Barbara Haywood approaches her job on the York County School Board the same way today as she did 25 years ago – collecting all the information she can.
Serving the constituents of York County’s schools – its students, parents and employees – requires making tough decisions. For Haywood, that means approaching the issues fully briefed.
“I want to hear the good, the bad and the ugly,” she said.
Haywood has been a fixture on the school board since 1989. Many of her constituents have never known a board without her presence, but her path to YCSD was unexpected.
Haywood grew up in Albermarle County and attended Hampton Institute – now Hampton University – to study nursing. While she was a student there, she met the man who became her husband.
After a brief time working in Charlottesville, Haywood returned to southeast Virginia, working at Hampton University for 17 years. The Haywoods settled in York County, where her husband had grown up, and started a family.
Haywood’s career trajectory changed in 1989 when she was asked to serve on the York County School Board.
At first, she was unsure what to do with the offer. Her children needed her – her youngest was 3 years old at the time. She did not know all the position entailed, or how much time she would have to dedicate to school business.
But she also felt a responsibility to serve. Her mother was an elementary school teacher and her father was a community activist – working for the benefit of others was a family tradition.
Encouraged by friends and family, she accepted the appointment and took her seat on the board in August 1989 — the first black woman to hold public office in York County.
In those first meetings, Haywood said she was mostly quiet.
“I observed and I listened,” she said. “I participated in the state professional development for school board members and tried to figure out ‘What is your role?’ ‘What is your duty?’”
Haywood was adjusting to her role on the board, but she was still a YCSD parent. Early in her tenure on the board, those two roles came into conflict. The superintendent requested Haywood’s husband be the one involved in school activities with their children, thinking parents and staff would not be able to differentiate between Haywood the board member and Haywood the parent.
“I told her, ‘I’m going to pick up my kids,’” she said.
Haywood was still learning about her new position when a crisis hit the school division: asbestos. One month after she was sworn in to the school board, asbestos was discovered at Grafton Bethel Elementary School. The building would have to be shut down and extensively renovated.
“That was not part of the orientation,” Haywood said.
The situation at Grafton Bethel was serious, but Haywood said it spurred the division into action. YCSD began to examine its other buildings for asbestos contamination, and discovered Magruder Elementary was in the same condition. For one year during renovations, Magruder students were sent to Queens Lake Middle for classes, while Queens Lake students were shifted to Bruton High.
The experience was difficult, but Haywood said it taught her a valuable lesson as a public servant: the value of transparency.
“Parents and students want transparency,” she said. “We identified a problem, we didn’t wait for outside sources to tell us. We went to the community and told them. Then we created a plan.”
Haywood has embraced that idea of open dialogue throughout her tenure on the board, from dealing with constituents to debating with superintendents.
“With [former superintendent] Steve Staples, we knew each other,” she said. “I would just call him up and say, ‘How are we handling this?’ And we could always agree to disagree, but we always had that respect.”
Haywood said the achievements that made her most proud during her time on the board were narrowing the achievement gap for black students in the school division and assigning Registered Nurses to every building. Her main focus, though, remained on improving the quality of education for all students in York County.
“We want student achievement – for them to be healthy, lifelong learners,” she said. “What we have to do is step up to the plate.”