The 2020/2021 Lincoln County Schools Principal of the Year was awarded to Tracy Eley, the principal at Battleground Elementary School. Eley went through Catawba County Schools and graduated from Maiden High School. Her first teaching job was at S. Ray Lowder Elementary School in Lincolnton in 2003. She has three children in Lincoln County Schools.

“I always wanted to be a teacher,” she said. “I used to teach my stuffed animals on my bed and all my cousins. I have a big family and I was always the teacher.”

When they opened F.D. Jack Kiser Intermediate, Eley transferred there as a teacher and then became assistant principal at West Lincoln Middle for four years before becoming the principal at Battleground. During Eley’s principalship at Battleground, the school went from being a K-3 school to K-5 at the newly configured building that was formerly Kiser Intermediate so she’s almost come full circle.

“Every school I’ve been in has been a Title 1 school and this is where I want to be,” she said. “This is where my heart is and where I think I make the most difference. I see children who have challenges and need someone to be on their side – to be an advocate. I think that’s what I do. At a Title 1 school, you get the funding to do things that other schools don’t get. Here at Battleground, I make the decision for lower class size because I believe that’s important. You can’t teach the way we need to teach with big classes.”

Eley has chosen to use her Title 1 money to hire staff. The largest class at Battleground is 18. 

“When you have everything that you need, it makes it easier for us to focus on the children,” she said. “We get the people that we need, I get remediation money when we need it. I’d like to have another counselor and a school nurse four days a week instead of two, but you can’t get those things with Title 1 money.”

The ultimate goal of Eley and her staff is to grow students. Because of the pandemic, there were no North Carolina End-of-Grade Tests last year, so Battleground is still labeled as low performing.

“I truly think if we had EOG last year, we wouldn’t have that label anymore,” she said. “This year I hired an instructional facility administrator and she’s been working on instruction, interventions and building those gaps. Last year the county office let us have Mr. (Matthew) Hovis in January so along with Josh Henderson, I had two APs. Then March happened and put a wrench in our plans.”

Hovis is now the assistant principal at East Lincoln Middle School and Henderson is still at Battleground.

“Getting kids back from remote learning and being able to teach them face to face again is going to make a huge difference,” she said. “I’m glad we were able to transition slowly. Now we have all of our students back but about 35 of them. Kids are happy to be back and get to talk to their friends. Even though we have limitations, they’ve adapted really well. This is what we all signed up for. We don’t want to teach on the computer. We love seeing their faces.”

Teachers were struggling trying to keep up with both virtual learning and face to face, according to Eley. There just wasn’t enough time in the day to get it all done.

“If you’re not a teacher, you don’t understand that,” she said. “We like to control all of the aspects of the learning. That’s what we grew up wanting to do and went to college for. That’s hard when they’re remote. You can’t control everything if they’re not in front of you.”

As a public-school principal, competing with other schools that may not have the restrictions that they have is one of the biggest challenges Eley said she faces. 

“I’m a public-school advocate so I think all kids should come to public school, that’s what we were founded on,” she said. “It’s also hard competing with other schools who don’t know Battleground. We’re a fantastic school. We have great things going on. We’re looking at the whole child here at Battleground. It’s not just about academics. We help children and families in any way we can. Instead what they see is that one day, one test black cloud. It sort of makes me angry because it’s just a one day test – that’s completely not what we are at Battleground. We’re a lot more than what the state says we are.”

Every year, Eley said that she and her staff want to improve the life of every child that crosses their door in any way that they can.

“Here it’s about family and community,” she said. “We’re right in the middle of Lincolnton. These kids are going to grow up and probably live and work in Lincolnton. For me it’s about building and growing them in all areas. It’s our job to make them ready for anything moving forward. Even if I can make the difference in the life of one child, it’s a success for me.”

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