the way,” he said. “She sacrificed for us just so we could eat lunch, and she would go without.”
One hundred and 80 days a year, school was “home,” where educators pushed for his success, Watson said.
“There were days when I needed that teacher to talk to. There were days I needed Coach [David] Kleine to pull me aside and tell me not to do this or that.”
As high school graduation approached, Watson didn’t have plans to attend college. His best friend encouraged him to apply, and that same friend’s parents paid his application fee.
He graduated with a degree in physical education, combining his love of school and athletics, from Campbell University in 2012.
A community-focused leader
Watson’s career in education began at Broadview Middle School, a Title I school in Burlington, where he taught physical education and coached baseball and softball.
His athletes had little experience playing so he instead took a whole-child approach, emphasizing community building and working to make them better people. A code of conduct required his players to dress up on gamedays and maintain good grades; he regularly checked in with their teachers to make sure they kept up with their academics.
Outside of the school, he forged relationships with community businesses to ensure players had what they needed to compete. One business provided free cleats.
After two years, he applied for and became the school’s athletic director – the first step in his administration journey.
“After three years, we had expanded by two sports,” he said. “We updated every single uniform for every single sport, bought brand new helmets for football. We had implemented an end-of-year awards banquet for all the sports.”
He left his predecessor with over $3,000 after taking over with virtually no money. And he created a community of coaches with a shared vision, intent on student success and sustaining what they built.
He attended Carolina’s Master of School Administration program, where he said faculty members “took [his] education personally” and pushed him outside of his comfort zone. That led to a principal internship at a dual-language elementary school, nearly the opposite experience of his previous school.
He graduated in 2018 and accepted an assistant principal role in that same school. During summer of 2020, he interviewed for the principal position at Pleasant Grove, expecting to return to in-person instruction in August.
“We didn’t reopen until the next April,” he said. “[My staff, students, and families] gave me an opportunity to lead through ever-changing norms.”
When the school did welcome students back in person, Watson made the decision to implement “Books and Barbecue,” which physically brought his school together.
“We opened up the cafeteria and had a family-style dinner,” he said. “We were going to sit and eat together, and then worry about the curriculum.
“I want to know my students. I want to know my families.”
Since then, he has cultivated strong relationships and helped to grow student successes. He said Pleasant Grove had its highest EVAAS scores last year, even in the wake of the pandemic.
He said that success makes it difficult to leave now, but he’s excited by Carolina Community Academy and its potential.
“With 30 kids now and building class by class, I can truly know every kid. Relationships are going to be the key focus,” he said. “And relationships within the University… I don’t think we even know all of the opportunities yet.”
“There might be some Daniel Watsons in Carolina Community Academy who don’t know the opportunities out there,” he said. “I can look back at the adults who poured into me, and now I have this opportunity… to make my community proud.”