“Let’s go, let’s go! Looking good, looking good, looking good!” urged the bullhorn-toting Belaire High School Principal Roy Walker as students streamed by in a school hallway.
It was less than three minutes from the start of second period at the Baton Rouge public high school, and the football-coach-turned-principal was determined to have every single student in their class on time.
“It’s bell-to-bell instruction here,” said the principal, “and it starts right when the bell rings.”
Walker had company as he went about his daily routine on Tuesday. Gary Stewart, a local business executive, spent the day shadowing Walker as part of a “Principal for A Day” initiative championed by new East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Warren Drake and organized by the nonprofit group Volunteers in Public Schools.
Stewart, an executive with Gonzales-based ERS Building Maintenance Inc., left several hours later with sore feet from following around the never-sitting Walker. He had nothing but good things to say about Walker and the staff at Belaire High.
“It exhausted me watching them,” Stewart said. “I was really impressed.”
Walker enjoyed the company.
“Usually no one can keep up (with me),” Walker said. “Gary did an excellent job of keeping up.”
Between Tuesday and Sept. 25, principals at 27 schools are scheduled to have local business or community leaders shadow them for the day. The principals will later return the favor by spending a day at the workplaces of their visitors. The hope is that these days spent together will blossom into fruitful, enduring partnerships.
Nearly 1,300 teenagers raced through the halls at Belaire as the clock ticked toward the start of second period.
“Got about 60 seconds. Sixty seconds. We need to move!” Walker shouted.
A few kids don’t make it. They are all getting tardies. Starting his second year as principal of the D-rated public school, Walker is serious about kids being in class and learning. He applies this standard to student-athletes, as well. “Four tardies in a week and you’re benched,” he said.
It was just after 8 a.m., but Walker had been at work since just after 6 a.m. He wouldn’t call it quits until 7 p.m.
“Pretty much a normal day,” Walker said later, matter-of-factly.
It wasn’t normal to Stewart, a 1981 graduate of Belaire High who has not visited his alma mater in 30 years.
“(Walker) will come shadow me for a day and my day will be much less intense,” Stewart said, adding that his job involves less standing and more sitting to work at a computer.
He said he appreciates how adept Walker was at sensing and heading off problems.
“I think it’s the way he handles the kid who is just on the edge of misbehavior,” Stewart said. “He has a bullhorn, but he also put his hand on their shoulder, showed some caring and compassion.”
The barrel-chested Walker, who said he bench presses 420 pounds, is clearly someone not to be trifled with.
When athletes at the school wanted permission to wear shorts for a day, something Walker wasn’t about to let happen, rather than just saying “No,” the principal issued a challenge: The students could wear shorts if they could find a student who could bench press more than him.
The students kept wearing their long pants.
Walker and Stewart bonded over their athletic glory days. Walker played running back, safety and corner on his football team at Tylertown High School in south Mississippi; Stewart played starting quarterback for the Belaire High Bengals his senior year.
Athletics were clearly key to Stewart’s high school experience. He lit up as the two walked into the locker room and he saw his old locker, No. 5, still there.
“I remember how all the boys would sit here,” he said, pointing to the back commons area, located next to the gym. “They weren’t going to catch us in the library.”
Ironically, the library-averse former athlete became an unlikely best-selling author in 2014 with the publication of “The Most Dangerous Animal of All.”
In that book, Stewart and co-author Susan Mustafa write about the adopted Stewart’s search for his biological father. That search took a dark turn as Stewart found evidence that convinced him that the man was actually the infamous Zodiac Killer, a serial killer in northern California in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Stewart has become an advocate for literacy; he currently serves on the board of the Adult Literacy Advocates of Greater Baton Rouge.
Stewart spoke at length Tuesday with Madonna Rogers, an English teacher at Belaire.
Rogers showed Stewart her “Data Wall.” On this wall, she displays the percentage of students in each of her classes who are on track gradewise and the rate they attend school. Her class goal is 90 percent proficiency academically and 95 percent attendance. The classes with higher attendance clearly were getting better grades.
Rogers also has gotten other English teachers to do the same, sparking competition between the different classes. Walker is considering having more teachers follow their example.
“Kids love competition,” he said.
Stewart asked Rogers what is her most effective tool as a teacher.
“Letting them know I care,” Rogers responded immediately. “I tell them all the time that I have more faith in them than they have in themselves,” she added.
Stewart and Walker began talking Tuesday about ways Stewart and his company can help. Stewart said ERS — he is vice president of Delta Tech Service, an ERS subsidiary — employs plenty of people who haven’t gone to college.
Some needs will take time, but some things can happen immediately. For instance, in the school’s welding lab, Stewart noticed a shortage of safety goggles, something his company can easily supply the school.
Walker’s commitment to the students of Belaire stood out to Stewart, as did the sacrifice he makes to keep that commitment.
“He said to me over and over again that he does it for the kids, because he loves the kids,” Stewart said. “I just wonder how long someone can continue that pace and intensity.”