A DPS grad gives back at Y.E. Smith

Judd interacts playfully with students in the hallway who were returning from recess. Judd’s peers emphasize her compassion for students and her ability to address individual needs. (Staff photo by Evan Owens)

Durham native Letisha Judd used to walk the halls of Durham Public Schools as a student. These days, she still walks those halls, only now as principal.

Judd is the principal of Y.E. Smith Elementary Museum School. As its title infers, Y.E. Smith stands out from other NECD schools in that it focuses on hands-on and diverse learning opportunities through community collaboration.

Principal Judd stands out from other DPS administrators thanks to her personal journey and her unique vision for staff and students.

In the cafeteria, Judd’s presence energizes and excites students, who eagerly greet their principal while trying their best not to be too loud. (Staff photo by Evan Owens)

In the cafeteria, Judd’s presence energizes and excites students, who eagerly greet their principal while trying their best not to be too loud. (Staff photo by Evan Owens)

The Journey

Judd attended Durham Public Schools throughout elementary, junior high, and high school. She said that her experience as a student in Durham greatly influenced her decision to pursue higher education.

“I had a very positive K-12 experience,” she said. “Various teachers impacted me and helped me move to the next level, educationally.”

The next level for Judd was her undergraduate at N.C. Central University. She graduated in 1994 with degrees in public administration and elementary education.

She then moved on to graduate school at UNC-Chapel Hill.

While completing her graduate education, Judd began teaching at elementary schools in Durham. She spent time at Bethesda Elementary School and Oak Grove Elementary School.

“I loved it,” she said. “I enjoyed helping and serving others even while teaching.”

Judd said that her time as a teacher was rewarding, and led her to pursue more leadership-based positions in the future.

“My principals encouraged me to move into more leadership roles; they helped me to recognize my leadership qualities,” Judd explained.

During her last year of graduate school, Judd served as an administrative intern at Y.E. Smith, before graduating from UNC-CH in 2003 with a master’s degree in school administration.

This internship was the beginning of Judd’s transition from teacher to administrator.

After grad school, she moved out of her hometown and served as assistant principal at McDougle Elementary School and Ephesus Road Elementary School in Chapel Hill.

Four years later, Judd returned to Durham, serving as principal for Creekside Elementary School.

In 2010, Judd moved in to her current position as principal of Y.E. Smith.

The Vision

When she first stepped into Y.E. Smith as principal, Judd had four specific goals in mind.

Create a culture of high expectations. Make Y.E. Smith a collaborative learning community. Oversee continual improvement. And ensure that teachers saw themselves as continuous learners.

“We need to create a positive school community that engages everyone from students, staff, families, and the community,” Judd said.

For Judd, ensuring that Y.E. Smith reaches her high expectations involves collaborating with the community to create diverse learning opportunities for students.

“I communicate with families and community organizations about what needs that we have and how they can engage and enhance our students’ education,” she said.

Y.E. Smith’s “Friday Clubs” program is an example of how Judd encourages collaboration between the school and the community.

Organizations like the Museum of Life and Science provide students with hands-on learning opportunities such as “Animals Alive,” where students are able to get up close with live animals.

Other learning workshops topics range from robotics, drama, Spanish, baking, sports, and mathematics.

Compassion and Creativity

Those who have worked with Judd seem to agree on what sets her apart from other administrators.

“She really cares about her staff, and she understands your personal needs,” Y.E. Smith Media Specialist Alice Mba said.

Judd’s co-workers emphasized her compassion as her most prominent quality.

Elton O’Neal is a retired Durham Public Schools principal who serves as the student support administrator at Y.E. Smith. He has known Judd for 15 years.

“Her compassion sets her apart from others I have worked with,” O’Neal said. “If an employee or child is going through hard times, she will work with them to make sure they are taken care of.”

First grade teacher Meghan Antol is starting her third year at Y.E. Smith. Antol said that Judd goes out of her way to create a positive working environment for her staff.

“She makes that extra effort to interact with both students and staff,” Antol said.

According to Y.E. Smith Intervention Administrator Jayven Brown, Judd’s compassion is matched by her creativity.

“The way she thinks baffles me,” Brown said. “Sometimes she’ll come up with a great idea and I’ll just be like ‘how did you even think of that?’”

Judd not only supports her co-workers; she challenges them, not only to better Y.E. Smith, but to better themselves, as well.

“She inspired me to get my masters,” Brown said.

Sustaining Excellence

Although Judd diligently carries out her vision for Y.E. Smith, she said she understands that she can’t do it all on her own.

“I know I’m not the only leader,” she explained. “Shared leadership is essential in reaching goals.”

Outside of school, Judd said she enjoys spending time with her family, walking, being outdoors, and traveling.

But, she said, some of her greatest joy comes from her work with the students. Judd said she has no doubts that she chose the right path.

“It’s my purpose, what I’m supposed to do.”




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