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Four honored at 2023 annual Distinguished Alumni Awards ceremony

The UNC School of Education honored four alumni at its 21st annual Distinguished Alumni Awards ceremony held Saturday, Sept. 30, at the George Watts Hill Alumni Center on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.   

Seth Brown (’97 A.B.Ed.) and Tom Feller (’20 Ed.D.), who lead innovative professional development and educator retention efforts in Pitt County Schools, each received the Alumni Achievement Award. Elizabeth “Eliz” Colbert (’86 A.B.Ed., ’94 M.Ed.), who recently retired as the executive director of the North Carolina Virtual Public School, and Tony B. Watlington Sr. (‘00 M.S.A., ‘08 Ed.D.), superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia, each received the Distinguished Leadership Award. 

Seth Brown (’97 A.B.Ed.) 

For more than 25 years in Pitt County Schools, Seth Brown, Ph.D., has grown tremendously as an educator and has innovated to ensure fellow educators become leaders who build and inspire other leaders.

Seth Brown

With colleague Thomas Feller, Brown co-founded R3: Recruit, Retain, Reward in Pitt County Schools, which establishes advanced teaching roles, provides teacher leader pathways, and offers principal training. Supported by $26.5 million in federal and state grants over seven years, R3 now operates at a state and local level.

Administered through Pitt County’s Department of Excellence, Equity, and Leadership (DEEL), where Brown serves as director of educator support and leadership development, DEEL aims to recruit, retain, and reward excellent educators to benefit Pitt County students. The programs under DEEL focus on skill development, professional credentials, and teacher compensation. 

Brown’s education career began in 1997 at C.M. Eppes Middle School. He taught social studies, science, and math, later serving in various roles within Pitt County Schools. He holds a bachelor’s degree in secondary social studies education from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a master’s degree in school administration from East Carolina University, and a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from N.C. State University. 

Brown serves as a trainer for the North Carolina Principal and Assistant Principal’s Association, contributing to program redesign and development, including the Distinguished Leadership in Practice (DLP) Program, Future Ready Leaders (FRL) Program, and Early Career Principals Academy. 

Thomas Feller (’20 Ed.D.) 

Over the course of a multifaceted career in education, Thomas Feller, Ed.D., has come to believe that the best way to positively improve student learning is to support the growth of teachers in classrooms and leaders, including teacher leaders, in schools. 

Thomas Feller

With colleague Seth Brown, Feller established R3: Recruit, Retain, Reward in Pitt County Schools, where he serves as director of continuous improvement.  

Feller holds a bachelor’s degree in music education from Palm Beach Atlantic College, a master’s degree in school administration from East Carolina University, and a doctoral degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He started as a K-6 music teacher in Florida, introduced to the World Music Drumming curriculum, which offers broad skills. 

In 2003, he moved to Greenville, North Carolina, teaching middle school music for four years, expanding the World Music Drumming curriculum district-wide. He also led the Bulldog Beat program, boosting achievement and life skills for struggling students. 

From 2007, he served as a school administrator, later becoming a district coordinator overseeing the Federal Race to the Top grant implementation, focusing on state academic standards, professional learning, and instructional coaching. In 2012-13, he worked with the Teacher Leadership Cohort, supporting high-performing teachers in low-performing schools. 

Elizabeth “Eliz” Colbert (’86 A.B.Ed., ’94 M.Ed.)

Eliz Colbert, Ed.D., embodies public education in North Carolina – not only as a teacher, principal, and administrator, but also as an adjunct professor, parent, and student herself. During her time at UNC-Chapel Hill as a student, she developed a commitment to innovative leadership within public schools that produced optimal student success and an environment where teachers and other school leaders could thrive.

Elizabeth “Eliz” Colbert

Colbert, originally from Morehead City, North Carolina, earned her bachelor’s degree in early childhood education at UNC-Chapel Hill. She pioneered a multi-age program at Cary Elementary, fostering leadership skills among students by emphasizing learning needs over age. 

Throughout her career, Colbert championed innovative teaching and school leadership. She co-founded Partnership Elementary in 1998, challenging the traditional leadership model. The school received the 1999 Governor’s Entrepreneurial School Award. Colbert pursued further education, earning degrees from Teachers’ College at Columbia University and UNC, later completing her doctorate in educational administration at Columbia. 

After 20 years in teaching and school administration, she became senior director at the Wake County Public School System’s Office of Professional Learning, creating and delivering courses for various education professionals. She continued her work at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, pioneering online courses for teachers. 

Colbert’s recent role was as executive director at North Carolina Virtual Public School. She played a key role in shaping online learning for 6th-12th graders statewide, notably creating the first online program for students on the Occupational Course of Study diploma track. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she provided free training for teachers to transition to online instruction and facilitated virtual collaboration among school district leaders using NC Virtual systems. 

Tony B. Watlington Sr. (‘00 M.S.A., ‘08 Ed.D.)

Tony B. Watlington Sr., Ed.D., began work as superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia, the nation’s 8th largest school district with nearly 200,000 students, on June 16, 2022. 

Tony B. Watlington Sr.

Watlington, the Philadelphia superintendent, started his tenure with a 100-day listening tour and created a 5-year plan called “Accelerate Philly” approved by the Board of Education. Before this role, he had a successful career in North Carolina’s public schools, including as a history teacher and chief of schools, where he improved academic outcomes, graduation rates, and teacher satisfaction while reducing turnover and disciplinary issues. 

Watlington led Rowan-Salisbury Schools, North Carolina’s first Renewal School District, with an equity-focused plan. During his tenure, the district’s third-grade literacy ranking improved from 96 in 2019 to 74 in 2021. He gained recognition on NBC Nightly News for innovative COVID-19 response, ensuring safe school operations and minimizing disruptions. 

A native of Fort Dix, New Jersey, and the youngest of seven children, Watlington grew up in rural Harnett County, North Carolina, and was the first member of his family to attend college. He earned all of his degrees from public institutions: his undergraduate degree in history education is from N.C. A&T State University; his master’s degree in American political history is from The Ohio State University; and his Master of School Administration and Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership are from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he was a North Carolina Principal Fellow. 

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