Principaling in a Rural School (Gerald Carter, Larry Lee, and Owen Sweatt)

With all of the focus on principal leadership, attrition, and staying power, here’s a picture of an administrator who had an unlikely career path to the principalship and has stayed the course while becoming integral to the school and community. Richard Bryant performs all three core roles of the job (instructional, managerial, and political) and, according to those who are in the town and who have watched him  in action, he does them well.

This post is an excerpt from “Lessons Learned from Rural Schools,” May, 2009. The full report is at: LessonsLearnedRuralSchools2009-1

When Richard Bryant got his diploma from Camden Academy High School in 1971, he had one thing on his mind: heading to Arizona. But there was one problem. “I didn’t have any money,” he laughs.

So that fall he began working as a teacher’s aide and in 1973 became both an aide and a bus driver at F.S.Ervin in Pine Hill (Alabama). Little did he know that 36 years later he would still be at Ervin, where he has been principal for nine years. [Ervin elementary school has 360 students, of whom 100 percent are on free or reduced lunch].

With assistance from a Federal program, Bryant graduated from Alabama State University in 1975. He commuted to Montgomery from Wilcox County every Monday and Wednesday nights. “I would get off my school bus route and head for Montgomery, getting home about midnight,” he remembers.

Harry Mason has been mayor of Pine Hill for 16 years. Before that he served 18 years on the Wilcox County Board of Education. His life and Bryant’s have been intertwined for decades as he was on the board when Bryant was first hired.

Today Mason is one of the small town’s biggest supporters of the school and does anything he can to help. “There’s no doubt that the mayor and his wife (who taught school for 23 years) are our true community champions,” says Bryant.

“It’s real easy to figure out that without a good school, a town doesn’t have much future,” says Mason, who has lived in Pine Hill his entire life. “We’ve got the best school we’ve ever had, thanks in large part to Richard’s leadership.”

Like Bryant, the great majority of Ervin faculty members are from the local area. “It’s important that faculty can relate to students, to the homes they come from, to the churches they go to, to the way children are raised in this region,” says Bryant.To back up his point, the principal points out that he not only has teachers who live in Pine Hill, but in [nearby towns].

“You could say we are all peas in the same pod,” adds Bryant.  Like the rest of the Black Belt,Wilcox County’s economy was built on cotton in antebellum Alabama.The county had a population of 17,352 in 1850 (in 2011, the population was 11,482). Only nine other counties had greater farm income.There were 50 boat landings along the Alabama River where paddlewheel boats loaded cotton to ship to Mobile.

But timber—not cotton—has always dominated the economy around Pine Hill on the western side of the county.The International Paper mill eight miles away is the area’s largest employer.

Today, the forest products industry is being impacted with the rest of the economy.Weyerhaeuser’s sawmill and veneer mill at Yellow Bluff recently closed leaving 300 people without jobs. Unemployment in Wilcox County in February 2009 was 21.5 percent, the highest in Alabama.

However, Bryant is used to coping with tough times. “Sometimes I think that’s about all we’ve ever had around here,” he says, “which means you have got to look for help anywhere you think you can find it.”

For example, if Bryant plans to cut grass at the school on Saturday,  he may ask a parent what they are doing that day. If they say they are busy, then he is likely to ask them for a gallon of gas to put in a lawnmower.“We’ll probably get the gas, but more importantly, we get another person in the community to take ownership of what happens at the school,” he says.

One resource he turns to is International Paper’s local foundation.

In the last four years Ervin has received $17,346 in grant funds from the company, most directed at programs involving reading.“Ervin is a great school and they maintain good relations with our company,” says Anita Smith of IP.The company also helps with science fairs and reading projects such as Dr. Seuss Day.

It’s unlikely you will find a cleaner, better-kept school than F. S. Ervin. Bryant tries to paint the facility every two-three years. It is up to him to cover the cost of painting. The principal estimates that the school raises $15,000 or more each year to supplement funding.

Ervin was designated a Torchbearer school for the 2008-09 school year. They received $33,000 because of this recognition. [In 2010, Ervin 3rd grade students scored at the 79th percentile; across the state students scored at the 36th percentile.]

After 38 years in education, Bryant says retirement is not far down the road.What will he do then? “Well,” he laughs, “I still haven’t made it to Arizona.”




Filed under school leaders

2 responses to “Principaling in a Rural School (Gerald Carter, Larry Lee, and Owen Sweatt)

  1. I’ve been thinking a bit lately about the impact that can only be had by educators that return to their “roots”. For example, the National Teacher of the Year 2013 is Jeff Charbonneau who teaches at the same high school that he graduated from, Zillah High School, right down the road from me here in Yakima, WA.

    This is a beautiful story not only of staying power, but also of depth of commitment to the place that you find yourself. There are plenty of principals that work hard for their schools, I’ll wager. There are plenty of principals that have good relationships with city and school board leadership. But what does Richard Bryant bring to his job every day that transcends the place? What’s his edge? And is he replicating it in his successor?

    And one more question about keeping faculty bound to the place. I am now in my second year of teaching (career switcher) and my own children (7 and 9) are finally in the same district that I work in. I shall blog about what effect that has on my engagement in my own job, with *our* district, and with the community.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for commenting and asking those questions, John. I do not know enough about Bryant and the setting to answer your questions but they are important ones to ask.

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