By Kim Underwood
Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools
APRIL 20, 2017 – In the days when he was a middle-school principal, Lionel Kato once dressed up as a circus ringmaster for a pep rally for EOG (End-of-Grade) tests.
“It was a great way to get the kids motivated,” said Jennifer Counterman, the Instructional Coach who dressed up as a clown for the rally.
Kato spent much of his early career in education in Pitt County, where Beverly Emory served as superintendent before becoming superintendent for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools. In February, Kato joined the school system here as an Instructional Superintendent, one of the newly created positions in which administrators serve as mentors for specific schools.
Some instructional superintendents have a mix of elementary, middle and high schools. As it happens, Kato works with elementary schools only.
As a person, Kato brings a lot to Winston-Salem/Forsyth County, Counterman said.
“He is a very caring person. He always tries to do what is right for kids…He will empower teachers and children to make a difference every single day.”
Jessica Avery, who is an assistant principal at North Pitt High School, worked with Kato three different times over the years.
She describes him as someone with an “all-in personality.”
“He is all-in for the teachers,” Avery said. “He is all-in with the students.”
It’s important for Kato to know who people are. He finds out the stories in the lives of students and teachers.
“He would do anything for anybody,” Avery said. “You have gotten a person who is going to have his finger on the pulse of the schools. He is going to know his people.”
Kato is there to celebrate small victories, she said. He is there to celebrate big victories.
When she became an administrator, he taught her one of the most important lessons she has learned along the way.
“Welcome to administration,” he said. “Everything is your job.”
If a driver is needed for a bus, he drives it. If he thinks that visiting a college will serve students, he escorts them to the campus. If he thinks dressing up as a football player will inspire students, he does it. If the glass in a trophy display case is broken, he is there to sweep up the mess.
He’s also an enjoyable person to be around.
“He makes me laugh constantly,” she said. “It’s not just what he says, it’s his expression.”
Kato has a doctorate from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. For his dissertation, he wrote about “culturally responsive leadership.” He earned his master’s degree at East Carolina University and his undergraduate degree at Fayetteville State University.
At the age of 40, Kato has already lived quite a life.
He and his twin brother, Donnell, were born in Brooklyn, N.Y. Their three older siblings – one brother and two sisters – were all more than a dozen years older. Their father, Mack, was a butcher and their mother, Margaret, was a pre-kindergarten teacher.
Kato’s brother is intellectually disabled. When they were growing up, Kato didn’t think about that much one way or the other. “He was just my brother,” Kato said.
Because Donnell cannot live on his own, he still lives with their father.
In Brooklyn, the family lived in a decent home on a decent block in a neighborhood that was pretty rough in spots. Because of crack and gangs, they stayed away from certain areas completely and went to others only with someone else.
Kato grew up with a sense of the importance of education and of wanting to know about the world.
“I was always fascinated with words,” he said. “I would read dictionaries.”
He also read encyclopedias – World Book, Britannica. When it came to other reading, he seldom chose to read fiction. What mattered to him were things that were real.
“I loved to read about presidents, slavery, different wars, Civil Rights.”
When everyone else in the family wanted to watch The Wheel of Fortune, he was lobbying for the nightly news.
“I wanted to watch the evening news to see what President Reagan was doing,” Kato said.
Another interest was professional wrestling. He liked the sense of showmanship and the story lines created for the wrestlers. In Brooklyn, play areas were covered with concrete or asphalt, so when he and his friends acted out their roles as wrestlers, they ended up on the hard pavement.
Although Donald Trump has come to mean very different things to people in the wider world, when Kato was growing up in New York, Trump was a highly successful businessman who did not yet have a high national profile. He liked Trump’s sense of showmanship and success. “He was getting things done.”
Martin Luther King Jr. also played a major role in Kato’s mental life – his strong character and work to ensure fairness and equity for all resonated with Kato.
As the time for Kato to go to high school approached, his parents were planning to retire and move the family to Virginia, where many members of his mother’s extended family lived.
Before that happened, his mother was driving the family to an amusement park for an annual outing when a taxi ran a red light and slammed into the family’s car. Kato’s mother and nephew were killed and other family members, including Kato, were severely injured.
The trauma to Kato’s head caused seizures. The scar from the accident is still visible on his forehead. Because he was in the hospital, Kato missed the funerals for his mother and nephew.
Kato was 12 years old. At the time, it was all too much to absorb. “I don’t think I fully processed it until I got older,” he said.
One of his sisters took on many of the responsibilities of his mother, and the family moved ahead with plans to move to Virginia. For a time, Kato stayed in Brooklyn with an aunt so that he could finish the eighth-grade.
He already knew the Hampton, Va., area from visits over the years, and, once he moved there, he liked his new home.
“I remember how smooth the roads were and how much easier it was to get around,” he said. “People were nicer. It was definitely less crime. I could walk around the block at my grandmother’s house and not feel something was going to happen.”
It was also his first time to attend a school with significant numbers of white students. At his school in New York, almost all of the students had been African-American or Puerto Rican. Although he was a bit nervous, he always got along with students from all backgrounds.
“I always tried to find common ground with people of different backgrounds,” he said.
In high school, it was not yet clear that he was going to become an educator. He made friends and did whatever everyone else was doing, such as exploring robotics. He had grown quite comfortable his new world when he found out before his junior year that the family was moving to North Carolina – to New Bern where some members of his father’s side of the family lived. His father also remarried.
From early on, the expectation was that he was going to college. But he still didn’t know whether that was a step on the way to becoming a police officer, a doctor, a lawyer or what. In high school, he participated in the Navy JROTC, and, before entering Fayetteville State, he joined the U.S. Naval Reserve and delayed entering college for a semester so that he could go to boot camp. He discovered that he liked being in the Naval Reserve.
At Fayetteville State, he received The Chancellor’s Scholarship, a full scholarship that called for such community service as tutoring and serving as a mentor for young people. He enjoyed those experiences and feels as if they had a strong impact on his life in the years that followed.
Growing up, Kato was relaxed and open with his family and friends but tended to be shy in public. His experiences with the Navy, at Fayetteville State and out in the community served to help him become more comfortable in the wider world.
At Fayetteville State, Kato had to declare a major. His mother had been a teacher. He liked learning – history in particular. So he said to himself, “Why not become a teacher?”
He became a history/education major. After graduating, he taught social studies, world geography and civics at New Bern High School. In a move to Jones County, he ended up teaching math at a middle school. Wherever he was, he liked working with young people and helping them on their path to becoming productive adults.
After 9/11, he was called to active duty in the Navy. He ended up serving two stints of active duty – one in Norfolk, Va., and another at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. He reached the rank of petty officer, first class. After a total of two years of active duty and almost 10 years of total service, he decided that he wanted to focus on being an educator and chose not to reenlist.
Thinking that he could be most effective as an administrator, he joined the N.C. Principal Fellows Program. He worked as an elementary, middle and high school assistant principal before ending up as the principal at Farmville Middle School, the school where he had served his administrative internship. That was 2009.
“Farmville was a tough school,” he said.
In the four years he was there, test scores rose and support for the school in the community increased. Kato attributes much of that to the connections he made with students, teachers, parents and people in the wider community.
“I was able to work with people. I was respectful of people.”
While at Farmville Middle, Kato was named Pitt County Schools Principal of the Year.
In addition to dressing up as a ringmaster along the way, he dressed up as Santa Claus during the holidays and visited not only with students at the middle school but also with students at the elementary school.
In 2013, he became the principal of North Pitt High School.
“I chose to go to the lowest-performing high school in the district,” he said.
He did that in part because he wanted to show that he had what it took to move another school in the right direction. During his time at North Pitt, the school achieved high growth for two consecutive years and made other dramatic improvements.
When he learned from Emory that a unique position was open here, he decided to apply as a way of taking the next step in challenging himself and in working to suppor others.
“The way this is arranged allows me to be of service to more schools.”
Since he has been here, he has enjoyed helping principals and brainstorming with them about potential solutions to the challenges they face.
One thing that has made an impression since he came is what support the school system has from businesses and organizations in the wider community.
“The resources here are phenomenal,” he said. “We are very resource-rich here.”
Although no situation is ever perfect, Kato said, the answer to the question “Are we set up for success?” is clear.
The elementary schools that Kato serves are: