By C. Julia Nelson
Being an educator is a generational trait that James Wilson carries with a great sense of pride.
Perched high atop the hutch behind his desk, Fulton County School System (FCS) superintendent James Wilson is constantly reminded of his heritage by his grandfather’s teaching certificate, dated 1913.
Exposed at a young age to the experiences of his grandfather and uncles to the satisfaction that comes with molding young minds, Wilson has lived the majority of his adult life as an educator and recently announced he will officially retire June 1, for the second time.
“When you think about slowing down and doing other things, you want to leave the district in a position that it’s headed in the right direction and at the right time,” he said. “That time is at the conclusion of a school year.”
Before delving into his 33-year career as an educator, Wilson earned his Bachelor of Science degree in middle grades education from the Tennessee Tech University in 1974, the same year he married his wife, Elizabeth. He later earned his Masters of Education degree from West Georgia College in 1978 and his Education Specialist degree from Jackson State University in 1985, both in administration and supervision.
Wilson started his career in the Cobb County School as a teacher in 1975. Over the course of the next 30 years, Wilson held eight positions in the same district including (in order) community school director, assistant principal, principal, executive director of high school operations, assistant superintendent of human resources, deputy superintendent, interim superintendent and chief operations officer. He retired from Cobb County in November 2003.
“I had a great career in Cobb County and am very proud of that: Wilson said. “I certainly enjoyed and appreciated the job there.”
After his first retirement, Wilson worked as the senior vice president for the K-12 sector of The Facility Group, an architecture, engineering and construction firm based in Smyrna. There he provided program management and design oversight as well as planning services for school districts in the southeast.
“It allowed me to continue to be involved in schools and education of young people,” he said of his post retirement opportunity.
For a year and a half he consulted with school districts including FCS on various construction projects before accepting a position in Feb. 2005 as its interim superintendent. Four months later, the board offered him the superintendent position and he accepted.
“I found I really missed being around the students and I chose to get back in (to education),” he said. “I saw the challenge, wanted to be a part of that. Felt like we could do a lot of good things, and we’ve done that.”
Fulton County Board of Education president Julia Bernath and chief of staff Mitzi Woody both recalled Wilson came on board at an integral time.
“He was just what we needed because we were facing challenges with construction and finances,” Bernath said. “He brought in support personnel to put us back on track.”
“He brought stability,” Woody said. “When he came in we had been in a revolving door situation with superintendents so he brought some calmness and sense of stability for the district so we could move forward with projects.”
Woody first met Wilson as a consultant for the district. As she’s gotten to know him as the district’s superintendent, she describes Wilson as “committed, compassionate and likeable.”
“He’s committed to doing what is right,” Woody said. “He is committed to helping the schools get whatever they need for students. He is committed to students. Educators (like Wilson) have a love of children, a love of learning and a love of people in general. He’s very well liked in the district.
“His personality is engaging and he comes across as very sincere,” she added. “As a former principal – he really connects with our principals as well.”
In just three short years, the achievements of the FCS district under Wilson’s leadership are significant. However, Wilson in no way accepts credit without recognizing the team effort that goes into every initiative.
“From the time I started until now, we’ve done a lot of good things,” Wilson said. “I first surrounded myself with an executive cabinet that was very dedicated. The purpose of the central office is truly to support local schools; it’s not just the superintendent.”
Across the district, Wilson and the FCS staff has been an advocate of 21st century classrooms, of creating the classroom of tomorrow, today. Bernath said Wilson played a key role in providing distance learning courses for both college and advanced placement courses in the FCS high schools.
“He has helped us get to the next level of technology,” Bernath said.
“He has a very strong vision for the classroom of tomorrow, using technology,” she said. “He’s constantly reminding us of that vision and how the classrooms of tomorrow are not like the classrooms of today.”
Woody credits his expertise in both education – relative to curriculum and instruction – as well as business has been Wilson’s biggest contribution to the district.
“He’s a good leader in all areas,” she said. “He’s seen a lot, knows a lot and he brings that insight to the table.”
“He’s always cared about Sandy Springs and really gone to bat for the city to making sure the facilities are the best they can be to better serve the students,” Woody said.
Both Woody and Bernath are confident that Wilson has set a strong pace for the district that should allow for a smooth transition when a new superintendent is hired.
“We have some good programs in place and momentum to keep us moving forward; we want to keep that momentum,” Woody said. “We want to make sure we continue to keep the global outlook he has. We have such a large diverse district and he has always been able to think of the entire district; we need to continue that.”
“We appreciate his continued efforts to move Fulton County Schools forward as a premier school system,” Bernath said.