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Brunswick County's new superintendent talks growth, book bans, and other challenges

A headshot of Dale Cole, the new superintendent of Brunswick County Schools. He is a white man in his forties with short brown hair and horn-rimmed glasses. He is smiling at the camera while posed sitting at his desk.
Photo courtesy of Brunswick County Schools
Dale Cole was named superintendent of Brunswick County Schools this summer.

The new superintendent of Brunswick County Schools, Dale Cole, sat down with WHQR's Nikolai Mather to chat about his new role.

Brunswick County Schools’ new superintendent Dale Cole, likes to get a bird's eye view of things.

“One of the first things I tried to do when I start a new job is to get up a big map,” he said. “I start learning the roads and where all the schools are in relation to everything else.”

Cole is no stranger to eastern North Carolina — he was born in Southport and raised in Beaufort County. But here in Brunswick, where population growth is transforming the local landscape at a rapid clip, checking out the map is still a good strategy. He told me that on his days off, he’ll go for long drives round the county.

“Driving it and then looking at it on a big map just helps me learn the county at an accelerated pace. Whereas without the map, and without driving around a lot, it would take me much longer,” he said.

Cole started his new position as superintendent on July 1, although he’s worked in North Carolina public schools for 30 years. When he sat down with WHQR last month, he said that overseeing one of the fastest-growing school districts in the state would be one of his greatest challenges yet.

“But I love a challenge,” he said.

Growing pains

The top concern for many parents is overcrowding. Brunswick County is the fastest-growing area in North Carolina, seeing a 12% population increase in 2020 alone. That rapid growth rate has placed a strain on the school district, particularly on the north side of the county.

“I think we've got a good plan for right now that'll get us through the next three to five years,” said Cole. “But it's not going to take us past five years, with the numbers that we have in the elementary schools.”

Elementary schools like Bolivia Elementary and Lincoln Elementary are already reaching capacity. The school board is in the process of planning several major building expansions in Brunswick — but officials will have to contend with inflated construction costs and staffing.

“Our pay, we need to make it more competitive,” he said. “And we've got to figure out a way to do that over the next five years, if we want to be able to retain the staff that we have.”

Ultimately, Cole doesn’t see the growth rate as a problem in need of solving — he views it as an opportunity for the district.

“Brunswick County is quickly growing district,” he said. “In my opinion, it's one of the premier school districts east of Raleigh to lead. So I certainly was excited about the challenge of it, and helping this school district maybe improve even more.”

Book bans

Cole is joining the district during a contentious political moment. Book bans have started to make landfall in North Carolina’s public schools. Last February, Pender County Schools pulled some 40 books off its library shelves following complaints from a conservative parent group. And this summer, New Hanover County Schools has met intense backlash for considering a ban on the book Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You.

Brunswick County has mostly managed to glide above the fray. The last time the district addressed book bans was in 2015, after a parent took issue with YA novel The Absolute True Diary of a Part Time Indian. The district ultimately decided against banning it. Asked about the issue, Cole knocked on wood.

“Obviously, every school district has policies that are written to provide a space for parents to have feedback on books,” he said. “Ultimately, if it gets that far to the board, it's my job as superintendent to advise the board on the law as needed, and our policies, and then ultimately operationalize policy that the board decides upon.”

Cole started his career in education as an English teacher. His favorite book to teach was Huckleberry Finn. That book has also been subject to controversy in various school districts for its portrayal of racism in the American South and the main character’s usage of racial slurs.

“I always thought Huckleberry Finn got a bad rap because of the word that was used in the book,” he said. “But if you actually read the book, you see that one of the major themes is that Huckleberry moves from using that word a lot to not using it at all. He travels through this story of learning about Jim: meeting Jim, living with Jim, and ultimately recognizing Jim as the man that he was. I always thought it was important.”

He understood why parents and students might have taken issue with the book initially.

“I always did parent release forms, because it could be controversial,” he said. “But over and over, my students would come in with preconceived notions of Huckleberry Finn, and they walked away with a better understanding of what the book was about. I enjoyed challenging their notions.”

Creating connection

“Every year, I try to pick a one-word focus for my own growth,” Cole said.

This year, that word is “connect.”

“Education is a people business, and your success lives and dies on the people on your team,” he said. “I'm most excited to to create connections and relationships with the people that are going to be on my team, which is, well, everybody that's a staff member of Brunswick County Schools.”

When he was hired, he announced that he’d complete a series of listening sessions with teachers and other staff at each school by the end of his first 90 days. His goal is to find out specific things the district can do to make it a better work environment.

“If you provide a positive work environment and work culture where people are happy every day at their jobs, that makes a huge difference,” he said.

Nikolai Mather is a Report for America corps member from Pittsboro, North Carolina. He covers rural communities in Pender County, Brunswick County and Columbus County. He graduated from UNC Charlotte with degrees in genocide studies and political science. Prior to his work with WHQR, he covered religion in Athens, Georgia and local politics in Charlotte, North Carolina. In his spare time, he likes working on cars and playing the harmonica. You can reach him at nmather@whqr.org.