University of West Georgia alumna Dr. Laurie Barron’s life consists of serendipitous moments, with each occurrence leading her to a myriad of discoveries, connections and new directions.
Barron originally wanted to enroll in the U.S. Air Force Academy, but an encounter with a teacher put her on a trajectory to be a major force in education – one that included recognition from President Barack Obama in 2013 and being named as Montana Superintendent of Year in 2020.
“My high school English teacher had a huge influence on me,” recalled Barron, a 1999 graduate of UWG’s College of Education. “I remember sitting in class and saying I want to do what she does, which was crazy because I never thought about teaching. I loved how she helped me grow as a student. It’s the power of a teacher.”
That class changed her entire focus. Barron enrolled at the University of Georgia, majored in literature and even studied in Oxford, England. After receiving her B.S. in English education at UGA, she began teaching English at Newnan High School.
Barron said she always knew she wanted to continue her own education. Not familiar with the area, she began asking people she trusted where she should study for her master’s degree.
“Everyone told me what a quality program West Georgia had,” Barron declared. “It worked for me as far as scheduling, distance and financially. Plus, my mom got her nursing degree there, so that played a special part in my choice.”
She decided on UWG for her M.Ed. in educational leadership and supervision, which launched her leadership career at Newnan High School. After six years of teaching, she “lightheartedly” applied for an assistant principal position across town.
“One of my colleagues said, ‘Oh you’ll never get it; you need to practice and see how the interviews go,’” Barron recalled. “And then all of a sudden, I was assistant principal at Arnall Middle School. That was a complete shocker.”
While at Arnall, Barron returned to Sarasota for her doctorate and two years later, she moved again, this time to Smokey Road Middle School as principal – the fourth one in five years.
“When I arrived at Smokey Road, there were a lot of challenges, including high absentee rates and low test scores,” Barron recalled. “Somewhere along the way, things changed. We got kids to believe in themselves. It was really just phenomenal work, the kind of work you hope to experience once in a lifetime.”
Things changed for Barron, too.
“It was weird because I intended to get back to high school,” she laughed. “I found myself entrenched in middle school and what it meant to serve young adolescents. That became my passion. I ended up spending nine years there.”
Under her leadership, Smokey Road was named a MetLife Foundation–National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) Breakthrough School for being high-achieving while serving a large number of students living in poverty. In 2013, MetLife/NASSP named Barron National Middle School Principal of the Year, which led to her being recognized in a White House Rose Garden ceremony by Obama, who she also met one-on-one with in the Oval Office that April.
While holding the national title, Barron traveled often. One of the places she and her family fell in love with and had hopes of retiring to eventually was Montana. Her mother, who was ill at the time, gave her some sage advice.
“My mom said, ‘I want you to go to Montana. Don’t wait to follow your dream,’” Barron shared. “I didn’t see how that was possible because I didn’t have any job prospects there, but it was one of those moments I will always cherish. That was on Sunday and she passed away the following Thursday.”
Then a couple of days after her mother’s funeral, Barron received a sign.
“My husband called to say there was a job for a superintendent in northwest Montana,” she said. “They interviewed five candidates and didn’t hire any of them, so the position reposted. He said, ‘I think your mom is talking to us.’”
With her mother’s words still echoing in her heart and at the persistence of her husband, Barron applied for the job. The family moved to Montana, and she became superintendent of Evergreen Public Schools in July 2013.
Recently, in her 25th year of education, Barron received another honor when she was named Montana Superintendent of Year by the Montana Association of School Superintendents in collaboration with the American Association of School Administrators. She said this honor is special because it represents the entire district community – from teachers to board members to paraprofessionals to custodians.
“You have to believe in kids first before they can believe in themselves,” Barron said. “You don’t have something like that happen without quality people doing the groundwork every single day. I’m certainly proud to help lead that, but I know I’m just one piece of it. The hardest work is in the classroom. I know that because my goal is to support staff so they can do their jobs.”
Barron has stayed connected to UWG throughout her career. In addition to being honored as a distinguished alumna from the UWG Alumni Association, she has been invited to return and speak in the classes in which she was formerly a student.
“I appreciate the opportunity to stay involved and help contribute to my profession,” she said. “It was a full-circle experience of being a student and then helping future leaders. That was pretty powerful for me.”