One of incoming East Baton Rouge Parish Schools Superintendent Warren Drake’s mantras is: It’s people, not programs, that make schools work. Barely a week on the job, he’s starting to identify who those people are.
Drake already has placed 19 new principals at Baton Rouge public schools. Most are filling vacancies. In five cases, though, the new principals are replacing current school leaders.
Drake also has hired at least one new top administrator in Michelle Clayton, a former top lieutenant from the top-ranked Zachary school district.
On Wednesday, before a luncheon crowd at the Rotary Club of Baton Rouge, Drake outlined his thoughts on the second-largest school district in Louisiana. While he sees a number of areas that need improvement, Drake said he does not see himself as needing to fix the school system.
“This system is not broken. There are good leaders and good schools. What they need is some direction,” Drake told a packed room at Drusilla Seafood.
Drake said he sympathizes with the movement to create a city of St. George because he wants better schools, too.
“I hope they don’t create St. George, because we’re getting ready to do what they’ve have wanted all along,” Drake said.
He said school principals and teachers need to lead as much as he does, that he doesn’t want them to simply wait for him to tell them what to do.
“The people in the organization need to own their decisions,” he said.
Drake offered some initial direction in a First 100 Days plan he released weeks ago. On Friday, he plans to give the School Board a reorganization plan to consider, and by July 1, he said, he hopes to fill in its blanks.
In an interview with The Advocate, Drake said he is planning to merge many positions in order to create a clearer chain of command and make the school system more efficient. Some people will lose their jobs, though Drake said he encourages them to apply for other openings in the system. He promised not to overload people in these new positions.
“I wouldn’t put anyone in a position they couldn’t handle,” Drake said.
Clayton, who may end up as Drake’s No. 2 administrator, previously worked as a top lieutenant to Drake for years, and for the past three years has served as executive director of academics under Drake’s successor in Zachary, Scott Devillier. Clayton also spent seven years as a chemistry teacher at Baton Rouge’s Lee High. She officially starts Monday.
Drake told Rotarians that since he started as a consultant May 4, he’s visited 30-plus schools. While he’s seen good things, he said he’s been often disappointed, especially with the physical appearance of many schools.
“I don’t think there’s been high enough expectations,” he said. “They’ve been too low.”
He said that poor outward appearance is one reason why some families are choosing private and charter schools. By August, that’s going to change.
“You’re going to see a lot of difference in these schools by the start of school, both outside and inside,” he said.
Improving customer service is another must. Drake recalled a school where the principal and other office staff all had designated parking spots in front of the school. He said he told the principal to reopen those spaces to visitors.
“The principal should be the first person at that school each day and the last person to leave, so you can park any place you want,” Drake recalled saying.
Scotlandville High, which has more than 1,400 students, is the largest school with a new principal. Incoming leader Calvin Nicholas is replacing Harry Wright, who has been the school’s interim principal since January, when longtime and much-loved principal Howard Davis became ill. Wright is being moved to assistant principal at McKinley High.
Nicholas comes to Scotlandville from Baker High, where he was assistant principal. Nicholas is a former football star, starting at McKinley High and then moving to Grambling University. He also played one season of pro football with the San Francisco 49ers.
Another notable leadership change is at Baton Rouge Center for Visual and Performing Arts, a source of recent parent unrest. Myra Jordan, who took over in January, is stepping aside for Candice Hartley, most recently an assistant principal at Sherwood Middle School.
BRCVPA’s assistant principal, Charlotte Britten, has been promoted to principal at nearby Buchanan Elementary. Jordan and Buchanan’s most recent principal, Vachella Jones, are awaiting reassignment to new jobs.
Drake told the Rotary Club that there are more changes to come.
“This was a great school system at one time,” he said. “We are not a bad school system. And we are going to get better.”