By Richard Sullins |

East Lee Middle School Principal Robert Newby felt right away that something important was about to happen when Dr. Chris Dossenbach suddenly appeared on his campus last week. He just didn’t know what it could be.

But instead of bad news, the district’s interim superintendent had come to inform Newby of his selection as Principal of the Year in the Lee County Schools district for 2023-24. The award is given annually after a vote among all principals within the district.

Lee County Principal of the Year Robert Newby (East Lee Middle School), left, with Lee County Schools interim Superintendent Dr. Chris Dossenbach. Courtesy of Lee County Schools.

Newby became principal at East Lee barely 15 months ago, but his impact has been immediate. During his first year that started in July 2022, Newby helped his students and teachers to improve by a letter grade in the annual report card of performance that each school receives from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

The school also met its growth expectations for last year, meaning its growth was consistent with the state average, and he found ways to address some major staffing shortages at East Lee over the past year.

Newby said he’s loved the classroom since his very earliest days, even spending his summer vacations “playing school.” He studied accounting and did that for a year, but he quickly realized his heart just wasn’t in it.

“I went back and got my teaching degree because teaching is always what I wanted to do,” he said. “I knew this was something I liked, and I have loved every minute of it since I’ve been here.”

A first-generation college student and graduate, Newby is now in his 31st year in education, most of that spent in Lee County. He credits much of his personal success to the many relationships he’s built with teachers and administrators along the way. He’s worn a lot of hats during his career, including those of an instructional assistant and bus driver.

Along with the responsibility of being in charge at East Lee, Newby has persevered through the hardship of losing his wife Sharon, an English teacher at Lee County High School, last December. He keeps her picture on a chain that is worn close to his heart every day.

But despite the personal and professional challenges that have come his way over the years, his message to students has always been consistent.

“I tell the kids all the time, once you get your education, there is nothing anyone can do to take that away,” he said. “You’ll be amazed where your education can take you if you just take advantage of it.”

But for Newby, success means more than just raising the bar of expectations at a school that had been labeled “low performing” just a year ago. It’s about using the window of opportunity he is given to change the direction of lives of the students who sit in his classrooms.

“You can help mold middle school kids if you can convince them and encourage them that education is the most important thing. You can reach them now before they get to high school,” he said. “They love you. Five minutes later, maybe they hate you. It’s just middle school. I think for our kids, they need to see somebody like me as an African American man doing something positive in the community. Television has so much negativity. All these things are not good for them. They need positive role models within the school system, and I believe I’m one of the people that can give that to them, not just our African American kids, but all kids.”