RALEIGH — From mom to teacher, policy adviser to chancellor, cancer survivor to current candidate for state superintendent of schools, Catherine Truitt has been there and done that.
Sitting down to talk with Truitt, one might not guess from the smile on her face and blonde bob haircut that she has beaten breast cancer. Truitt said she self-detected a lump just two months before the 2016 election, while serving as senior education advisor to then-Gov. Pat McCrory.
“Within a couple of weeks, I knew that it was cancer and that I would be having surgery followed by chemo and radiation,” Truitt said. “And so, it was a very, very busy time leading up to the election, and of course, and I had to go to the governor and say, ‘I’ve got breast cancer, and I’m not going to be here for you.’”
“And he looked me right in the eye and said, ‘Your health is the most important thing. Don’t think about the election,’” said Truitt.
According to Truitt, running for state superintendent was never something she planned to do. But when rumors surfaced that Mark Johnson might not run again, people “on both sides of the aisle” began asking her to consider it.
Being able to listen and build consensus are two things Truitt says are part of her leadership skillset.
“I was at DPI during Mark’s first year, and I have no sympathy for Mark Johnson because he did not listen to people,” said Truitt.
When it comes to her GOP primary opponent, Rep. Craig Horn (R-Union), Truitt said that his education-related experience at the legislature is of “great value to this role,” but that it’s a small part.
“It’s a very narrow set of experiences. Craig’s not been a teacher,” said Truitt. “He was a great businessman and, in my opinion, a legislator who always wanted to do what was right for kids, but that’s not enough for this role.”
Truitt said that the last few years working in higher education as the chancellor of Western Governors University has given her a different perspective on what is and isn’t working in K-12 education.
“The truth is that we have some things that need fixing,” said Truitt, adding that only 22% of the state’s high school graduates complete a four-year degree by the time they’re 24 years old.
Truitt says that’s unacceptable and more focus is needed on the “why” behind it — like research showing the reason that half of students aren’t prepared academically for the level of work expected of them. She also acknowledged the growing consensus that not everyone needs to go to a four-year college. Truitt said she will engage with community colleges and other forms of post-secondary education to create pathways that give students more options than just attending a four-year university.
“Community colleges are ready for this,” said Truitt. “They’ve been ready to have this conversation. We just haven’t really had it yet.”
Truitt says childhood literacy is another important area she wants DPI to focus on and that “third grade is too late,” a reference to the state’s Read to Achieve program.
“Colleges of Education must agree on a path forward for teaching early literacy instruction to pre-service teachers,” said Truitt. “Phonics, phonemic awareness and teaching decoding skills is how you teach kids to read.”
A career in education began in 1998 for Truitt, including earning a Master’s of Education from the University of Washington and teaching in Seattle and the British primary school system. Truitt also lived in Florida, where she tutored dyslexic students in reading, and where her first child was born.
While living in Chicago, she helped co-found Ridge Academy, a K–8 parent-run, private school on Chicago’s South side, which still operates today.
“The parent is the best person to make the choice for their child,” Truitt said when asked about the pushback against school choice. “And anyone who says that some parents are not able to make that choice is guilty of the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
Truitt is the mother of three children who attend Wake County Public Schools. Her husband, Jeff, is an attorney, who served in the U.S. Navy for 14 years and currently serves as a captain in the U.S. Navy Reserves. The family resides in Cary.
After living overseas, the family came back to the states and settled in Raleigh. Truitt then taught American literature at West Johnston High School starting in 2009. In 2012, she began traveling again as an education consultant and turnaround coach for the International Center for Leadership in Education.
While Truitt only has a single opponent in Craig Horn, there are five Democrat candidates facing off in the primary which takes place on Tuesday, March 3. The general election will be held on Nov. 3 if a clear primary winner is determined and no additional primaries are required.
North State Journal will be profiling primary candidates for this race and others in upcoming issues.