After four years as principal of Riverside High School, Tonya Williams Leathers leaves behind a staff that wishes she could clone herself.
“I hope Mrs. Williams clones herself, and leaves the clone,” said World History teacher Alexander Groff, “[She] is easily the best principal I’ve worked with.”
Williams Leathers’ last day with Durham Public Schools is January 8. She will then transition to Johnston County Public Schools as the area assistant superintendent for high schools.
“I was not necessarily looking to leave Riverside at all,” Williams Leathers said. “My plans were to stay forever, but when opportunity knocks, you definitely should be open.”
In October, she was notified of this opportunity that she was uniquely qualified for. After the interview process, she was approved by the Johnson County School Board on November 10. She announced it to the Riverside staff and community the next day.
“I’m not leaving because I was unhappy. I love Durham and the community,” she said. “I’ve been a principal for almost 13 years – elementary, middle and high school. I absolutely love kids, but 13 years as a principal is a lot.”
Williams Leathers managed over 150 staff members at Riverside, compared to her new position which will only involve supervising 11 principals.
“Being responsible for that many staff members and 1700 students and their families takes a toll,” she said. “And the higher you go, sometimes you can have a different impact. I’m hoping that I can have a super positive impact on that community.”
Williams Leathers will miss the students the most.
“Standing in the lobby in the mornings and during lunch time were my two favorite parts of the day,” she said. “I’ll miss the athletic games, I’ll miss the chorus concerts. I’ll miss going to visit Mr. Smith’s class to hear speeches, or going down to the PLTW hall to see the senior projects, or stopping by RPC (Restorative Practice Center) to talk to students.”
Williams Leathers even enjoyed aspects of her job one might least expect.
“Discipline is when you get to know a student’s story and when you can really try to help them, so I didn’t ever mind the discipline,” she said. “And being here until 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. was never an issue for me either, just because I enjoyed doing it.”
During her time here, Williams Leathers took pride in helping everyone at Riverside feel a sense of belonging. She considers the strong sense of community that has been built to be one of her biggest accomplishments.
“We’ve seen more community members, parents, and students attending different events, and our spirit week last year was amazing with so many students participating,” Williams Leathers said. “When you walk the halls, you see all the Riverside shirts all the time.”
Another one of her successes was implementing SMART lunch last year, which created a single, hour-long lunch period and allowed students to better participate in tutoring and clubs.
“With our SMART lunch, we are able to meet the needs of our diverse population,” she said.
There were some things that Williams Leathers feels like she did not complete and wishes she could have accomplished, including raising Riverside’s academic ranking to a ‘B’ on the North Carolina school report cards.
“Last year, I felt confident that we were going to be a ‘B’ school’ but then COVID happened,” she said. “Even though we’ve exceeded growth every single year, which means that all of our students are growing academically at a faster rate than what’s predicted, I wanted to get us out of the ‘C’ zone.’”
Another goal of hers was to raise the graduation rate.
“We have too many [students] who drop out because they have to work, so coming up with other options for those students was something I really wanted to focus on,” she said. “We do have a plan in place so I hope that the team continues that plan.”
Williams Leathers started her career as a middle school English teacher at a Chapel Hill Carrboro City School. Shortly after attending graduate school at NC State University, she took on her first principal position at a Wake County middle school.
After her time there, she turned to Durham, where she attended high school, to be the principal at Eno Valley Elementary.
“I loved Eno Valley. Some of the students from Eno Valley go here so that’s been special to me to be able to see them,” she said.
Williams Leathers was then moved to Githens Middle School, where she was principal for four years until she was asked to come to Riverside.
Williams Leathers describes her first week at Riverside as apprehensive as she had only worked with younger students before and was worried high schoolers would not be open to her influence. Her skepticism disappeared when nearly every student smiled and said “hello” when they came through the door on her first day. She remembers calling her mom and telling her, “The kids are so nice at this school!”
“I think the one thing that I would like everybody to know is that the students at Riverside are top notch, A+ students – so kind and caring about their community; they would do anything for each other. That has been my experience the whole time I’ve been here,” she said. “The student body has always been super special to me. It’s going to be very sad for me to leave, even more so because I can’t personally say goodbye.”
Williams Leathers hopes she can come back for graduation, but she says that even if she is not there in person, she will be there in spirit.
“Seniors, I love you!” she said. “I just want the senior class to really focus on the fact that [the pandmeic] can propel them forward to make them a more resilient person and a more empathetic person because of all the circumstances that they’ve gone through.”
Students are not the only group who has been impacted by Williams Leathers; many teachers have expressed their grievance towards her leaving.
“She has a razor-like focus on equity and quality,” said Orchestra teacher Sara Moore. “I will always remember how she pushed our staff to always have the students’ best interests in mind.
“My memories of working with her will be her positive attitude and smile, her ability to stay calm when others are upset, and her authentic feedback when she observed my class,” said English teacher Mary Foster.
“She knows every student in this school, knows every teacher, and finds ways to help students and teachers shine. That’s rare and special,” said Groff.
Williams Leathers does not have any input in the principal selection process, but she hopes that besides being focused on academics, the incoming principal is visionary, organized, and an effective communicator.
“[And] when you do it, you have to have a genuine love for people,” she said. “You can’t do this for any other reason other than you want to make this place better.”