Warren Drake did something Wednesday that he had asked the 6,000 employees of the East Baton Rouge Parish school system to do: board an un-air-conditioned bus in the middle of a summer heat wave to attend his first address.
“I know it was hot riding the bus,” Drake said, prompting groans from the audience of teachers, support workers, bus drivers and other employees. “It will be even hotter on the ride back home. You know what? Big deal.”
Drake pointed out that students will ride these buses for the next 182 days.
“If they can do it, you can do it,” he said.
And “we can do it” was the theme of his talk.
Drake, East Baton Rouge’s new school superintendent, insisted that the status quo isn’t good enough as rival schools improve their educational offerings.
“We can exist,” Drake said, “or we can pursue excellence.”
Pursuing excellence is not easy in a school system where children face deep poverty and unsafe home environments, but it’s necessary, important work, Drake told the audience gathered at Bethany World Prayer Center in Baker.
“Our children face hardship, they face obstacles, they face barriers to learning,” Drake said, “and we’ve got to remove those barriers.”
Drake said negativity is counterproductive and he expects educators to take a can-do approach to the hard job of educating more than 42,000 children returning Thursday from summer break.
“I don’t want to hear what you can’t do,” he said. “I want to hear how you’re going to do it.”
In return for meeting his high expectations for the state’s second-largest public school district, Drake is promising teachers unstinting support not just from himself but from the rest of the school system.
“This is a calling for me. We have a calling to help children,” he said. “I feel God called me to this position.”
Wednesday’s back-to-school convocation was Drake’s first speech to all school employees, who filled school buses to attend the event.
The audience included many dignitaries, including the presidents of LSU, Southern and Southeastern Louisiana universities, the chancellor of Baton Rouge Community College, Mayor-President Kip Holden, members of the local legislative delegation and representatives of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Drake took over as superintendent June 1. He spent 10 years as superintendent of the top-ranked Zachary school district and then three years as a top administrator with the Louisiana Department of Education. Prior to that, the bulk of his career was with the parish school system, starting in 1974 as a history teacher at Glen Oaks Junior High. He spent six years as principal of Tara High before heading to Zachary to launch its new, independent school district.
After Wednesday’s event, Myree Calix, a computer lab teacher at La Belle Aire Elementary, said she hadn’t heard Drake speak before.
“I was really impressed,” she said. “He seemed like a very good leader.”
Daniella Letelier, a counselor at La Belle Aire, said she appreciates Drake’s urging school employees to pay attention to how schools look and not wait for other people to improve their appearance.
“You should treat your school like your home,” Letellier said.
School employees filled almost every seat at Bethany. Ministers from the Christian church greeted each new busload of employees, handing out bottles of water, coupon books and free meal vouchers for restaurants such as Outback and P.F. Chang’s to lucky winners.
“Got to give a shout out to Capitol Middle School,” said Zack Edwards, a Bethany youth minister. “They were the first to get here this morning.”
Those in attendance were invited to a “back-to-school bash” Wednesday night at Bethany’s south campus, located off Siegen Lane.
Adonica Duggan, a spokeswoman for the school system, said Bethany donated all the freebies for the school employees.
“They told us they would like to do it as part of hosting our event,” Duggan said. “We are very grateful for their hospitality and their support as we start the new year.”
On Wednesday morning, Drake did what he asked teachers to do, boarding Bus 2402, which took him from Westdale Middle School to the church. The school has personal significance for Drake because it’s the only East Baton Rouge Parish public school he attended as a child.
Looking around, Drake remembered bits and pieces of his short time at the school, then a junior high.
“That was the industrial arts building where I got paddled on a regular basis,” Drake said with a laugh. He even remembered who did the paddling: Mr. Barrios.
Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.