Damieon Mills has thrown his share of Hail Mary passes. Alvin Stewart has drawn up more than a few plays designed to win basketball games in the final seconds.
Can they team up with a new principal and another basketball coach with some notable ties of his own to help Capitol High make the most of a fresh start?
“We get a chance to re-brand the school with an academic program and an athletic program,” first-year Capitol Principal Onetha Albert said. “Even going back to the original gives us a chance to tie things together … the past and the future.”
Rumors about the future of the North 23rd Street school with a proud tradition have circulated throughout Baton Rouge and south Louisiana since the spring.
Because of poor academic performance, the school has been targeted for makeovers in the past. It was re-christened Capitol High Pre-College Academy for Boys and Capitol High Pre-College Academy for Girls just a few years ago by the East Baton Rouge Parish School System.
When the school was taken over by the state-run Recovery School District, the local 100 Black Men Charter School Initiative got involved and joined forces with the for-profit group EdisonLearning, which began running the school in 2008.
In February, 100 Black Men severed its ties with Edison, then returned the school’s charter to the state in May. Skeptics believed the school would be closed and the remaining 160 students would be dispersed among EBR area schools. A total of 30 employees were laid off last month.
Another new era
Enter Albert, a Glen Oaks High graduate, who built a successful engineering magnet program at Scotlandville Middle Magnet. Her task is to make a success of the school now being run by the RSD.
Albert said she is planning a three-step approach that includes building an engineering program at Capitol. Albert also is initiating a fine arts program that will be led by newly hired boys basketball coach Katrell Dixon, and an honors program that will include advance placement courses for college credit. Dixon is the son of Ellender High-Houma girls basketball coach Ken Dixon, a friend and rival of Stewart.
Though she has only been on the job officially for five days, Albert did plenty of advance legwork. She contacted one of her former classmates, ex-Glen Oaks and LSU standout Gabe Northern, who gave her the phone number of legendary Capitol football coach Roman Bates. That call led Albert to Stewart, the lone holdover on the Capitol staff.
“The thing that impresses me about him (Stewart) is his passion,” Albert said. “This is his school; he graduated from here, he’s been here 25 years. You need that passion and experience.”
Albert’s announcement the school would return to its original name, Capitol High, during a Wednesday meeting with parents and alumni elicited applause.
Back to the future
“When you look at the front of the school right now there are two names out there,” Stewart said. “You have to know who you are and have a sense of who you are. I think this (going to Capitol High) helps do that. But there is a lot of other work to do.”
“The community is very impressed with Miss Albert. They like her ideas. Now we have to follow through on those.”
Part of following through was the addition of Mills, a Capitol High quarterback for Bates from 1991-95, earlier this week. The former West Virginia Tech player coached South Plaquemines to a 10-4 record and the Class 1A semifinals last fall. He left SPHS in January and was organizing youth football camps in Florida.
“This is home,” Mills said. “There was no way I could turn this job down. Since the meeting (Albert’s meeting with parents and alumni) I’ve talked to some of the kids.
“They were unsure about the future … about whether there would be a football team or if the school would be open. They had to put themselves in a good situation to move on.
“Now I think we have something to offer here. I hope we can add freshmen, keep the kids who were already planning to come back and hopefully get some of the kids who were planning to go somewhere else to come back.”
To date, Albert has hired a staff of eight, including the three coaches. She said she plans to hire one more assistant football coach and hopes to land teachers who can also coach volleyball and track among the remaining four faculty members she plans to hire.
Heavy hitting questions
While Capitol can utilize nonfaculty coaches for football, player numbers will be an issue. Questions about the school’s future led a number of prospective student-athletes to transfer during the 2010-11 school year.
Capitol, a Class 2A semifinalist just two years ago, had approximately 10 players report for spring practice with former coach Chadwick Germany, now an assistant coach at Southern University. Enrollment figures once estimated between 200 to 250 students have been downgraded, leaving the Lions with a 1A enrollment.
Despite the not-so-rosy outlook, Stewart said Capitol plans to field a varsity football team in 2011. Mills plans to hold his first conditioning workouts Monday morning. Along with workouts, Mills wants the players involved in painting and cleaning up the existing locker rooms.
“It can be real tough,” Stewart said of the football situation. “We have to make it work. Our biggest class may be freshmen, but that is something you can build on.”
The outlook for other sports is better, numbers wise. Stewart expects to have five or six girls basketball players returning and says eight or nine boys basketball players are expected back.
Academics plus athletics
Dixon, most recently an assistant at Capitol’s rival McKinley, has a unique role he plans to embrace. A member of the Screen Actors Guild, Dixon has appeared in 16 Louisiana movie projects, including the “Battle of Los Angeles” and “Hurricane Season.”
“Athletics is just one tool to help kids find their way to a better life,” Dixon said. “Academics is the key and that’s something we’re going to stress here.”
All three coaches said the previous initiative that provided study halls and tutoring help will likely be expanded. Smaller class sizes should be a plus with teachers utilizing only a small portion of the school that housed more than 1,000 students a decade ago.
“We want people to understand that their children are coming here to learn, not to play sports,” Stewart said. “Academics has to be the foundation.”
In addition to working to complete her staff, Albert has been busy trying to secure means to fund school activities, including athletics.
Stewart has a combined record of 777-339, including a 434-94 record in girls basketball with 10 state titles in a 12-year span. He sums up the situation this way, using a story that involved Bates.
“This won’t be easy,” Stewart said. “Coach Bates used to tell me, ‘Never complain about what you don’t have. Your job is to do the best with what you’ve got.’ ”