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Family crisis forged leadership path for Gainesville superintendent pick
Sole finalist for school chief post was forced to grow up quickly in family of educators
Recently the Gainesville City Schools announced Dr. Jeremy Williams as the system’s lone finalist as new superintendent. If approved May 1, Williams will replace Wanda Creel, who is leaving when her contract expires at the end of June.

BLAIRSVILLE — At age 36, Jeremy Williams is expected to be selected as the new Gainesville City School System superintendent at the board’s next meeting May 1.

While that may seem young, Williams has gained experience as a classroom teacher, regional educator working with more than a dozen school districts as well as serving the last five years as a top district office administrator in the 14 years since earning a bachelor’s degree at the University of North Georgia in 2003.

Williams said a car accident when he was 14 caused him to grow up quickly and propelled him to take more responsibility earlier, impacting his life on a path that now has him as the lone finalist as Gainesville school superintendent.

“When I was 14 and my brother was 16, we had a car accident,” Williams said in an interview with The Times last week. “We were T-boned in the side. He was driving and I was a passenger. He was in a coma for six weeks and he had to re-learn how to walk, talk, drive — everything.

“At that point, my role switched,” he added. “I didn’t know it until much later, but it changed me going from being the baby brother and one of the youngest male siblings in the family to having to help provide for my brother.”

Williams and his brother, Bartley, ended up rooming together at UNG. Bartley has recovered and is a special education teacher at Wilbanks Middle School in Habersham County. But his younger brother said the event made him the person he is today.

“A lot was put on me then, whether I knew it or not, whether I put it on myself or other people put it on myself,” Williams said. “I think every kid has those opportunities in life, where they can either slide back and let other people do their job for them or they can step up and do what they need to do. I wonder if that hadn’t happened would I be where I am now? And I would say probably not. Something else might have happened that would have caused me to grow up, but would it be the same as it is now?

Williams grew up in a family of educators.

“For me, it’s kind of like the family business,” he said of his career in education. “I had my Aunt Lynn in second grade, my mom in fifth grade, one of my uncles in middle school, that uncle and another uncle as football coaches in middle school.

“It’s always been in my system to help serve kids and make a difference in somebody’s life. I was impacted by so many educators through my entire career whether it was family, or those I had (as teachers).“

Williams received a big opportunity after graduating at UNG, getting a job as an advanced placement physics teacher at the 3,500-student Collins Hill High School in Suwanee.

Williams left the classroom in 2007 to join the staff of the Pioneer Regional Educational Service Agency, where he served in different capacities over five years. In that capacity, he worked with 14 Northeast Georgia school districts, including Gainesville. During those years, he led Pioneer RESA teams that did Georgia Assessment on Performance and School Standards visits at Gainesville High, New Holland Elementary and Centennial Arts Academy.

In 2012, he was named assistant superintendent for Union County Schools and was promoted to associate superintendent two years later. He credits Gary Stepp, the superintendent who hired him in Union County, with giving him a wide range of opportunities during the past five years.

“One of his goals for me was to learn to take on more of the superintendent responsibility,” Williams said of Stepp. “He provided me with opportunities most people never get to do unless they are in a superintendent position.”

Williams applied for the job of Union County superintendent when Stepp left, but the post went to Dr. Fred Rayfield. While saying he was disappointed that he didn’t get that job, he believes the Gainesville job is the “right fit” for him.

“I’ve always felt Gainesville City has great people,” he said. “You cannot do great things in the school system without great people. When you take the traditions of Gainesville City, you take the culture that’s there, and you take the type of people they have that are dedicated to kids, that’s a foundation that can make any school system successful. When I met with the board on a few different occasions, I was very impressed with their interest in making sure the community was involved.

Williams said connecting with and getting input from the community will be priorities for him in Gainesville.

“Many times in schools, we come up with an idea without ever getting input from the community and from the parents,” he said. “Well, then it usually doesn’t succeed. If we’re going to implement a program we need to make sure the community is saying this is a program we need. I really hope the first month that is all I am doing — I’m just observing, I’m out in the community getting to know people and just hearing what people have to say.”

Williams said his approach in Gainesville will be more informal, adding that he will ask people to call him “Jeremy,” not “Dr. Williams.”

“I lead by serving,” he said. “And I try to be honest with people.”

Gainesville’s lone finalist said he is not looking to use the Gainesville job to move to a larger district, but hopes to be in the district 10 years or more.

“I don’t want to be somebody who, every three to five years, is moving my family,” Williams said. “I can retire a little early the same year my son can graduate high school. If I can do that, that means my tenure in Gainesville was successful. If I can stay beyond that, that would be great, too. I haven’t applied for many (jobs) in my career. It has to be the right fit; it has to be the right place; and it has to have the right people. And Gainesville has that.”

Those who are concerned a new superintendent will bring big changes should not worry, according to Williams.

“In education, we are inundated with change,” he said. “I think we like change just for the sake of it. It’s very important to provide stability for our students. I want us in Gainesville to be consistent in our K-12 approach. When kids go to elementary school, to the middle school, to high school, that expectation needs to be the same.“

He understands that Union County is different culturally and not as racially diverse as Gainesville, but believes he will be able to adjust.

“To me, it doesn’t matter where you go, there’s always a culture that’s there and you’ve got to adapt to and figure out what the needs are,” he said. “Kids are kids and every kid has an opportunity and should have an opportunity to be successful. Our job is to make sure that they reach the maximum of their potential while they’re with us.”

Family is important to Williams. He and his wife, Jenny, have been married for 12 years. They have two children, Molly, who turns 9 next month and Rhett, 4.

“My wife is my conscience,” he said. “She is the best support I could have ever had.”

He said he will put a priority on family and will also take them to school district functions, as he has done in Union County. He also likes working with his hands and is currently restoring an old skateboard with his kids.

Williams said his job and the job of all educators is important because of the way they can shape lives.

“So much nowadays is about accountability and testing and it’s important,” he said. “It has it’s place because you always want to improve. But how many teachers got into the profession to see how good their test scores were? Hopefully none.

“They got into it because somebody invested in their life; they got into it because they wanted to invest in somebody’s life and make a difference,” he added. “Of all the distractions that we have in education, it’s got to keep coming back to that. It’s got to come back to the awesome power we have being an educator and making an impact on somebody’s life.”

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