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VonCannon one of two local Principals of the Year from Wingate doctoral program

by Chuck Gordon

Hard work and relationship building have paid off for two Wingate University Doctor of Education graduates in the past couple of weeks. Sharyn VonCannon and Emily Miles were named Principal of the Year in Union County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, respectively. VonCannon is also an instructor in Wingate's Graduate Education program.

After transferring away from Wingate College in the late 1980s, Sharyn VonCannon finally earned a Wingate degree in 2015. She’s put that Doctor of Education diploma to good use, getting back in the classroom as a Wingate instructor and becoming one of Union County's top principals. Last week she was named Union County Principal of the Year, after Unionville Elementary exceeded growth academically and moved up a letter grade in the latest North Carolina School Report Card ratings, becoming an “A” school.

As principal at Unionville for the past 14-plus years, VonCannon has forged a reputation for building relationships and rolling up her sleeves to get the job done.

“She’s a hard worker,” says Eric Hinson, a Wingate graduate who has taught art at Unionville for over two decades. “She leads by example. She’s not telling you what to do. She’s right there beside you.”

A week after VonCannon was honored in Union County, another Wingate University Doctor of Education recipient was named Principal of the Year, this time for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Emily Miles, principal at Sterling Elementary in Pineville, was recognized by CMS on Sunday. She earned her doctorate from Wingate in 2014.

Making it a Wingate trifecta, East Union Middle’s Angela Foster, who is earning her doctorate from the University, was named the Assistant Principal of the Year for Union County.

This time of year, VonCannon literally rolls up her sleeves, as does much of the Unionville community. The Unionville barbecue, an all-hands-on-deck event that benefits Unionville Elementary, celebrates its 70th anniversary in November. Three days after receiving her award from Union County Public Schools Superintendent Andrew Houlihan, VonCannon was dressed in blue jeans and a T-shirt on an optional teacher workday, preparing to pack sauce for the barbecue.

“It’s about a six-month process,” she says of preparing for such an enormous event. “It’s work, but it’s rewarding.”

VonCannon understands the ethos of the Unionville community as well as anybody. She attended Unionville Elementary as a girl, and when she returned to the school as assistant principal in 2004, a few of her former teachers were still in the classroom there. They were surprised to learn that Sharyn VonCannon was the same person as the Sharyn Greene they helped learn to read and write.

She’s come full circle. “The running joke is that I haven’t gotten very far,” VonCannon says.

Honoring the past while embracing the future

VonCannon’s dedication and connection with her staff and the community have brought her a long way, and she stays true to the traditions and values of the Unionville community, but she’s hardly change-averse. After serving on one of her many mission trips to Central America and the Caribbean, she realized how far eliminating the language barrier goes in bringing people together. A fellow principal had brought along some high school students who had participated in a Spanish-language immersion program during elementary and middle school, and their ability to connect with people was eye-opening.

Sharyn VonCannon reading with a student at Unionville Elementary

“I saw the opportunity that those kids had to communicate with kids that were different from them,” VonCannon says. “I saw the culture, the barriers that were broken down, the acceptance of all people.”

VonCannon’s capstone project in the Wingate doctoral program was titled “Spanish Immersion Program and its Impact on Academic Achievement,” and here she had an opportunity to put her research into action. With support from other stakeholders at her school, VonCannon implemented a dual-language program at Unionville in 2013, immersing 24 students a year in Spanish-based instruction. Ninety percent of their instruction is conducted in Spanish.

VonCannon says she started noticing improvement immediately, but now that the first group of immersion students has moved on to Piedmont Middle School, she has a full complement of data to examine. She says the immersion students perform better on end-of-grade testing than their peers.

“From the research that I did, when you are learning a second language your brain has to kick in in a different mode,” she says.

VonCannon says a few folks were skeptical of Unionville’s need for a language immersion program. “You’re very rural, a bunch of farmers,” she was told. “I don't think it will fly.” But fly it has. Soon after launching the program, there was a waiting list to get in. “It has blown my mind,” VonCannon says, “and I’m just thankful I took a leap of faith to get it going.”

Alongside the integrated global curriculum that VonCannon has implemented, the language immersion program helped Unionville become one of only two schools in the state to earn the prestigious N.C. Model Global-Ready School distinction.

“She honors tradition and the past,” Hinson says. “But at the same time she embraces the future and is forward thinking. She’s the one that brought this whole globalization piece into the school and got the immersion program going.”

‘A Bulldog family’

VonCannon took a less traditional route to the principal’s office. After spending two years as an undergraduate at Wingate, where she played on the softball team, VonCannon got married and decided to step into the classroom early, even before she’d finished her bachelor’s degree. She became a teacher assistant at Winterfield Elementary in Charlotte, while taking classes at night at UNC Charlotte.

After earning her bachelor’s, VonCannon was hired as a teacher at Winterfield and eventually spent 13 years in classrooms at CMS, UCPS and Stanly County Schools. “It was fun,” she says. “I miss teaching, which is why I went back to Wingate.”

Itching to get back in the classroom, VonCannon earned her Ed.D. from Wingate in 2015, and less than two years later she was teaching again, this time as an adjunct instructor in Wingate’s Thayer School of Education. This fall she’s teaching Education 322 for undergraduates and Educational Leadership 610 for graduate students.

She brought virtually her entire family back to Wingate with her. In the fall of 2016, VonCannon’s youngest daughter, Jessica, entered Wingate as a freshman (and is also a Bulldog softball player). She’ll graduate in May. And in August, VonCannon’s eldest daughter, Megan Autry, became an instructor in the exercise science program.

“We’re a Bulldog family now,” VonCannon says.

She extends that Wingate connection to student-teachers; there are often several Wingate undergrads doing their student teaching at Unionville. “We house as many student teachers as Wingate University will give us,” she says. “I can’t remember a student teacher that came from Wingate University and I had an opening that I did not hire.”

VonCannon says that forging real relationships with her staff has made her tenure so effective at Unionville. “You have to get to know your people,” she says. “They have to know that you care. And you have to see them as a person first.”

Emily Miles with Sterling Elementary students

In Mecklenburg County, Miles also says that relationships are the catalyst for Sterling Elementary’s success. At Sterling, half of the teachers are in the first three years of their careers. Add in the challenge of teaching at a school made up primarily of Spanish-speaking students, and the teachers could benefit from some additional training. The school’s Master Mentor program, in which teachers have monthly professional-development training, has paid off.

“Teaching is one of the hardest jobs a person can have,” Miles says. “It is about relationships and people and highs and lows. It is good for new teachers to see that veteran teachers don’t have all the answers. We stick together to make sure we are all at the highest level.”

Oct. 17, 2019