Public School Forum Honors Sen. Lee

Adapted from a news release by Keith Posten, president and executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina.

RALEIGH, NC (May 18, 2017) – Former North Carolina Senator Howard N. Lee received the 2017 Public School Forum of North Carolina Jay Robinson Education Leadership Award today. The Jay Robinson Education Leadership Award was established by the Public School Forum in 2000 to recognize leaders who have demonstrated innovative, creative, effective leadership for public education in North Carolina.

“Howard Lee has been a leader and a trailblazer his entire life,” said Michael Priddy, chairman of the Public School Forum. “His lifetime of public service in support of children, including serving as our state’s first African-American chairman of the State Board of Education, stands as a shining example of the very best of North Carolina. Howard Lee exemplifies what we look for in selecting our annual award recipient: dedication, leadership and courage.”

Sen. Lee may be best known as the first African-American to be elected mayor of a predominantly white southern town since reconstruction.  In 1969, he became mayor of Chapel Hill, an office he would hold for three terms.  He was also the first African-American to be a cabinet secretary, as secretary of the N.C. Department of Natural Resources and Community Development, and the first to chair the State Board of Education.
In 1990, Lee was elected to the North Carolina Senate, where he served for 13 years.  During his tenure, he held several powerful committee chairmanships; presiding over education, transportation and Appropriations Committees.  In the North Carolina Senate, Sen. Lee built his reputation as a fighter for education reform.  He fought for higher teacher salaries, increased funding for public education and advocated for raising teacher and student standards.  In addition, he sponsored or co-sponsored several major pieces of educational legislation which included Smart Start, More at Four (a pre-kindergarten program), the Excellent Schools Act for school reform, and the Safe Schools Act.  In 2003, Sen. Lee was elected chairman of the North Carolina State Board of Education and as a gubernatorial appointment (2005-2009) to the North Carolina Utilities Commission.
During his career, he served as an administrator at Duke University and on the faculty of North Carolina Central University, in addition to being a member of the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  He has lectured at numerous universities throughout the South and the Nation.”  In 2008, he released his biographical memoir, entitled: “The Courage to Lead, One Man’s Journey in Public Service.” In his memoir, Sen. Lee shares his life story and insights about how he survived the oppressive gauntlet of Jim Crow infested South, overcame obstacles, and broke racial barriers as he rose to positions of political prominence and power.

Since 2011, Sen. Lee has spent most of his time as president of the Howard N. Lee Institute, focused on developing initiatives in middle and high schools to increase the number of disadvantaged students, especially black boys, graduating from high school prepared to succeed in a post-secondary institution (university or community college).

Howard Nathaniel Lee, born July 28, 1934, grew up on a sharecropper’s farm in Lithonia, Georgia.  He graduated from Bruce High School in 1953.  He attended Fort Valley State College in Georgia where he received a BA degree in Sociology in 1959.  In August 1959, he was drafted and served two years in the United States Army; spending more than one year in Korea. After being honorably discharged from active duty in 1961, he worked for three years as a Juvenile Probation Officer in Savannah, Georgia.  In 1964, he enrolled in the graduate School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina and received his Master’s Degree in 1966.

About the Jay Robinson Education Leadership Award
The award is named in honor of the late Dr. Jay Robinson, one of our state’s most distinguished education leaders. His career spanned 50 years, beginning as a math teacher and basketball and football coach in Cabarrus County, becoming a school principal and later superintendent of schools in first Cabarrus and then Charlotte-Mecklenburg school systems. He served as vice president for public affairs and special projects for the University of North Carolina system and chaired the State Board of Education. He was also the first president of the Public School Forum and served as an Emeritus Member of the Board until his death in April 2000.

About the Public School Forum of North Carolina
Since 1986, the Public School Forum of North Carolina has been an indispensable and nonpartisan champion of better schools and the most trusted source in the state for research and analysis on vital education issues. We bring together leaders from business, education and government to study education issues, develop ideas, seek consensus, and ultimately inform and shape education policy. We do that through research, policy work, innovative programs, advocacy, and continuing education for educators and policymakers. Follow us on Twitter @theNCForum and visit our website at

STEM Scholars show their pride



Seventh and eighth grade STEM Scholars at Lowe’s Grove Magnet Middle School show off their STEM Scholars jackets, provided by Sen. Howard Lee. Their program coordinator, Jennifer Duvall, proudly joins her students. The idea for the jackets came from Cale’f Mack, a 7th grade Scholar (bottom photo, back row, center). (Photo by Kim Wysong.)

Sen. Howard Lee Honored by Southern Regional Education Board

Sen. Howard Lee, founder of the Howard N. Lee Institute, was honored June 26 by the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) for his 24 years of service to the organization. The SREB works to improve the quality of education in 16 states from Texas to Maryland.

Sen. Lee was initially appointed to the SREB Legislative Advisory Council in 1992 by Gov. Jim Hunt and to the group’s board of trustees in 1999. He was reappointed to the board by Gov. Mike Easley and by Gov. Beverly Perdue.

During his tenure, he served as a member of the board’s Executive Committee and as chairman of the Finance Committee.

Said Sen. Lee: “Of all the organizations with which I have been affiliated, SREB has given me the greatest satisfaction. In the early 90s, our education systems throughout the South and, especially, in the 16 SREB States were performing far behind the nation. Today, most of our state schools and higher education institutions are performing close to systems throughout the nation. I feel blessed to have had this opportunity and feel privileged and honored to have served.”

Muhammad Ali’s Most Important Lesson

The news of Muhammad Ali’s passing on June 3 caused me to reflect on what this giant meant to the world, and to me personally.

I’ll never forget the day Ali walked into my office in Chapel Hill’s City Hall. He had heard of my election as the first black mayor of a majority white southern city, and I suppose he had to see for himself that it was true.

I gave him the first key to the city ever presented in Chapel Hill. We laughed, we joked. I never saw him in person again, but we stayed in touch from time to time.

Ali taught us many lessons, but the most important was this: Other people, or life in general, may knock you down. But they can’t keep you down.

I learned on the internet that Ali was physically knocked down four times during his professional boxing career. He always got up.

When a fighter named Sonny Banks did it, Ali bounced back to his feet and later won the fight by knocking out Banks. Henry Cooper did it. Ali was down until the count of 3, then got to his feet and later won with a technical knockout.

Chuck Wepner also knocked down Ali (although it looks more like a stumble on the film). Wepner went almost 15 rounds with the champ, but Ali finally won with a TKO.

The mighty Joe Frazier was the last fighter to knock Ali to the canvas. As before, he bounced back up. Frazier won that first fight by a decision, but Ali won their next two meetings, including the “Thrilla in Manilla.”

Ali suffered from Parkinson’s syndrome for more than 30 years. But that didn’t prevent him from lighting the Olympic flame in Atlanta.

Many of us grow up in less-than-ideal conditions. I spent my early years on a sharecropper farm in Lithonia, Georgia, without the advantages of big city schooling. I did my undergraduate studies at colleges most people haven’t heard of.

Nonetheless, I wound up being elected mayor of Chapel Hill and a state senator. I was state secretary of natural resources and community development, and later chairman of the N.C. Board of Education.

When times were tough, I refused to give up. And so can you. If someone tells you that you can’t succeed at school because you’re poor, prove them wrong. If friends tell you not to try so hard at learning because you’re making them look bad, ignore them. If teaching seems so hard that you don’t think you can last another day, take a deep breath.

And remember Ali.