Meet the 2024 N.C. Charter School Principal of the Year

By March 14, 2024 News

Dr. Sarena Fuller, the executive director of ArtSpace Charter School in Swannanoa, is the new 2024 Charter School Principal of the Year. On January 25, the Department of Public Instruction announced Dr. Fuller’s honor in a press release naming eight other Regional Principals of the Year. All nine school leaders, including Dr. Fuller, will compete for the statewide distinction of Wells Fargo Principal of the Year, which will be awarded on May 24.

 A K-8 public charter school, ArtSpace focuses on arts integration throughout the school curriculum. ArtSpace is also a North Carolina A+ School, a school network and program established by the North Carolina Arts Council.

 Kristen Blair, the Coalition’s communications director, spoke with Dr. Fuller about her work to create a supportive school culture, the importance of arts integration in learning, her autonomy as a charter leader, and more.

 We share the full interview below.

You began your career as a teacher, later becoming a school administrator. What initially drew you to education as a career?

Dr. Sarena Fuller is the 2024 N.C. Charter School Principal of the Year. Photo credit: ArtSpace Charter School.

Dr. Sarena Fuller: I always wanted to be in education. I never really saw another career path for myself, even from a young age. Education was always it for me! I attribute that to being in the North Carolina public school system—it was such a fulfilling, engaging experience for me as a child. I was really lucky to be in schools that fostered a natural curiosity and love of learning.  

Once I graduated high school, I became a Teaching Fellow and went to East Carolina University. ECU’s program and the NC Teaching Fellows Program offered such a comprehensive experience for college students to see different educational environments across the state. There was a whole summer bus tour! I remember seeing charter schools then—and traditional schools as well as a military-based school. It was just a whole new lens, and it deepened my love for this work.

What compelled you to work at a public charter school, and at ArtSpace Charter School in particular?

Fuller: I started out as a high school teacher in a traditional district, which was a phenomenal experience. I was lucky to be on the faculty of a new traditional high school. Then I moved to a state-run school, the North Carolina School for the Deaf, which was a very different context and environment. Both of those were incredible experiences, but I needed something at that point in my career with more flexibility and autonomy. That’s why charters spoke to me. I always felt like I wanted to do more to support the integrity of the classroom. The charter environment, with its autonomy and flexibility, was designed to be innovative and take risks. That was really appealing to me.  

ArtSpace took that concept and doubled down on it. Innovation is a way of thinking, embedded in the culture. Risk-taking was encouraged, as it’s modeled after artists in the arts-integrated curriculum. Art is a process, as is learning. Art can be messy, and so can learning. That spoke to my philosophy and motivation.

Why is arts integration in learning so important? 

Fuller: Humans are naturally artistic, even if we don’t feel like we’re great singers or dancers or we can’t draw very well. Having an appreciation for art is part of our being. Who among us doesn’t love to crank up the radio on a commute in and sing at the top of our lungs, even if we’re off key? It’s one of these things we can connect to.

Art also provides a non-threatening access point to the curriculum. A student might have math anxiety or shut down if you put a worksheet in front of him, or say, “Hey, let’s multiply some fractions. Let’s talk about ratios.”  But if you approach that with an art lens first, and say, “Hey, let’s listen to some music.” Or better yet: “Let’s look at this guitar—the frets, the strings. Did you know that’s a ratio?” You’ve got him bought in, before you even talked about math. You’re making a connection to something that is not intimidating, that he can already connect to and see. There’s so much interconnectedness in what we study in our world. Art bridges that connection.

Dr. Sarena Fuller at ArtSpace Charter School. Photo credit: Sarena Fuller.

You’ve spoken about how a school is an interrelated ecosystem. Could you share more about that?

Fuller: I think about all that schools do for students and the community, and how everyone you meet in any context is going to have a connection to a school. They’ve been to school, they have children in school, or they know somebody who’s a teacher or works within a school system. Schools are one of the bedrocks of our society, and everyone is connected to that in some way.

What a parent needs from a school is very different from what a student needs from a school. Yet teachers’ experiences at school will drive both of those relationships. And my relationships with the teachers will influence how they interact within that system. So, acknowledging all of these layers of importance, and how one impacts the other, is really how we create a culture based on trust and respect. It’s what allows that ecosystem to thrive for the student, ultimately.

How do principals shape school culture?

Fuller: Principals set the tone. They set the example, and they lead the way. Sometimes leading the way means getting out of the way! It’s recognizing that everyone is coming into this building giving their best. You have to trust that. Sometimes that’s stepping out on a limb, especially when things are challenging, post pandemic—when everything feels a little bit harder. But you trust that everyone’s coming into the building with their best.

People want to be happy. [Teachers] want to be happy at work. The kids want to be happy in the classrooms, and they want to be successful. With that understanding, you just find ways to create space and acceptance—for the good days, the bad days, for things that go well and things that don’t.

Students are no less respected for having bad days, for failing a test, or for making a bad decision. They are still loved, welcomed, and appreciated; they have value, regardless. If you create that space, people shine. And that’s the culture: the people, and giving them the space to be their authentic, true selves.

ArtSpace Charter was recognized last year for work with students with disabilities, middle schoolers, and overall innovation. To what do you attribute the school’s success, and what would you share with other school leaders about creating a culture of excellence?

Fuller: We had back-to-back banner years in student growth. We’re really thrilled and so proud. I attribute that to our people, one hundred percent—our teachers, support staff, and the community that supports us. In the same ways that I spoke about a school leader giving people space, the community gives us space to work, and they’re supportive. I think what really drives that home is the culture that builds. It’s so worth the investment in people and thinking, “People first, students first.”  

You hear so much about socio-emotional regulation, and what schools need to do to support that, post-pandemic. It really is prioritizing the whole child before you can even think about high dose tutoring and doubling down in academics. Some schools have cut art programming and recess to lengthen the academic day. While I understand the intent to do that to make up on the academic loss, we’re people first. We need that outlet, and we need to build in SEL [social and emotional learning] through the content and how we interact with one another in our school environment.

That’s the advice I would give to school leaders. Think about growth, not first as academics, but as growing people. People want to do well. We’re just creating the environment where they can thrive. So, it’s the environment, culture, and trust.

In January, you were recognized as North Carolina’s 2024 Charter School Principal of the Year. What was that recognition like, and what are your goals for this year?  

Fuller: It was such a special moment. We had a school assembly and DPI [Department of Public Instruction] visitors and our board chair here. Sharing that news with our students and seeing how excited they were for me—for us—was really fulfilling. There are hundreds of school leaders statewide who deserve accolades and honors for the work that they’re doing. So, it is an honor to carry that banner on their behalf. I’m humbled as well. As a reflective practitioner, I always look at our work: What could I do better? Where can I improve? What can I learn from other people who are doing great things as well?

My goals for the next year include, first, shining a light on the innovative things happening in our charter schools statewide. That includes the incredible work of teachers and school leaders to get back on track and create positive learning environments.  

Second, I want to learn from others. I feel great about what we’re doing here at ArtSpace. But there are other models, other charters, and other philosophies that are different from ours and worth learning from.  

If I am chosen as the state Principal of the Year, I would want to use that to honor North Carolina’s public school system. This would be a full circle moment for me because I am a product of, and believe in, North Carolina’s school system.  

What is your favorite charter school moment?

Fuller: A moment that cemented the value and importance of charter schools for me occurred on March 13, 2020. That’s the day everything shut down for the pandemic. Being at the table with other charter leaders in my region as well as district leaders, I saw how quickly charter schools could pivot. I saw how in tune charter schools were to their community needs, without doing a survey or going back to the office. That’s the beauty of being a charter. We know our community, and we know the students we serve. We have the ability to turn on a dime because we have autonomy and flexibility. That was an “aha” moment for me.

Given the circumstances, this wasn’t my favorite snapshot in time. But it was a pivotal moment for me in my leadership.

Is there anything I didn’t ask that you believe is an important part of this conversation?

Fuller: It’s all worth every minute. Our work is challenging—the physical and emotional labor—and the public narrative is perhaps controversial. We have schools dealing with a lot of things that are thrown at them, and teachers, students, and school leaders are feeling that burden. It’s important to me to remind people that it’s worth it, and that we do it for the right reasons because we care.

One thing that I keep telling my staff is to zoom out, mentally—when you feel overwhelmed, or you’re looking for the good in the day, or you need a little pick me up—just for fun, once a day or once a week. Think outside your office, your classroom, and your school. See all the good, all the ripples that we create through the work we do—the late nights, grading papers, and board meetings. Zoom out and see the impact because it matters.