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Marvin Connelly Jr. ’97MED, ’00MED Named A. Craig Phillips 2024 North Carolina Superintendent of the Year

Thirty years before Cumberland County Schools Superintendent Marvin Connelly Jr.  ’97MED, ’00MED was named the A. Craig Phillips 2024 North Carolina Superintendent of the Year, he was invited on a school visit that included a stop at a special education classroom for students with behavioral disorders.

Connelly had recently moved back to Raleigh after serving as an officer in the U.S. Army, and he thought he might work for the Central Intelligence Agency or a similar organization, until he started talking to the students in that room. 

“I sat down and started telling them war stories about my time in Iraq,” Connelly said. “And they settled down. They got quiet. They were engaged. At the end of the day, the teacher said, ‘Hey, can you come back tomorrow?'” 

Connelly came back to the school the next day, a day that turned into a week, which turned into a month volunteering in that special education classroom. Eventually, Connelly realized education was the field where he wanted to spend the rest of his career. 

“I made my decision,” Connelly said. “I’m going to go back to NC State, I’m going to get my master’s degree in special education, and I’m going to become a special education teacher.”

Connelly had earned his bachelor’s degree in political science from NC State in 1985, but it was that decision to earn his master’s degree at the College of Education that would launch his decades-long career as an educator. For years, he served as a special education teacher assistant and special education teacher before deciding he wanted to make an impact at the policy level and returning to the College of Education to earn a second master’s degree, this time in school administration

“What I learned at NC State was not only academically empowering but socially and culturally empowering to me, and has prepared me for every step of my career,” Connelly said. “NC State is a very diverse university that has also prepared me to be able to function and lead in diverse school systems with a diverse student population and faculty and staff population.”

Connelly then held roles as a principal and district administrator and earned a doctoral degree in educational leadership from East Carolina University before being named Cumberland County Schools superintendent in 2018. 

Only a year later, however; Connelly was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer in his jaw. Halfway through a lengthy surgery, his family was told he likely would not survive.  

“Five years later, here I am … I am in full remission, cancer-free.” Connelly said. “God performed a miracle. I’m also a pastor in the church, so I know that God left me here for three reasons: My family, my 11 grandchildren; my church and for serving students in public education.”

When Connelly was named superintendent of the year, he said he saw it as an acknowledgment of not only his service, but the effort of his entire school district and community. 

“We have 115 extraordinary superintendents here in North Carolina,” Connelly said. “They serve over one million students in North Carolina public schools. To be able to represent all of the superintendents is humbling to me. This recognition represents not just my leadership but, more importantly, represents and reflects the hard work being done by our teachers, principals, district leadership and families in Cumberland County and certainly the focus of our 50,000 students on learning and their future.”

In receiving the honor, Connelly was in particular acknowledged for implementing the Cumberland Commitment: Strategic Plan, which he describes as having four strategic priorities focused on successful students, premier professionals, an exceptional environment and a committed community. 

The goal, Connelly said, is to prioritize academic instruction while also serving the emotional and mental health needs of employees and students. In shaping policy, he hopes to ensure every student has access to high-quality instruction and achieves success. 

“I enjoy every year seeing almost 4,000 students walk across the stage and receive their diploma,” Connelly said. “Graduation is like the Super Bowl for education. It’s our Super Bowl; it’s our March Madness, but it happens in May and June.”

Three decades into his career, Connelly said his desire to make an impact on young people’s lives remains as strong as when he first stepped foot in the classroom. 

“I know why I became an educator, and I remind myself of that every day — to help students, especially those who are disproportionately affected by suspensions, by behavior, by access to academic programs,” Connelly said. “So, I remain in the fight.”