2020 Durham Public Schools’ Principal of the Year Jackie Tobias has led and mentored high school students for nearly a decade
By Marie Muir | Photo by John Michael Simpson
City of Medicine Academy Principal Jackie Tobias can relate to her students who struggle to “fit in” at school. Many who know her would be surprised to learn that the 2020 Durham Public Schools Principal of the Year, known for her captivating intercom announcements and killer fashion sense, was not always a confident leader.
Halfway through her own senior year of high school, Jackie’s family moved from Jamaica to Florida, and the culture shock combined with social isolation made her painfully shy and apathetic in the classroom.
“People laughed at me,” Jackie recalls. “I didn’t go to prom because I didn’t even know what the prom was.”
Nevertheless, Jackie and all six of her siblings became first-generation college students – an experience that has helped her relate to and empower both students and faculty at CMA for the past eight years.
After 15 years as a school counselor in Florida, Alabama and then North Carolina, Jackie landed her first principal role at Riverside High School in 2009. For three years, she embodied the motto “Roll, Pirates, Roll,” often arriving before sunrise and leaving after the final buzzer of that season’s sporting event.
Jackie accepted the principal position at CMA in 2013, crediting her experience at Riverside for developing her leadership skills. One lesson she learned is that “you can’t lead from your office,” she says. “It’s about being in the hallways, classrooms, talking to kids in the lunchroom. Just run, run, run.”
CMA is a magnet school with a mission to educate and train students to work in the health care and medical fields. Located on a corner of Duke Regional Hospital’s campus, the high school serves 340 students who wear color-coded scrubs based on their grade level. Staff and students connect and work intimately with the medical community throughout the year via field trips, guest speakers, job shadowing and mentoring.
Jackie attributes the school’s one-to-one electronic device program and her dedicated staff for CMA’s 100% graduation rate in 2020. She celebrated that year’s senior class with a drive-thru graduation ceremony at The Streets at Southpoint. Despite CMA’s continued success through the pandemic, Jackie laments the in-person classroom time students lost. “As a principal, I wept,” she says. “The emptiness of the hallways was deafening. I hated being here without them. I hated even more what the kids were losing.”
The mental health of her students is one of Jackie’s biggest concerns today. “If we see somebody falling off, right away it’s a group meeting,” she says. “It’s not one teacher’s problem to solve or some version of that. We’re all asking ourselves, ‘How can we help?’”
In 2021, for the sixth year in a row, every student in CMA’s senior class received a diploma – one of Jackie’s proudest achievements. This time they walked across a stage on the Durham Bulls Athletic Park field.
“While it’s a data point for the district, it’s not for me,” Jackie says. “It is a person who we have helped achieve, [just like] somebody helped me.”
When she received the honor of DPS Principal of the Year, the entire school gathered in the convocation area at CMA for a surprise rally in October 2019. “I was honored and humbled … and I just broke down,” she says. “I was speechless, which is rare.”
Editor’s Note: Jackie took over as principal at Durham School of the Arts effective Oct. 11.