Warren Drake suggested the best way East Baton Rouge Parish schools can grow in public support and student enrollment is to invite the community back to the schools, support teachers and make clear that parents are the customer and that education is about what’s best for kids.
“Everyone has to feel like they are important and that they are a piece of the school,” Drake said during his job interview Thursday.
Drake, the lone finalist for superintendent of state’s second-largest school system, fielded questions from the nine School Board members and an audience of more than 100 people. A former teacher, assistant principal and principal of Tara High, Drake saw many friendly faces in the crowd gathered as the school system’s Instructional Resource Center.
“I know the people I worked with when I was here,” he said. “There are great schools, great people, and someone just needs to pull it all together.”
The board is expected to hire Drake when it meets again April 2. It’s not clear when he would start.
“I could be here tomorrow if you need me,” Drake joked at one point.
Drake gave the board a 100-day plan that envisions starting in May and continuing to the start of 2015-16 school year in August. But he said he recognizes that outgoing Superintendent Bernard Taylor’s contract continues through June 30.
Taylor has shown no signs of interest in leaving any earlier.
Drake told the board he would work closely with them.
“I consider it my job as a superintendent to make the board look good,” he said.
He said he doesn’t dislike the growing competition to the school system from home schools and charter schools but said his allegiance is clear: “I’m not going to work for anybody but the East Baton Rouge Parish schools.
“I’m passionate about the place, and I’m going to fight for us,” he said.
Drake spent much of his career in East Baton Rouge Parish schools, including serving as principal of Tara High School from 1996 to 2002. But he’s best known for being the founding superintendent of Zachary schools for a decade, from the time they broke away from the parish school system to 2012. The new school district doubled its enrollment during that time and shot to the top of the state’s academic rankings and has been there ever since.
Since 2012, Drake has worked with the Louisiana Department of Education as a top administrator, working with 19 school districts.
When the discussion on Thursday turned to efforts to get back the Baton Rouge schools that the state agency has taken over since 2008, Drake highlighted the “great relations” he has there.
When pressed for details on his negotiating strategy, Drake demurred. “I don’t want to give away my secrets tonight, but I do have a plan.”
Drake noted that north Baton Rouge, where most of those takeovers occurred, is becoming an educational desert, especially at the secondary school level. He said he’s prepared to build a new school there if he can’t get one of the takeovers back.
Drake spoke at length about how he would work to improve the school system. He said he plans to get school staff beyond the idea of what he’s calling “One Team, One Mission.”
“You have to talk about philosophy, mission, goals, before you can talk about details,” he said.
Drake said he believes in preventing or quickly dealing with small problems. “If you take care of the little bitty things, the small things, the rest takes care of itself.”
He said he prizes teachers and expects other administrators to do the same.
“They are valued. They will get support whenever they need it. They will get professional development.”
Part of that is having a consistent approach to student discipline. “Disruptive students are going to removed from the classroom.”
Drake said he is a positive guy full of energy — he said a coworker calls him the “Energizer Bunny.”
“I’ve loved every position I’ve had in education,” he said.
Drake said East Baton Rouge Parish should have a higher ranking among public school systems in the state.
“This is a capital city in the state. We need to have the best school system. It may not be No. 1, but it needs to be respected.”
Drake said he hopes that good things will come quickly and that things will reach a tipping point for the better, but he said he’s not sure how quickly that will happen.
“If I were the board, I would expect quick results, and that’s what I expect of me,” he said.
Board member Vereta Lee gave Drake some parting advice as the interview ended.
“Just get ready,” she said. “It’s going to hit you hard and heavy.”
Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.