For Juandiego Wade and Leah Puryear, serving on the Charlottesville School Board for 15 years has been an honor, not a chore.
The two joined the board in 2005 as part of the first elected group of representatives. They’ll wrap up their tenure at the end of this calendar year as two new members join the panel. During Thursday’s meeting, community members thanked them for their service and said they’ll be missed. However, the duo leaves a lasting legacy.
“To the remaining school board members and to the new ones coming in, you have tough shoes to fill because there is only one Leah Wilson Puryear,” said Mitsuko Clemmons-Nazeer, assistant director of human resources for the school division. “… We are grateful that you have changed our world for the better.”
Thursday was the final regular board member for Wade and Puryear. During their time on the board, the school division navigated the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic and has seen vast improvements in its graduation rate, with Charlottesville High School setting records in recent years. The board also overhauled gifted education and expanded preschool, among other changes. Former superintendent Rosa Atkins served in the top role for most of their tenure. Her successor, Royal Gurley Jr., took over Oct. 1.
“It is time for us to continue to soar,” Puryear said. “Under the leadership of Dr. Royal Gurley Jr., the Charlottesville City Schools are bound for greatness. With his love and passion and caring, everyone — students, family staff and administrators — will continue to soar. I know that the CCS family will not let him down.”
During a lengthy public comment session to kick off Thursday’s meeting, fraternity and sorority members called in to praise the two board members along with school staff members and former board members. Even family members joined the fete.
“You guys have been speaking about how she has been a champion for the children and the communities,” said Paula Puryear, Leah’s daughter. “She has been that same figure in my life. It’s such an honor to share this afternoon with you all and hear a glimpse of the impact she’s had on your community. Leah, I love you. I’m so proud of you. You are a lion and a champion, and I couldn’t be happier to be your daughter.”
Later in the meeting, Wade’s older brother and Puryear’s sister called in to praise their siblings’ service to the community.
Wade was elected to the Charlottesville City Council last month and will start in that role Jan. 1. Puryear sought a fifth term on the school board but didn’t receive enough votes in the November election.
Puryear recently retired as director of Upward Bound, a program based at the University of Virginia that helps equip high school students with the tools needed for success in college. She’s led that program for nearly 40 years, according to Wynne Stuart, associate provost at UVa for academic support and classroom management.
“Leah has positively affected the lives of not only the individual students, but also many families,” Stuart said during the meeting.
At the start of Thursday’s meeting, school board chairwoman Lisa Larson-Torres and Gurley surprised both with resolutions honoring them.
Puryear said she has grown exponentially during her time on the board.
“It has been an honor and a privilege,” she said, choking up as she recounted how the board and school system helped her 10 years ago when her husband died. “… Because you are a true family.”
With new board members Dom Morse and Emily Dooley and a new superintendent, Wade said that he felt like the school system was in “wonderful hands” and ready to move forward.
“It’s been a wonderful journey to do so many incredible things over the last 15 years to see this division grow and make big decisions and have the impact that we’ve had over the last 15 years,” he said, adding that he couldn’t have done it without his wife, Claudette.
In an interview Friday, Wade said that some highlights from the last 15 years include the focus on diversity and addressing the fact students don’t all start school at the same level, as well as the introduction of laptops and tablets for most students.
“Now, it’s so normal to have them but 10 years ago, we were one of the first in the state to introduce one-to-one,” Wade said.
Wade said that his time on the School Board motivated him to seek a spot on City Council and that the board would have a friend and colleague on council.
“I know what the issues that you address and I know ultimately what we want for the young people that are here, that it’s the foundation,” Wade said. “All the other issues that we have, we have to take care of our young people, so that they can take care of us.”
As a councilor, Wade will have a final say in whether the city should move forward on the $75 million renovation and expansion of Buford Middle School.
Wade acknowledged in the interview that the City Council has to balance many priorities but has not significantly invested in large school construction projects. He wants to see the city better plan for the larger projects, setting aside funds over time.
“We should be able to do this,” he said.
Llezelle Dugger, a former board member and current clerk of the Charlottesville Circuit Court, said Wade and Puryear took her under their wings when she joined the board in 2008.
“They taught me what this whole system is about,” she said. “They taught me what it meant to care about all the kids, not just mine. Because if we care about all the kids, my kids are going just fine.”
Similarly, current board member Lashundra Bryson Morsberger said Puryear was of great help when she started on the board in 2020.
“We will move forward and will continue to do the work, but you will be missed,” she said. “I appreciate you because you were doing the work before it was popular and you were doing the work because you wanted children who looked like me and you to know that there was someone who represented them on the School Board.”
Other board members praised their outgoing colleagues in the meeting for providing institutional knowledge over the years and helping them learn the ropes of the school system.
Jesaun Johnson, a sophomore at Charlottesville High School, said he was grateful to get to know Wade and Puryear while serving as a student representative to the board last school year.
“They made my experience as school board representative as comfortable and as amazing as possible,” Johnson said, calling Puryear a mentor. “… She was always there for me and even after my term as school board representative ended, she kept in contact with me over the summer just to check on me and to make sure I was OK.”
Pamela Brown, a teacher at Charlottesville High School and sorority sister of Puryear’s, said that Puryear has been a calming presence.
“Personally, Leah has been a mentor, a friend, a sister, and sounding board for many, many — we won’t say how many — but a whole lot of years,” Brown said. “ … She’ll be greatly missed here at Charlottesville City Schools for her sound advice and logical mind.”
Luella Anderson, an instructional coach at Jackson-Via Elementary in her 33rd year with the school system, said that Puryear was more than a School Board member to her.
“You have been an asset to our district and the surrounding counties you work with,” she said, pointing out that how Puryear became a surrogate parent to one of her students when she taught kindergarten. “I truly thank you for your support for that student and for me as I was teaching him.”