Board of Education Member Leah Crowley
To help you get to know the members of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education better, we will be posting stories about each of them in the coming days.
By Kim Underwood
Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools
JANUARY 29, 2019 – When work brought Leah Crowley and her family to Winston-Salem in 2001, they landed in what was – to them – a new world.
“We moved up here and knew nobody,” Crowley said.
Meeting people and becoming connected to the community was high on her to-do list. So she joined the Junior League of Winston-Salem, began delivering Meals on Wheels, and became active in other groups.
In the years that followed, Crowley and her husband, Pat, came to have four children, and Crowley became ever more deeply connected to the community. Eventually, those connections and her desire to do what she could to support the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school system led her to run for a seat on the Board of Education.
She was elected in November and is now one of five new members serving on the nine-member board.
Crowley and her husband have four children – Will, Jane, Helen, Joe. The three oldest go to Reynolds High. Will is a senior. Jane is a sophomore, and Helen is a freshman. Joe is in the sixth grade at Wiley Magnet Middle.
Principal Leslie Alexander speaks highly of Crowley.
“She is a solution seeker,” Alexander said. “She does not take ‘No’ as an answer without wanting to know why.”
“She is not afraid to ask questions when she does not understand a situation. I think that is an excellent quality for a school board member to have. Understanding all sides of a situation before forming an opinion is critical.”
“I have found her to be highly concerned with issues of equity. She will be able to take that concern and apply it to all students in our county. I think she will be a good advocate for kids.”
The Crowleys met in Charlotte when both worked in the same building.
Crowley has a degree in exercise science and health promotion from the University of Delaware, and she was running the fitness center in the building. Pat Crowley worked for a regional brokerage firm that had offices in the building, and he would come to the gym to exercise.
He had grown up on Long Island and came down to North Carolina to play football for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After a week of coming in, he invited her to watch a Monday night football game. They started going out.
“On our wedding day, we had known each other for 11 months,” she said.
While living in Charlotte, Crowley had started tutoring. She worked with one girl for four years – from second through fifth grade. “The little girl was really bright and had so much potential and was excited every time I came,” Crowley said.
The girl was from a low-income family, and Crowley came to see many of the challenges she faced.
“It was really eye-opening,” she said.
The experience allowed her to understand some of the challenges that face some students in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school system, and it allowed her to see what knowing that people care can mean to a student.
They came to Winston-Salem when Pat Crowley’s job as a financial adviser brought them here. As Crowley was looking around for a house, she drove past the house in the Buena Vista neighborhood where they now live. The “For Sale” sign had just gone up.
When she made an appointment to see it, she discovered that the owner had grown up in the house, which was built in 1929, and had continued to live in it as an adult.
“I knew immediately it was the one,” she said. “It needed a lot of attention. I said, ‘This house needs us.’”
When they arrived in Winston-Salem, Will was 1. Crowley became a work-at-home mother, took responsibility for seeing the house was fixed up while the family lived in the Ardmore neighborhood, and began finding ways to become involved in the community.
She still delivers Meals on Wheels on the fourth Monday of the month – the next week as well if the month has five Mondays.
In addition to joining the Junior League and delivering Meals on Wheels, her community activities came to include coaching Girls on the Run programs at local schools, becoming active in the Friends of the Central Library, helping with the Race for the Cure, coaching girls’ youth basketball and lacrosse, serving as the president of a garden club and participating in Garden Club Council of Winston-Salem activities.
Once her children started school, she became active in the PTA at Whitaker Elementary and eventually became president. With one child after another going there, she ended up being associated with the Whitaker PTA for 12 years.
Susan Stephens teaches fifth grade at Whitaker.
“I have known Leah Crowley since our oldest sons, Will and Luke, were in Kim Fansler's kindergarten class at Whitaker Elementary,” Stephens said.
“Since then, our families have been close friends - carpooling to Hanes Middle School together, watching our kids play on the same Hoops4Him basketball team, supporting Coach Crowley and the RJR Demons on the gridiron, and being each other’s ‘go to’ person in case of an emergency with getting to our children from dismissal at school or taking each other kids to sports practices.”
“Leah's strength and passion that she brings to the WS/FCS School Board are evident with her everyday life. She has been a steadfast fixture at Whitaker Elementary School, serving as PTA President and as a reading tutor for a student since that student was in first grade.”
“I am currently a fifth-grade teacher, and Leah still comes to my classroom weekly to work with this student that she has been a partner with 4-plus years. Her commitment to education and the students of WS/FCS is evident in her willingness to even run for School Board in the first place.”
“With a family of three high school students, a middle school student, and a husband who works full-time and coaches high school football – Leah has a full plate already!! Her willingness to take on the things that need to be addressed within the WS/FCS system shows her dedication to helping the students, teachers, and staff in Forsyth County to have the best support from their School Board they can get!”
“Leah is, and has always been, a great friend and listener. By consistently being in and out of various schools throughout the system, she has seen and heard first-hand from students and teachers and administrators what works and what doesn't within our schools. She cares...and she wants to make WS/FCS a competitive school system that is able to attract the best teachers from North Carolina colleges and universities. She actively listens and ask teachers and staff questions while she is in schools and genuinely wants their input and thoughts.”
“An example of Leah's commitment to the students and teachers at WS/FCS is a conversation I just had with her at one of our children's basketball games. Leah mentioned that Fridays were going to be her day to visit schools within the system so she would need to change the day she normally came to my class to read with my student.”
“She mentioned that there was a difference of opinion on how the school visits should be done. In many schools, she mentioned, the schools seemed to ‘put on a show’ because they knew School Board members were coming. She asked me what I thought and how things were presented at Whitaker when we knew the School Board members were coming.”
“I told her that our principal, Sharon Creasy, always let us know that the Board members were coming but I did not think that I, personally, did anything differently that I would do any other day in my classroom. Leah expressed sincerely that that is what it should be – honest, routine, day-to-day, visits to schools and classrooms where School Board members see the good and the bad of our jobs, our classrooms, our students, our technology, our supplies, our facilities, our discipline, our world!!”
“This, and so many other reasons, are why Forsyth County is so fortunate that Leah Crowley was elected to serve on our School Board!!”
Through such activities as the Junior League Puppet Show, which teaches third-graders about the importance of telling a “safe” adult when something bad happens to them, Crowley spent time in many other schools in addition to Whitaker.
Those experiences showed her that schools face different challenges.
That knowledge reinforced her desire in her to see that students in all schools have the tools they need for the best education possible.
Crowley’s husband coaches football at Reynolds. After practice ends each day, it may be some time before he comes home because he takes home students who don’t have transportation.
Not having a stadium on the school grounds means that some students may not be able to participate in other sports, as well, and, when she decided to run for school board, the importance of Reynolds having an on-campus stadium was one of the issues that she focused on during her campaign.
“It’s easier on parents,” she said. “It’s easier for coaches. And students don’t need another barrier to participation.”
Having a stadium can also mean additional revenue for the high school, she said, that can be spent on materials to help students and teachers.
Her list of things that need attention in the school system includes many other things as well, including finding a new home for Ashley Academy and Brunson and working to see that students develop the skills they need to be successful.
She is looking forward to the coming days as she and other members of the school board do their best to support students and their families.
“I am really excited about the group of women I am working with,” she said. “All of them are really motivated to improve our schools.”
Principal Sharon Creasy of Whitaker knows Crowley will serve the school system well.
“I have so much respect for Leah Crowley,” Creasy said. “She has dedicated years of service to schools in many capacities. She does not shy away from the challenges, seeks to understand and works with all stakeholders to find solutions that move children forward. She brings an in-the-schools, depth of understanding that will be a genuine asset to our school board. Her integrity quotient is high and her heart is big. I know we will be served with dedication that reads into all our district’s core values.”
Crowley, who is 48, grew up in Spotsylvania, Va., near the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War.
“I grew up where I could walk to the battlefield,” Crowley said.
Crowley’s parents – Frank and Gwen Hopkins – both lived on farms when they were growing up. Although they lived within a quarter of a mile of each other – with one living on one side of the state line in Maryland and the other living on the other side of the line in Delaware – they lived in different universes. One went to school in Maryland and the other in Delaware.
They didn’t meet until her mother’s father hired her father one summer while he was in high school.
The first time he laid eyes on the woman who would become his wife, she was dressed for the prom. She made quite an impression, and he said to himself, “I want to marry her one day.”
When her mother went off to the University of Delaware, she majored in education. When her father went off to the University of Maryland, he majored in agriculture. He later earned a master’s degree in agronomy, the science of soil management and crop production.
Her mother became a teacher, and her father worked as a county agent before going to work for John Deere.
Her father later bought a John Deere dealership and, younger brother, Clint, came to join the business. Her older brother, Matt, lives in Concord these days.
When she was in elementary school, she could walk to school. She could head down to a creek.
“We had a neighborhood where we could roam free,” she said.
It was a great life.
“I loved everything. I loved school.”
Wanting her own children to have some of the freedom she had growing up, she encouraged them to ride their bikes here and there in Winston -Salem.
“I like being able to give them independence that builds confidence,” she said.
Crowley continues to stay physically active. She runs and lifts weights.
She started swimming when she was young and worked as a life guard while in college. When Helen was still a baby, she participated in an event that raised money for a worthy cause by swimming across the Chesapeake Bay. Officially, the distance was 4½ miles but, as previous participants pointed out to her, the effective distance was 5 or 6 miles by the time you swam against the current.
“It’s the hardest physical challenge I have ever done,” she said. “That was definitely one and done.”
With family, staying fit, supporting community programs, and, now, the school board, Crowley seldom has a moment in her day when she is doing nothing.
“I feel like I am always doing something,” she said.