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45 Years of Educating

I am "full". I was asked to give reflections at a retirement luncheon for my former high school principal. Seated in the room was some of the state of Florida's premiere educators: Superintendents, principals, teachers, college & city officials. The "who's who" in Jacksonville. I felt honored and humbled to be asked to not only represent her former students but also Raines High School. Mrs. Daniels was a "tough" leader. Many did not agree with all of her decisions, but I know today she made every decision with "what was best for students" in mind. Congrats Mrs. Daniels on retiring after 45 years in education. Below are the remarks I delivered at the event.

Picture it.

The year is 2002. You are an educator and you have been recently assigned to lead a high school as its first female principal. This is, in fact, an honor. However, as they appoint you to the position they tell you about the school. This high school has an overall school grade of an “F”. This high school has a minority rate of 100% and the percent of students who are reading at grade level is 9%. When this school appears on the news it’s mostly because of an athletic accomplishment or something bad that has happened. Welcome to Raines High School in the summer of 2002 when Mrs. Carol Daniels was appointed as the schools principal.

I remember that summer, being in band camp and hearing that we had a new principal. “I heard we have a new principal and it’s a lady one of the band members said.” Somebody else spoke out, “Yeah I heard that too and I hope they let us have a good senior year.”

The last school year for the senior class of 2003, started off as any other senior year. We were excited to be entering our final year of high school and looking forward to all of the activities that came with being a senior: homecoming, prom and of course the end of the year activities.

On the first day of school, we woke up early and rushed to the campus. You see at Raines the seniors had other activities and privileges that seniors looked forward to. The Northwest Classic Week activities, the Mock Wedding and being assigned a red locker in the gym building.

We got an indication on how those events would turn out on the first day of school. You see it had been a custom for the administration to host a “First Day of School” assembly. This assembly would introduce the students to the administration, its student leaders and give the vision and focus for the school for that school year. The seniors, however, looked forward to being seated in chairs on the floor. While all other underclassmen would be seated in the stands.

Well on the first day of school, instead of going to the gym for the assembly, all students went straight to class.

Fast forward to the week of the Northwest Classic. The mock funeral was canceled. "You will not make a mockery of the African American family", she said.

Now in her defense, there was compromise and we were instead allowed to have a “Mock Trial”.

You see there was a constant theme in Mrs. Daniels’ leadership. A focus on academics and excellence! “As long as I am the principal of this school there will be excellence”, she stated.

Raines was the school that had been built specifically for African Americans at a time when students in Jacksonville, of different races, did not attend school together. History taught us that a man named Dr. Andrew A. Robinson had started telling these students of this new, African American High school that they were Ichiban (Japanese for number one). So excellence was what she demanded. Staying focused on academic achievements was what she was attempting to instill in us. This was William Marion Raines Senior High School after all, wasn’t it?

Her leadership began to experience success. The class of 2003 was the first class that had to pass the FCAT in order to receive a diploma and by the end of her first year, Raines moved off of the states “F” list. She also rewarded our success. My classmates still brag about their “I passed the FCAT first time around” shirts that students received. We had honor roll cookouts and went on senior trips.

However, we all know that sometimes people only focus on the negative and that’s exactly what some of the seniors did. They just didn’t see the good and by the end of the 2002-2003 school year, the class of 2003 had enough.

It came time for us to graduate. On the day of commencement, the student body and the community did something so despicable that to this day when I tell people what class I graduated in I get negative remarks.

As Mrs. Daniels approached the podium to accept the senior class from the class president and deliver her principal address, she was booed. It was loud, it was inappropriate and it was definitely uncalled for.

In preparing for this day I spoke to some of my classmates about those memories. Some of them had forgotten it. Some of them remembered but hoped others had forgotten. Sometimes "hindsight" gives individuals a different perspective.

One classmate said “She was tough on us. I am a now school leader. I understand how hard it was for her to transition to our school. I feel horrible.”

Another classmate said “Although she made some unfavorable decisions during our senior year, it was all for the betterment of our long-term educational pursuits.”

One of my class leaders summarized her well, “She was the first female principal assigned to a low-performing school in the hood. She had no choice but to be tough and wear her “game face” every day. She was also a cool, calm leader. She was a pillar of strength in the face of adversity. I see now, she was trying to refocus our school on education.”

In closing, as one of your former students, I thank you for shifting our focus during our senior year. You were really preparing us for life after high school. A life that was not going to be all about fun activities and games. You taught me about “excellence”. It is because of you that I seek it in my personal life & my professional pursuits. It is because of you I demand it from the students in Duval County Public schools that I come in contact with. Thank you for your service to our district but more importantly thank you for your service to William Marion Raines Senior High School.

On behalf of the class of 2003, I would like to offer a full apology for the tasteless gesture displayed by the student body. We were not acting like true “Vikings”. I hope you accept our apology and I hope that you will remember our class for the kind words that mature adults have said now, instead of the immature behavior of students then

We wish you the best and Job Well Done on 45 years of excellence in education!

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