By Dave Russell


At its July meeting, the Jackson County Board of Education announced some high-profile personnel moves. Heather Reidinger came aboard as principal at Jackson Community School. Teri Walawender moved from principal at Blue Ridge School to take on the role of human resources director. Kheri Cowan moved from assistant to principal at Blue Ridge School.

Walawender’s commute from her home just south of Dillsboro gets a good bit shorter as she moves from Blue Ridge School to the administration building on Hospital Road.

She comes into her role as an educator and administrator, but feels confident her years in administration have prepared her for the job, she said.

Upon high school graduation in California, Walawender joined the U.S. Army. She met her future husband and a Sylva resident while serving. Following a three-year stint, she moved to North Carolina.

“I came up here to go to school,” she said. “I went to Southwestern Community College first and earned a criminal justice degree.”

She went to Western Carolina University and earned a middle grades education degree in language arts and social studies.

Her teaching career began in 1997 with five years at Macon Middle School. In 2002, she moved to Jackson County to work at Fairview Elementary for five years and a couple more at Cullowhee Valley.

Walawender enrolled in the Principal Fellow Program at WCU. In 2011, she started at Blue Ridge Early College as an assistant principal/lead teacher. Two years later she was named principal of Blue Ridge School.

“I think every educational leader has to start first with care for the human being,” she said of her educational philosophy. “I don’t think you can be an effective educator and effective leader if you are not first starting with the human being in front of you and doing everything else as a means to support the growth and development of that human being.

“That’s one thing that has been a driving force for me at Blue Ridge is that every child matters and the whole child matters.”

Walawender occupied her new office on Aug. 2. 

Drawing top talent to Jackson County is high on her list. 

“What I want my position to be is to be an advocate for our schools, and I want to be a voice that is able to share why people would want to be part of this system,” she said. “Right now education is really challenging, so finding a way to promote our system as a place that people need to be and want to be.”

Her husband of almost 30 years, Tom, is currently a school resource officer at Fairview. 

“We raised both of our children in Jackson County Public Schools, and we currently have two grandchildren attending Jackson County Public Schools,” she said. “We appreciate the experiences that our children and grandchildren have received as a part of JCPS.”

Walawender lives off U.S. 23/441 south of Dillsboro in the Turtle Creek area.

Meanwhile, Kheri Cowan’s journey to work changed very little. Instead of driving from her home in Webster and walking into the assistant principal’s office at Blue Ridge Early College and Blue Ridge School, she walks into Walawender’s old office. The schools each have a principal, but share an assistant principal.

Cowan graduated from New Bern High School in 2000 and received an undergraduate degree from WCU in radio and electronic communications in 2004.

“I went to work as a substitute teacher in Cherokee in 2005,” she said. “I really enjoyed working with the kids, and I knew then that I wanted to go into education. I became a teacher’s assistant at Cherokee High School.”

She earned her masters degree in special education, specifically working with children with disabilities in 2011, she said.

She completed WCU’s post-masters school administration program in 2019.

She taught at Cherokee Elementary until August, 2019, then transitioned to Jackson County Public Schools to become assistant principal at Blue Ridge School and Blue Ridge Early College. 

“And now I am principal at Blue Ridge School,” she said. 

Even though she is just moving a few doors down the hall, there are still things to be excited about, she said.

“The district has implemented county-wide the use of Fundations along with Wit & Wisdom and some other resources to really target reading for our kids, just making sure they have a nice strong foundation of basic reading skills,” she said. 

“I believe that all children are able to learn and that we as a public school system should really strive to educate them, and that means having good teachers and doing the best practices for student learning,” Cowan said.”It really comes down to ‘What does the child need help with and how can we as educators help them meet that?’ We know that all children can learn.”