Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK -- Melissa Jones Clarke, principal of Willow Charter Academy.

Editor’s Note: This is the third and final installment of a Sunday Q&A series on the founding principals of Lafayette Parish’s three new charter schools.

AGE: 43.

POSITION: Founding principal of Willow Charter Academy.

Melissa Jones Clarke moved to Lafayette this summer as founding principal of Willow Charter Academy, which starts classes in a few weeks. She previously opened another National Heritage Academies-managed school in Atlanta. An award winning educator with 19 years experience, she has been recognized for her skill in closing the achievement gap in urban schools.

The announcement of your selection as principal said you are working on your doctorate in education leadership with a minor in urban education. What’s your dissertation on?

It is on “Against the Odds: A Qualitative Study on the Retention of Successful Urban School Leaders.” When you walk in schools and you get that feeling of: ‘How can I work here? How can I get my kid in this school?’ — that building walks in the shadow of that principal. Then, if you add more demographics to it: high free and reduced lunch, high-minority, high-poverty and it’s also a high-performing school, you wonder: ‘What are they doing? What’s the magic behind that? Are there things that those leaders just do? Is it inherent in them?’

Is it magic or is it something else?

The No. 1 thing I’m finding that has commonality among different regions and demographics is school culture. Once it’s established and embedded, that then drives the student achievement in the building. That engages the employees on staff. That brings in parent relationships. It starts with culture and opening car doors and greeting that student by first name and greeting that parent. Doing it the Willow Way. The magic happens in the classroom, so you’ve got to hire the right folks. You’ve got to give them quality professional development. That’s one of the challenges of opening a new school because you’re building a staff who probably doesn’t know each other.

How long have you worked for National Heritage Academies?

This is my fifth year, and I traditionally have worked in public schools, and that experience ranges from outside the city of Chicago to metro Atlanta. My teaching experience was a mix between urban and affluent schools. In my second half of my teaching career, I was placed in more of an urban environment with diverse learners from Vietnam, Mexico — just all types of kids. I had a passion to work with kids who were two to four years below grade level. I learned early on from some great mentors who coached me, it really does not matter the ZIP code of that child. It doesn’t matter if they qualify for free or reduced lunch because that just determines how they eat, not how they learn. I learned early on in my career that we don’t pity; we teach.

What’s enrollment like at the school?

We’re just a couple of students short. We’re looking for 480 to 492 students, and we’re at a little over 450 currently. Parents are coming in hourly to drop off last-minute paperwork.

Marsha Sills covers education for The Acadiana Advocate. Follow her on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.