When it comes to being a world-class principal, unexpected twists and turns can bring challenges that no one is prepared for. It’s what you do with those challenges that determines your fate as a leader.

That’s certainly been true for Akil Ross, NASSP’s 2018 National Principal of the Year, who became principal of Chapin High School in South Carolina in the midst of a $40 million renovation project, a time that he now considers to have been a “turning point” in his career.

The funds for the construction and renovation of the school were approved only after a lengthy legal court battle in which a community member attempted to halt construction on the project. After almost a dozen lawsuits over the course of more than three years, construction finally began on the renovation.

“I even had to testify on the stand and was cross-examined about several issues, including student capacity and facility design,” Ross says. The dispute was quite litigious, he explains, with arguments about environmental impacts and who suffered the most harm. “This wasn’t what I had in mind when I assumed the principalship,” he says. “The construction and litigation were not about instructing students, building a top-notch staff, or implementing new programs at the school,” Ross explains. However, he adds, “It taught me a valuable lesson: No matter what the situation, it was my responsibility to be a leader and to establish the path forward for my school.”

The Path Forward

That path forward meant dealing with ongoing construction, including having more than two dozen portable classrooms on campus and moving 1,100 students and 84 staff members safely around an active and ever-changing construction site, replete with heavy equipment and, yes, lots of ambient noise. “It was quite a challenge every day,” he says, “but we were able to work through the construction without negatively impacting student achievement. Most importantly, I came to the realization that regardless of the situations that impacted my campus, I must lead the staff, students, parents, and community through all of it.”

Community Outreach

Embracing the community is important, Ross says. When he came to Chapin High School to lead, he knew that the school had always been a huge part of the town of Chapin, SC. “As principal, I wanted to take advantage of the pride the people have in their community. I came up with ‘The Heartbeat’ as a way to unite our community behind one message, and that is, ‘We aRe Chapin!'” The sound of The Heartbeat is difficult to describe. “You have to experience it,” Ross says. “In essence, each student contributes to making the sound of a heartbeat; when they are joined by the student body, it makes it seem that the school has come alive.

“From elementary school to high school, town hall to the business community, we have all adopted the ‘We aRe Chapin’ rally cry as a way to bring us together and make us stronger,” Ross says. “The heartbeat has been the tool used to bring us together. It is important that students know they are part of their school and that school considers each student as a valued member of its mission.”

In fact, Ross has introduced several significant programs at Chapin High School. “In the book That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, authors Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum make the case that schools need to lift the bottom faster and the top higher,” he notes. In an effort to do just that, Ross created two programs at Chapin High: Evening Acceleration School and the Academic Leadership Academy (ALA).

The Evening Acceleration School provides students the opportunity to catch up on skills they have missed at any point in their educational careers. From reading comprehension to adding fractions, teachers work to help level the playing field in prerequisite skills so that students can be successful in their classes.

ALA challenges Advanced Placement students to go beyond their studies and use their knowledge to solve new problems with innovative solutions. The students conduct original research while undertaking leadership training from the Center for Creative Leadership.

Scholarship is what the students get from the school; “leadership is what they give back to the world,” Ross says. “This program gives students the time and resources to make a positive impact in their community.”

Creating Culture

Another important piece of Ross’ success has involved creating effective relationships with teachers. “You must be a TEAM,” he says, emphasizing that principals and staff should have shared values and goals. To strengthen those relationships, the school created a shared value statement as a faculty and staff. “This statement became the ‘gospel’ by which we made decisions,” Ross says. “Everyone on staff helped contribute to the goal that ‘We prepare all students for productive lives.’ I use this statement constantly to remind teachers of our purpose, to praise teachers for efforts, and to motivate teachers and staff to continue to make progress. The best relationships are made when you can give specific praise and encouraging feedback on the professional practice of the teacher.”

A Look Back

Ross’ educational journey in college started with a dream: the dream of playing professional football. Ross was an all-star linebacker at Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C., averaging 10 tackles a game. A three-year starter at Wilson, Ross was highly recruited by colleges and committed to Duke University before his senior year.

When he realized that playing for his favorite team, the Washington Redskins, wasn’t in the cards because it was a little more fantasy than reality, Ross focused instead on coaching football. One of his mentors, Dr. Tamsen Banks Webb, an educator and child advocate, saw promise in Ross as an educator and encouraged him to pursue a career in teaching. “I owe a debt of gratitude to her for showing me how to use my talents as a teacher and a leader to make a difference in the lives of young people,” he notes.

As a student in the education program at Duke, Ross became interested in helping student athletes who were not academically eligible to participate, so he started to tutor at a local high school. This project led to Ross receiving the Rockefeller Brothers Fund Fellowship (now the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship), which paid for his master’s in education at the University of South Carolina. There, he began his studies while coaching and teaching at Eau Claire High School in Columbia, SC. Situated in a high-poverty, urban setting, Eau Claire High School taught Ross the value of growth as a measurement of success in education. At Eau Claire, he saw firsthand how conditions off campus can affect results on campus.

After all he’s witnessed as an educator, Ross sees the value in creating a unique, positive climate and culture at Chapin High School (see sidebar below). “I am convinced that with amazing climate and culture, you will have amazing results,” Ross says. “The administrators, support staff, parents, community, and students set high expectations and work tirelessly to meet those expectations. Each year I have been principal, I’ve received state and national recognition for academics, state recognition for the arts, and state recognition for athletics and service. We have won a state championship in at least one of those areas each year of my principalship.”

So, what is the educational philosophy for the current NASSP Principal of the Year?

“The word ‘education’ has two definitions that stem from the Latin educare—to train up—and educere—to bring out. I believe my purpose in education is thus twofold. I must train or prepare students to be able to thrive in the world they will inherit,” Ross says. “Most importantly, I believe schools should foster an environment where all students are able to discover or bring out their passion and maximize their potential.”

Reaping the Rewards

As a principal, Ross says he’s had many great moments, including leading pep rallies; seeing the townspeople attend events that support the school and programs at football games; attending concerts from the art department; visiting with teachers; and developing relationships with students. “The best part about being a principal,” Ross says, “is handing each student a diploma at graduation. This ceremony serves as the culmination of my efforts to maximize mind, body, and spirit.”

What does the honor of being named NASSP Principal of the Year mean to Ross? “Some have deemed this award as the best principal in the nation, which engenders some sort of hierarchical ranking. I see the principal­ship as a circle of professionals who support each other, and this award highlights one point in the circle to tell their story.”

Michael Levin-Epstein is senior editor of Principal Leadership.

Ross and the Six Rs

Ross is known by students, teachers, and parents as an advocate for the six Rs:

  1. Ready to learn
  2. Respectful to others
  3. Responsible to ourselves
  4. Rigor in teaching
  5. Relevance in learning
  6. Relationships (meaningful) among students, faculty, and staff

Akil Ross: Basic Bio

  • Graduated from School Without Walls Senior High School in Washington, D.C. (Ross played football for Woodrow Wilson High School as his school did not have a football team.)
  • Studied political science and played football for Duke University, graduated in 2002 with a B.A. in political science and minors in history and education
  • Upon graduation, married the love of his life, Jocelyn, and moved to South Carolina, where he taught social studies for three years at Eau Claire High School
  • In 2005, obtained his master’s degree in education in Secondary Educational Administration from the University of South Carolina
  • Joined Chapin High School as an assistant principal in July 2005
  • Named principal in July 2010
  • In July 2012, completed his doctorate in curriculum studies from the University of South Carolina
  • Awards and recognitions include the Palmetto’s Finest, national rankings in academics, 12 state championships in athletics, and four state championships in marching band
  • Named the 2017 SC Secondary Principal of the Year

Analyzing School Climate and Culture

Akil Ross is a leader who strives to make a positive difference in the lives of his students and staff through a nurturing school climate and culture. Jostens, a longtime strategic partner of NASSP, facilitated a work session with Ross and 50 other State Principals of the Year to identify the barriers that prevent school leaders from building a nurturing climate and culture, and to determine the tools needed to enhance their work in this area.

Jostens launched a survey in August 2017 aimed at better understanding these barriers, as well as determining ways to better support our nation’s school leaders in their work in this critical area. Ross and the team of our nation’s top principals tackled the task and emerged with recommendations to assist principals in this enormous effort of building and maintaining a climate and culture that supports student performance and growth.

Bruce Locklear, Jostens director of educational relations and former Minnesota Principal of the Year says, “Show me a school with a caring and nurturing school climate and culture, and we will show you a high-performing school.”

“It takes a team to create the magic of a positive school climate and culture,” notes Ross, who often works with Jostens through their longstanding sales team of Rhodes Graduation Services. “I knew in the first 15 minutes of meeting Akil that he’d make an unbelievable principal,” says Dusty Rhodes, founder of Rhodes Graduation Services. “After working with principals for 36 years, it was evident to me that he had that special sauce that is needed to be successful as a high school principal.”

Many Mentors

“I have many mentors,” Ross says. “My students mentor me. I am constantly listening to them to see what excites them and what concerns them so that I may meet their needs. I place my desk in the halls sometimes so they can have easy access to me. My wife, children, and pastor Dr. Charles B. Jackson Sr. give me the emotional and spiritual strength to persevere. My admin team allows me to share my ideas and provide encouragement and support to make my vision a reality. My fellow principals give me countless ideas and strategies to be successful. My superintendent Dr. Stephen Hefner offers his leadership and advice, providing a framework for successful leadership. He models excellence in leadership, vision, management, and culture and supports me in my growth in those areas.”