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April 15, 2024

School Superintendent Hefner to Retire

Dr. Jennifer Hefner

After devoting her entire professional career to Alexander County Schools, Superintendent Dr. Jennifer Hefner is stepping aside. Hefner gave the local school board her retirement letter during the board’s closed session January 16th, according to a school system press release. Her official retirement date is July 1, 2024.

Hefner has served as the superintendent since July of 2014 after a short stint as interim superintendent. Beforehand, she was the associate superintendent for curriculum and director of elementary curriculum, Title I and student services. Hefner started her employment with Alexander County Schools as a teaching assistant and bus driver after graduating from Alexander Central High School.

Scott Bowman, who was on the board of education when Hefner was hired, says it’s bittersweet.

“As a board member, I’m not happy to see her go but as a friend I’m very happy for her. She’s put in a long career and she deserves to enjoy some of it, so I’m happy for her. I’m sad for the system, but we will move on. Everything happens for a reason and we’ll get through it,” says Bowman.

In a video message to staff on January 18th, Hefner reminded employees that with her schooling, she’s spent 84 percent of her entire life with Alexander County Schools. She says the local schools, “must be a special place and this special place has molded and shaped me as a person.”

She goes on saying “I want each of you to know it has been an honor to serve in the highest position.” Hefner was eligible to retire as the Covid virus broke out but decided to stay on to help the system get through the pandemic.

As the virus still affected families and students, Hefner was then diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. After treatments and surgery, she continued to work during the 2022-2023 school year. She now believes it is the right time to retire and spend time with her mother, family, and friends. She’ll also travel and pursue her hobbies.

Brigette Rhyne was on the ACS Board of Education when Hefner was hired and has known her since the two played sports against one another in elementary school.

“I am happy for her and the next chapter in her life. She’s worked hard for many years and has given her life to our school system. And I am excited for what she can do now for herself. I wish her the best,” says Rhyne.

Hefner is credited with creating opportunities in the county particularly for high-school-aged students allowing them to excel academically and prepare for their futures. In 2016, just a couple of years after taking the position as superintendent, Hefner led the charge to open an early college. Early colleges establish a way for students to earn an associate’s degree while finishing their credits to graduate high school. Since the first graduating class, Alexander Early College (AEC) has produced 191 graduates ready for a university, workforce, military, or a trade.

Hefner is also recognized for establishing the Student Success Center, SSC, for students who need behavioral and emotional support.

Associate Superintendent Dr. Betsy Curry has worked with Hefner for more than 15 years. She says, “She was responsible for visioning the Student Success Center becoming a true alternative to the traditional setting where services are equally distributed to those who might need more support.”

Board member Bowman attributes Hefner’s focus on career development for students with the growth of the Career and Technical Education Department (CTE) over the past several years. CTE offers nursing, carpentry, agriculture, business classes and much more for high school students.

Another achievement for the district and Hefner came in 2014 when she secured grant funding to begin moving the system to have devices for all students. The electronics allow teachers to tailor instruction to meet each student’s needs.

In 2022, Hefner announced the district had received a state grant to place a School Resource Officer at each campus in ACS. It has been the collaborative effort of Hefner, her team, the former and current sheriffs to make the goal happen. The officers patrol the halls and exteriors, visit with students, and are a law enforcement presence at each school. Their being at each of the 12 schools adds a layer of protection for staff and students.

Hefner was honored as the ACS Principal of the Year in 2007 when she served as the leader at Bethlehem Elementary. She went on to be a finalist in the Northwest Region for state recognition. She has been named as a Paul Harris Fellow, a Rotary honor for her work to help people better understand each other. She also received recognition from the Public School Partnership at Appalachian State University for promoting the university’s goals and objectives. In 2022, she was inducted into the Rhododendron Society at Appalachian.

The award is the school’s highest honor for alumni to recognize their “exemplary service to education and their communities.” Most recently she earned the North Carolina Public Schools Maintenance Association (NCPSMA) title as Superintendent of the Year.

Rhyne says despite the accolades, Hefner has always stayed focused on the students.

“I feel like in her decisions she’s always trying to do what’s best for our school system. We’ve not always agreed on everything, but our board doesn’t always agree, and in the end we all try to do the best for our school system. And I think in all of her actions, decisions, that that is her main goal. It always has been,” says Rhyne.

Hefner joins other North Carolina superintendents across the state in her decision to retire. Twenty-six superintendents left the position before the 2023-2024 school year according to Jack Hoke, the executive director of the North Carolina School Superintendents’ Association. There are 115 districts in North Carolina.

According to a University of Tennessee researcher, nationwide the superintendent turnover rate was up three percent in the past few years to 17.1 percent.

In 54 of North Carolina’s 100 counties, the school system is the biggest employer. Over time, with debates on Covid masking, book bans, and other politically charged issues, 40 percent of superintendents reported being threatened or feeling threatened on the job. Sixty-three percent reported in the Tennessee study, feeling worries about their mental health.

Dr. Hefner does not attribute her retirement to the hot-button topics, but says it is simply time. She charged teachers and staff in her video message to stand up for public schools and the children in them. She noted, “I hope you will continue to fight for the right to a quality education for ALL children because you are the best hope they have to find the best version of themselves.”
Board members Bowman and Rhyne agree there are “big shoes” to fill with Hefner’s departure.

“My hope is that we find someone that has some of the character that she’s had over these years, that’s going to be loyal to us, loyal to this community, and put in the time to see it through, and to make it better every year,” says Bowman.

The Alexander County School Board will begin discussions straightaway to determine how best to find Hefner’s successor.

2 Comments

  1. KC Setzer on January 21, 2024 at 8:02 am

    CONGRATULATIONS! The entire community staff, teachers, colleagues, students, friends and parents are better under your great and powerful leadership over the years. We are all fortunate to have experienced the growth and success in educational goals, commitment and hard work. The strong expectations, raising the standards and always accepting nothing but the best has made Alexander County Schools a system to model. You deserve the best retirement can offer. Enjoy!

  2. Kent Kerley on January 24, 2024 at 12:40 pm

    The Alexander County Board of Education now has a huge task in finding a Superintendent who can fill the shoes left by Jennifer Hefner’s retirement. I congratulate Ms. Hefner for her continued commitment in striving for the best educational opportunities of Alexander County’s students. I wish her a long and fulfilling retirement.

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