The principal of a school is often an unsung hero. Their daily work addresses issues from every side: student, parent, teacher. The role of principal requires a substantive contribution to a school, yet that contribution may or may not be recognized. Such was not the case when a national association of high school principals named Chapin High School’s Dr. Akil Ross the National Principal of The Year for 2018. The National Association of Secondary School Principals presented the award in October to 38-year-old Akil for being the nation’s best in his profession.
At a surprise assembly at Chapin High School, amidst a celebration of teachers and students as well as S.C. Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman and S.C. Gov. Henry D. McMaster, Akil was honored for both his leadership as well as his commitment to developing the utmost potential in each child.
Akil grew up in the northeast quadrant of Washington, D.C., with a younger brother and two half siblings. He then attended Duke University to play football and planned to major in political science. A supportive and encouraging mother and grandmother, combined with Duke University’s reputation for a quality education, was the driving force in his life.
“When I lived in D.C., which was then deemed the ‘murder capital of the world,’ getting an education was not a cliché, it truly was a way out,” says Akil. “I was the first in my family to finish college. I had to lean a lot on my mother and grandmother for support, motivation, and prayer.”
Yet as the reality of an NFL career waned, and because he was already participating as a tutor in a Duke program helping local high school athletes, Akil listened to a Duke education professor who encouraged him to go into the field of education. He says he changed majors five times and was determined not to give up until he found his passion. “I realized education connected with me. Of course, I never thought I would be a school principal or could make such an impact.”
When he graduated, he explored fellowship opportunities at several schools, but only the University of South Carolina did not require five years of teaching experience before being eligible for a fellowship to gain a master’s degree. A doctorate soon followed. He attributes Jocelyn, his wife, as the key factor that kept him in the Midlands since she is an enthusiastic Gamecock fan.
He has now had 16 years of experience in education, including three years as football coach and teacher at Eau Claire High School, five years as an assistant principal at Chapin High School, and he is in his eighth year as Chapin High School’s principal.
Chapin High School, part of Lexington-Richland School District 5, is located in the northwest suburbs of Columbia and has a student body of 1,315. The high school boasts a 97.7 percent school attendance rate and a 96 percent graduation rate. The graduation rate, in fact, has risen from 82 percent with Akil at the helm. Plus, math proficiency has increased 16 points among disadvantaged students, and under his leadership, Chapin High School garnered a Palmetto’s Finest Award in 2015. The NASSP award is only his latest and most recent achievement. Akil was named as South Carolina State High School Principal of the Year for 2016.
Akil is additionally noted and lauded for seeking funding and establishing the Chapin High School after-school program, which provides extra instruction for struggling students with a goal to reduce the dropout rate. Those in the program are provided food and bus transportation home. Akil believes that every student does not learn at the same level. He witnessed students entering high school without basic skills, such as multiplying fractions, and saw a need for a relaxing space where students with an academic deficiency could learn and gain confidence. “We need to teach kids, not standards,” he says. At Chapin High School, this space is located in back of the media center.
Akil feels that his profession is a ministry. His mantra is, “We are 1,000 passions with one heartbeat.” He calls his rules for guidance the “Six R’s”: Ready to learn, Respect for others, Responsibility to ourselves, Rigor in teaching, Relevance in learning, and meaningful Relationships among students, faculty, and staff. Furthermore, he says he follows two principles of education: “train up and bring forth.” He says, “One of the greatest joys for me is to help young people find their passion so they can go for it.”
As to the issue of teacher pay and teacher burnout, he supports State Superintendent Spearman’s push for more teacher pay, reiterating that no teacher should need a second job.
He has made it a mission to create a working environment where teachers can thrive. “They need autonomy and flexibility. We can’t script them. They need to feel like they can get better and better mastery and that there are ways to grow. I think it’s important that they have recognition and help.”
He adds, “When we walk into the school building, we are all part of a shared vision. Teachers are smarter than I am, so I need to listen to them and find ways to maximize the potential of all students.”
He finds his greatest satisfactions as a principal when he observes students clasped arm in arm in formation and when he hands out diplomas. “Because technology dominates the youth culture, I want to cultivate moments when students realize there is more to their fellow man than how many ‘likes’ they can get. I don’t want to take connection moments for granted.”
And even though the graduation rate is important, Akil points to the preparedness rate as most important. “When that student is coming across the stage, and I’m looking at their preparedness and realize he is ready or she is ready, that makes me proud. When you see a student give heart and passion, there is nothing better.”
Winning the award is quite an accomplishment. The NASSP selection panel is composed of nine members, including past award winners. Each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, the U.S. Department of Defense Education Activity, and the U.S. Department of the State Office of Overseas Schools all nominate one principal. From that long list, three finalists are chosen.
The three finalists are flown to Washington, D.C., three days prior to the competition. The trip includes a visit to Capitol Hill and Congress in order to promote education goals and agendas. Each finalist gives a 10-minute presentation to the selection panel, which then takes 35 minutes to discuss each finalist and make a decision on the winner. All of the state winners receive a custom designed ring from Jostens (which sponsors the competition) and enrollment in the McKinsey Management Program for School Leaders, a cutting-edge leadership development program designed in cooperation with McKinsey Academy, the world leader in management training.
Akil, as the winner, also received an honorarium donated to the program of his choice within Chapin High School. He plans to use it for the after-school tutoring program he started.
In choosing Akil, the NASSP panel was most impressed by how he embraced a principal’s primary role as the main driver for institutional change and as someone who consistently builds and cultivates an environment that promotes social justice while preparing students to lead productive lives.
Superintendent Spearman, upon congratulating him, said, “Dr. Ross inspires not only education locally, but principals around the state.”
Stephen Hefner, Lexington-Richland School District 5 superintendent, and NASSP executive director Joann Bartoletti also praised Akil for skills and accomplishments that make him suited to effectively represent education on a national level.
As to how Akil came up with the innovative programs and initiatives at Chapin that garnered him national attention, he credits having a game plan and believing in it enough to see it to fruition. In addition, he stresses that his success is due not only to his efforts, but also the support of his team of Chapin’s teachers and administrators. Akil also points out that he fortunately does not often have issues with disgruntled parents, crediting monthly newsletter communication and positive interactions with parents at ball games, the grocery store, in church, or at Rotary Club meetings. He believes open and ongoing communication is preventative medicine.
Through his programs and initiatives, Akil pushes for social and academic development among the students while also encouraging volunteer efforts that improve the Lexington community and surrounding areas.
Outside of the principal’s office, Akil and Jocelyn have two young children, Alyssa and A.J. In addition to spending time with his family, he enjoys “attempts” at golf; following football at the high school, college, and pro level (Chapin High, Duke University, and the Washington Redskins); and reading. He amusedly mentions epic family Uno battles and Scrabble with Jocelyn as highlights of family time.
Although the NASSP award is an obvious pinnacle for the principal, it will not alter Akil’s vision for Chapin High School. He sees the school’s future as continuing to improve. In fact, Akil sees himself as just one individual in a circle of professionals who continue to strengthen the education story at Chapin.