The Real Champions of Public Education We honor those who support and serve in North Carolina's public schools

Photo caption: ZSR Executive Director Joy Vermillion Heinsohn with Eugenia Floyd, 2021 Burroughs Wellcome Fund North Carolina Teacher of the Year, at the 2023 Jay Robinson Education Leadership Award Gala in Raleigh.


The Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation (ZSR) is honored and humbled to be the 2023 recipient of the Public School Forum of North Carolina’s Jay Robinson Education Leadership Award. ZSR Executive Director Joy Vermillion Heinsohn and Program Officer Jarred Gibson accepted the award on behalf of the Foundation on May 4th, 2023, at the Jay Robinson Education Leadership Award Gala in Raleigh. The following are excerpts from their remarks. 

Remarks from Joy Vermillion Heinsohn, ZSR Executive Director:  

I am a product of North Carolina’s public Schools. To be specific, I am a product of the Wake County public schools of the 1980s and 90s, during the height of school bussing and integration; and in the era when the Public School Forum was born. 

During those years, previous Jay Robinson Award Winner Dr. Robert Bridges was my superintendent. Previous Jay Robinson Award Winners Jim Hunt and Jim Martin were my governors. Previous Jay Robinson Award Winner, Burley Mitchell, was my Chief Justice. Dr. Robinson, himself, became Chair of the State Board of Education the year I graduated high school. These are but a few of the people on whose shoulders ZSR stands in receiving this award. 

We also stand on the shoulders of the tens of thousands of public school teachers who show up to work every day, ready to help our children learn. We stand on the shoulders of school social workers and counselors who help our children and their families access the care they need so that they can be present in the learning environment. We stand on the shoulders of the cafeteria workers and bus drivers and janitors who make sure that our children have nourishment, transportation and healthy learning environments. We stand on the shoulders of the principals, administrators and curriculum coordinators who provide the structures and supports necessary for our schools to operate. 

These are the real champions of public education – the ones who show up every day, in the school buildings, ready to serve any student who walks through their door, regardless of where that child came from, what special needs they might have, or what my have happened in their home the night before. 

I am now a public school parent. My son attends a Title I middle school in Winston-Salem. (I accept all condolences and signs of solidarity from those of you who have ever had a middle schooler.) I watch with awe each day as his teachers inspire a love of learning in their students, while simultaneously managing classroom dynamics, interruptions and individual student needs. 

Meanwhile, every day, the Public School Forum has their back. For over 30 years, the Forum has been behind the scenes working to provide meaningful action on North Carolina’s most important public education issues. The Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation may have been part of the Forum’s origin story, and a continuous partner through the years, but we know on whose shoulders we stand. 

I don’t take public education for granted. Like our democracy, it is not a given. It requires that people fight for it – fight for ALL of North Carolina’s children – year after year, and generation after generation. 

So as we go forward, know that the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation stands with you as a champion of public education. Because the futures of our children – and our state – are worth fighting for. 

Remarks from Jarred Gibson, ZSR Program Officer:  

I first came to know the Forum’s work a few years ago before I joined the Foundation.  The latest school performance grades had come out, and there were the usual articles about how many “failing schools” were in our state.  But as someone who has taught and coached teachers only in “failing schools”, I’ve always found that label frustrating.  I’ve always wondered why we think publicly shaming a school would be more effective than getting them the resources and support they need for their students. 

So, it was with that frustration that I Googled something to the effect of “why school performance grades are terrible”.  The very first thing that showed up was an interview with Lauren Fox.  For those of you who don’t know Lauren, she’s the senior director of policy and research at the Forum.  And in that video, Lauren was explaining why school performance grades are, in fact, not great, though of course she brought data and charts, and she used much more compelling language than I’m using now. 

But that video is a great example of what the Forum does so well.  As a “think and do tank”, the Forum analyzes data, informs the public, and advocates for what’s best for the children of North Carolina.  For example, some of the things they’re advocating for this year include a 24.5% increase in base pay for teachers to bring them up to the national average, and for students to have access to more school-based mental health care. 

So, to the staff and board at the Forum, thank you for all that you do for students in our state.  Your work is needed now more than ever.  For those of us who care deeply about public education and its role in a strong democracy, we’ve had a bit of a difficult stretch lately, and we’re probably in for a tough couple of years.  But I try to remind myself that throughout history, progress has always been met with backlash. 

During Reconstruction, a multiracial coalition drafted a new constitution for our state as one of the requirements to be readmitted to the Union.  This new constitution abolished slavery, made it legal for all men to vote, and added language enshrining education as a constitutional right.  But we know what happened next.  Using intimidation, violence, and Jim Crow laws, white supremacists exerted considerable force to ensure that the progress during Reconstruction was short-lived.   

I could tell a similar story about the Civil Rights era, or about rights for women, Indigenous people, workers, immigrants, people with disabilities, and the LGBTQ community.  Progress has always been met with backlash because some in our state want to wind the clock back to a time when opportunity was hoarded for a select few. 

But we won’t accept that.  We won’t accept that what’s not good enough for my child is somehow ok for other people’s children.  We won’t accept being named the best state for business while also being one of the worst for funding public schools.  We won’t accept that students of color and students with disabilities are suspended and expelled at disproportionately high rates, or that queer and trans students attempt suicide far more often than other students.  We won’t accept the teaching of an inaccurate or incomplete version of our history, or the banning of books, thereby denying students a full understanding of the world around them. 

Instead, we will fight to support and fully fund our public schools, while also transforming them into the inclusive and equitable institutions they should have always been.