In Memoriam: Dr. Eric Ward, Principal and Opportunity Culture® Fellow

by | September 29, 2021

By Sharon Kebschull Barrett, September 29, 2021

Dr. Eric Ward, March 28, 1975 – September 22, 2021

Dr. Eric Ward, principal of Harding University High School, an Opportunity Culture® school in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, died on September 22 at the age of 46. Ward, a 2019–20 Opportunity Culture® Fellow, had been an educator in Charlotte for nearly 25 years, including as principal of four schools.

During his fellowship, I interviewed Ward in an expansive, 90-minute conversation. In rereading the interview transcript and remembering other conversations we had, I was struck by how closely what he highlighted as the joys and concerns of his job matched memories of him shared this week by those who worked with him—including my colleague Okema Owens Simpson, hired by Ward in 2008 to teach at Wilson Middle School, and their former student Jessica Hernandez.

They recall his powerful, authentic leadership, his joy, and his dedication to students, staff, and his family.

“Eric was very fun—he loved to dance at pep rallies, loved to take part in them somehow. I remember him doing a dance routine in a talent show that ended in a split, and of course the crowd went wild that their principal would do that,” Simpson said. “He was definitely serious, and he meant business, but he also kept a smile on his face. He was so passionate about what he did, his students, his teachers—he created a culture there where we were coworkers, but we were family.”

Hernandez calls Ward “one in a million,” remembering how her principal initially impressed her.

“He was just a ball of energy—whether it was your first conversation with him or your fifteenth, every conversation felt like you were talking to a long-term friend,” she said.

“I think it was important for us to see someone that resembled us in that position, because there weren’t a lot of educators who were running alongside us in our journey, and he was,” she said. “That was always the consistent theme across the board, that he was always with us—not above us or below us, but with us.”

“Education kept finding me”

In his interview, Ward said he went to college at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte as a track and field athlete who intended to be an electrical engineer. But despite doing well in engineering classes, he felt a call to education after he began tutoring other athletes—and ultimately found himself working as a long-term substitute during his senior year.

“Education kept finding me,” he said—and when asked what kept him in the profession, he answered simply, “I love it.”

A former math teacher, Ward’s love for numbers spilled over into his work as a principal, Simpson said, with clear goals and a sharp focus on data to reach those goals. In Simpson’s case, Ward gave her an all-boys class and honors classes after seeing how she got especially strong results with those students.

“I didn’t realize then how much he was setting me up for future successes,” said Simpson, who went on to become an Opportunity Culture® multi-classroom leader at Ranson IB Middle School in Charlotte, and now works with other districts to help them implement Opportunity Culture® roles. “His foresight and ability to ground his decisions in data truly helped me to improve my practice in a way that better served the students.”

When Ward began leading Wilson in 2008, overall proficiency stood at 36 percent; by 2009–10, state tests showed that had risen to 61 percent.

Dr. Eric Ward recited his favorite poem, “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley, for Okema Owens Simpson’s class when he was principal of Wilson Middle School in Charlotte, N.C.

Ward spent the majority of his career in high-need schools. When he went to a lower-need school as a principal to try to avoid being considered a “fix-it” principal, he found that it wasn’t the best fit, and a year later took the principalship at Harding, another high-need school where he felt he could make a difference.

He recalled a time at Wilson when some of his students visited a newer middle school in Charlotte for a book discussion. “One student was looking, and he was like, ‘Man, this place is nice. I bet Sprite comes out the water fountains.’ I mean, they were just like, ‘Wow, they have this, and people live like this’—then the question comes back, ‘Well, why don’t we?’

“It’s tough to respond to them about why is it happening; I kind-of respond to them that we are working towards getting some of those things…but also, you’ve got to use that as motivation, so when you get into position [as adults], you don’t have your kids and other kids that come after you feeling the same way. We’re trying to prepare you so that when you move out and move on, you can potentially give back and help bring it up, and be alumni that should come back and do the same things that you saw those other individuals doing.”

He recalled a study showing that within Charlotte, almost no students born into families in poverty made it out of poverty, tying it to his work to give students broader experiences, determination, and faith in their own abilities to go far.

Helping students believe in themselves

All those efforts chime with what Hernandez recalls about Ward.

“We came from a lower-income school, and it never felt that way. Despite metrics or whatever funding our school was lacking, it never, ever felt that way. The staff was always incredibly supportive, and he just always had a smile on his face.”

Ward’s belief in her future left a major impact.

“As 11- to 13-year-olds, telling somebody ‘I think you would make a great doctor’ or ‘I think you’d be an excellent educator yourself,’ it’s not something we’re really thinking about,” Hernandez said. “For me personally, it was the years I decided I do have what it takes to go to college. Those were pivotal years of our lives. He could always see our potential especially when we couldn’t—for most of us, this was the first time we had heard that, and I think we needed to hear that, and needed to know that, ‘wow, you actually believe in us.’”

Hernandez graduated in May with a degree in public policy from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, returning to Charlotte to work in a nonprofit focused on helping uninsured patients get free medical care. “I think it’s important to give back, the way people have given to me,” she said—unknowingly reflecting Ward’s comments about students giving back to their communities.

Hernandez and Simpson both noted the high expectations Ward held for everyone.

“He would always set the bar really high, and he would say, ‘I set the bar really high, and I know you can do it,’” Hernandez said. “I wouldn’t have aimed as high as I did if I hadn’t seen that.”

Building relationships with authentic leadership

In his interview, Ward highlighted simple efforts to connect with students, including how he was meeting regularly with students to hear their needs and thoughts about how to improve the school. What adults assume matters to students were often things students couldn’t care less about, he said—noting how students had just called the cafeteria’s broken microwave ovens to his attention.

“I went and found some microwaves, and there’ve been so many kids that now, in the last few days, [say] ‘Hey man, thanks for the microwaves.’ They come out and talk to you, so just listen to the students and find their needs—I think that helps to build those relationships.”

Hernandez also noted Ward’s relationship efforts.

“He knew our slang; he knew our dances—he learned them, of course, to try to connect with us, but also, it just broke down any barriers that we had, so we just felt like we could open up to him,” she said. “Everyone kind-of has the same experience, the same things to say about him, that he was kind, he was compassionate, that he was an excellent leader … I think a lot of people at Wilson agree that they were two or three short years, but they were the most transformative, just by how he led the school.”

Simpson noted that in conversations with former colleagues over the past week, and in remembrances posted on social media by educators and students, the common theme is how Ward supported them, pushed them, and believed in them even when they didn’t believe in themselves. “Often times a principal is so removed from kids that you don’t hear them talk about their principal that way, but this just speaks to how connected he was to his students, for them to remember that about him.”

For Simpson, it was Ward’s authentic leadership that sticks with her.

“He was really true to who he was, and that’s why his influence was so deep and wide. And that’s the part of his legacy that I want to continue on, to show up as a leader and remain true to who you are, so my impact can be as far and wide and deep as his was.”

Alison Harris Welcher, a former principal at Ranson who now works with Opportunity Culture® schools around the country, remembers being in meetings brightened by Ward’s humor and candor.

“Any time we were in a meeting together, I felt like he was a close colleague sharing great wisdom,” Welcher said.

“In our last meeting together, Ward spoke of how he was leading a high school during a pandemic. He spoke with confidence and calmness that was inspiring, despite all the challenges that schools are facing right now. I often wondered, how he could be so happy and energized about leading a comprehensive high school during a pandemic,” she said.

“I’m not sure how he did it, but I do know he showed up as his authentic self, unapologetically. I can’t help but think that the way he chose to live, personally and professionally, has empowered others to do the same. I know it has influenced me. Dr. Ward’s impact will be felt in Charlotte-Mecklenburg and the Charlotte community for many years to come.” 

Dr. Ward’s obituary can be found here. We extend our condolences to his school community and to his family.

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