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The Akil Ross story; The making of a magnificent educator

Chapin, SC (Paul Kirby) For several years, I have followed the career of Dr. Akil Ross, the principal of Chapin High School, with great curiosity. Periodically I get press-releases about accomplishments and accolades teachers and administrators receive, but in the case of Dr. Ross, they seemed to come a bit more frequently than with other educators. Finally, while covering a Chapin High School football game last fall, I got to meet the man in person. The stories were obviously true, there’s just something different, something special about the man. You can just feel it when you are around him, especially at the school where he feels so at home. To me, it was a pleasure just to say hello and shake his hand.

Later in the year, I received notice that Dr. Ross has been named the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) 2018 National Principal of the Year. Wow, now this man was being named the best of the best in his field nationwide! Certainly, a man of this caliber must be the product of a stellar childhood with well educated, professional parents, a doctor or engineer in there somewhere, all the best prep schools, former student body president; you must know where my mind was going. The man regularly wears bowties just so and suits for goodness sake. He always seems to have a smile and a kind word for everyone; certainly, his story is one of all the best breaks, the best family raising what you’d expect, a stellar son who has always excelled at scholastics, sports, and everything else. He must be one of those golden people of the world that can be splashed with mud and it just slides right off.

Never one to wonder too long before I work up the nerve to ask, in January of this year I contacted Lexington-Richland School District Five and requested an interview with Dr. Ross. I wanted to hear about him volunteering at the homeless shelter while all his friends lounged by the pool at the country club. I wanted to hear those stories I had already pictured in my mind. Eventually, the interview was lined up and I was set to meet Dr. Ross in his office at Chapin High School, my Alma Mater by the way, a member of CHS Class of 1981.

I was so excited to hear all about Akil Ross, I signed my 15-year-old daughter out of Pelion High School to go with me. If this man was as great as he seemed, maybe she could glean some tips on how to be a better person, student, and daughter herself. We arrived, and after a short wait, we were escorted into Dr. Ross’ office to meet the man himself.

As expected, Dr. Ross was well dressed in his bow tie just as I envisioned. He met us at the door with a huge smile, offered Kaitlyn and me a firm handshake, and asked us to take a seat wherever we’d be comfortable. After chatting about a little about Chapin and some of the various memorabilia hanging in his office, I explained why I was there; I wanted to know what made a National Principal of the Year. What I heard blew my mind! It wasn’t at all what I expected; I was floored!

Akil Ross grew up on the east side of Washington D.C. in the 80’s and early 90’s when it was known as “The Murder Capital of the World!” This was during the era of infamous Mayor Marion Berry, the former mayor caught on film with cocaine coating his nostrils before being hauled off to jail. At that time, about one person per day was dying from gun violence in our nation’s capital. Remember the east side is NOT the touristy seat of government side where visitors gawk at marble monuments, lobbyists slap down gold cards to buy lawmakers $1,000 meals, or the Japanese cherry trees bloom each spring. This is a few blocks over where I once got stopped for taking a wrong turn and being a WHITE guy in that part of town. To the police, that meant I must be looking to buy drugs; the nice policeman pointed me in the right direction and I got out of there quickly! That’s the side of town Akil Ross grew up on.

Akil’s dad left his mother to raise his brother and him alone when Akil was just six years old. She was a working-class woman who lived paycheck-to-paycheck, but had a dream that her sons would be more.

It was surprising to learn that the brilliant future Dr. Ross FLUNKED OUT of 3rd grade! He’d have a do over the next year if he was to move ahead with his education. Not one to accept failure, his mother became even more determined to see young Akil succeed. As fate would have it, the second time around in 3rd grade, mom gained an ally in a teacher named Mrs. Shivers.

Ross says that he and his fellow classmates were sure Mrs. Shivers had been a drill sergeant in the Marine Corps prior to teaching. She partnered with his mom and together, the pair had, “very high expectations,” according to Ross. Mrs. Shivers philosophy was, “If you fail, you keep trying until you get it right, and you don’t sit in failure,” Ross said. Mom was right with her letting him know that without exception, she was Mrs. Shivers' partner. Together the pair told young Akil, “You’re going to do the work, and you’re going to do it right or you’re going to keep doing it until you get it right!”

When Akil thought he might slip a little play time in, a doodle, or a quick nap past Mrs. Shivers, she moved him right up front with her. Not even the smallest detail got by her. Before Ross could move on to the 4th grade, Mrs. Shivers made it clear he would have a command of grammar, would know how to stand, walk, and carry himself with authority, “march” the hallways, not walk Ross said, and have the soft skills necessary to succeed. This meant he would know how to look someone in the eye, offer a firm handshake, and speak firmly but with respect. What Mrs. Shivers taught at school, mom backed up at home in lockstep with the teacher. Momma let young Akil know in no uncertain terms, he would be held accountable for his actions.

Dr. Ross said the pair hammered into his soul that what’s important is, “It’s not where you are, it’s where you can be.” The two had no plans to let young Akil settle for anything less than his best. Without any choice, young Akil overcame his supposed “learning disability” and made the only decision a third-grader could that wouldn’t adversely affect his happiness and well-being. Akil buckled down, did the work, passed 3rd grade, and was promoted that year.

Suddenly, the knowledge and skills gained from Mrs. Shivers began to help Akil to excel. He did better in school, advanced, and eventually ended up in a class for gifted students; this was the same Akil that had flunked a grade before!

Somewhere in his pre-teen years Akil won a pair of sneakers from another boy playing basketball. They were Duke Blue Devil shoes, and because he had no other influence pointing him toward a specific college after high school, Duke became “his” school. Akil Ross, the kid who some considered slow, who was supposed to have learning disabilities some claimed, knew from that day forward he would one day attend Duke University!

When Akil was about 11, he saw an older boy in a little-league football uniform and decided he wanted to play football. To him, the boy in the uniform was golden, like a Greek god standing atop a mountain. He was brimming with excitement when he told his mom of his desire to play, but she was already struggling to keep food on the table. She often went hungry, so her boys could eat. How could she pay the registration fee and buy the necessary equipment for Akil to play football? Knowing his mom was struggling, Akil hid the fact that his shoes had worn out. He put cardboard in them to cover the holes because he wanted to play so badly. Eventually, his mom swung the fees and young Akil was playing football!

His Pop Warner coach also had a great impact on Akil’s life. He wanted his kids to go “all out" on the field and he didn’t take excuses very well either. For the first year or so that he played, Akil described himself as the “tackling dummy." Of course, if Akil was all in, so was mom; she was team mother, snack leader, the works. At the end of the year, Akil and his mom headed home with the awards they had received at the final banquet. His was a small participation trophy he described as a few inches tall. His mom’s arms were loaded down with trophies and plaques in appreciation for all the time and effort she had contributed that season. Right then, he knew he was going to stick with football until his arms were loaded too!

At about age 13, something happened that once again had a profound effect on Akil’s life. His school, Bertie Backus Jr. High, was right in the middle of two warring gang territories. His best friend, Walter Jeffries, a jokester who liked to throw a “Yo Momma” joke around, said something to the wrong person and that was taken as disrespect. The gangbangers shot Jeffries in the face, killing him. The gangbanger wanted to make sure the funeral was closed casket to send a message that their crowd wasn’t a joke. Akil’s mother decided she, and by default Akil, would pull out all the stops to get him into a more desirable school in a safer part of the city. He took all the necessary tests, mom and he filled out all the forms, and Akil ended up at a school that didn’t have students ducking bullets at lunch.

It was at this point in our interview that my daughter chimed in and asked Dr. Ross where he thought he would be if he hadn’t had that chance in his life. He looked in her eyes and said, “Without a doubt, I would be dead right now.” He explained he was a big kid who didn’t back down and knew how to fight, he explained holding his fist up in a fighter’s pose. “I was gonna fight when challenged because I felt at the time that only punks backed down. That attitude would have put me in the grave,” he said. The statement really sent chills down my spine and made a distinct impression on Kaitlyn too.

When Akil graduated high school, he did so with a 3.8 GPA and was 8th in his class. He had continued to play football throughout high school and was offered full scholarships to Notre Dame, Maryland, East Carolina, and Navy. Most he visited, but Duke was still stuck in his mind. Finally, Akil called Duke himself and he and his mom piled in their car and drove to North Carolina to meet the football team’s leadership. Once in Durham, they met with an assistant football coach who asked to see some tapes he’d brought along. After watching them, the coach quickly excused himself and walked to the head coach’s office. In a matter of moments, Akil Ross, the inner-city kid who flunked third grade, shook hands with the head coach and committed to play football at Duke. With that handshake, he promised he wouldn’t accept any other offers from anyone else. All that sounded good until a coach named Steve Spurrier called from Florida. Akil told his mom of the call and excitedly said, “I could play in Florida mom!” Ever the stubborn strong-willed, moral compass he knew as mom she asked, “Didn’t you promise that man you’d play at Duke?” Right then Akil knew Duke it was!

Akil was a football standout at Duke as expected. He had been a top ranked linebacker coming out of high school, and that continued in college. He had a great career in the ACC and excelled on the ball field. He also said he was smart enough to know when football had taken him as far as it could. That happened in Death Valley in Clemson, SC. After playing his last college game at Clemson, Ross knew he’d reached the pinnacle of his football career.

Unfortunately, his prowess on the ballfield didn’t transfer to the classroom. At first, he wanted to design airplanes, so he took aerospace engineering. Suddenly, those old F’s started showing up again with frequency. He studied a number of majors and failed a number of things. It became apparent that college was a bit harder than high school. In fact, Akil changed his major five times in college. Finally, while meeting with an advisor and flipping through a course catalog, he saw Political Science. “Ah,” he said, here’s one I haven’t flunked yet. He changed his major to this latest interest and started again with a new interest he thought he could pass.

During his first class, his professor said something that really caught his attention. He told the class, “I’m going to teach you how to move people with words.” Akil thought, if I can do that with just words man, he was hooked! He also began taking education classes as well. He eventually earned a degree in Political Science and Education from Duke.

At some point, his professor saw that light so many had seen in Ross. He encouraged him to apply for a fellowship offered by the Rockefeller Brother’s Fund. It would pay for him to earn a master’s degree in School Administration from USC in Columbia, SC. Since Akil’s girlfriend was already in Columbia studying and USC was a great school too, it wasn’t a hard decision to make. Akil Ross headed to USC.

At a point in the process of earning his advanced degree, Ross was given the opportunity to teach in a public school as part of earning his masters. He began teaching at Eau Claire High School in Columbia, once again back to a rough, tough, inner-city school. His return to a tough school was different. This time he was prepared, he was the teacher.

At Eau Claire, he put the practices he had learned in his personal life, and from people like Mrs. Shivers, his mom, that first football coach, and that professor in college, to work. He had learned from hard knocks that you never count a child out, sometimes you have to believe in a child before he believes in himself, and last, there are no limits to what a child can do. After all, Ross was the first in his family to graduate from college; that was the Akil that flunked 3rd grade so many years ago, remember?

At Eau Claire, Ross began to make a difference almost immediately in the lives of young students there. He took a group of young men, inner-city kids who could have easily made a guest appearance on the television show Live PD and taught them how to overcome problems in life. The group called themselves the Gentlemen 45.

Ross taught the young men how to dress for success, how to carry themselves with pride, how to shake hands, look someone in the eye, and speak with authority in their voices. He did this by first emphasizing things like making goals. He taught them to be proactive and to set high standards for themselves. He also taught them culture. They danced, or they sang, they played an instrument or drew, but they had to display culture in some form or fashion. Thirdly, he taught them the importance of being gentlemen, being polite, treating a lady with respect, displaying courteous behavior in their daily lives. Ross’ beliefs were with these skills, you could overcome anything, and eventually each one did become something special. He stills stays in contact with them now.

In his fourth year as an educator, and with a master’s degree now, he was offered the job as assistant principal at Chapin High School. He took the job, a move he never has regretted. To a young man from the ghetto, the inner-city of Washington D.C., Ross had finally made it to the promised land! Chapin High

Now, Ross has ideas about students that some might consider revolutionary, even shocking. He doesn’t believe every student has to go to college, but like Mrs. Shivers and his mom, failure isn’t an option. To Ross, students need to do what makes them happy in life and he has a burning desire to see students succeed at life. Dr. Ross has seen teens that weren’t happy because they were searching for the wrong things. “They wanted to get into the right schools, make the right size paycheck, have the right car, be with the right crowd, perhaps do what really makes their parents happy, not them. I want them to do what fulfills them. As long as they maximize their potential and are happy in life, then we as educators have accomplished our goals.”

With those thoughts in mind, Chapin High School has seen its graduation rates soar. Its student body has received millions in scholarship dollars, students excel in athletics and scholastics, it has developed cutting edge programs and educational techniques, and had many of its students go to the best colleges and universities. It has also had students graduate and go right into the military or workforce where they also have excelled. What’s even more important to Dr. Ross is that Chapin’s graduates are happy in life after high school.

When each graduating senior walks across the stage in the spring and Dr. Ross hands him his high school diploma, they each give him a small, red, glass heart. Ross keeps these in a jar on his desk. To him, his graduates will always be a part of him just like Mrs. Shivers will always be a part of Ross. As the man behind Chapin High’s mantra of “a thousand passions with one heartbeat” he wants each student to be passionate about what he does, but always remember where he came from just as he could never forget.

Now, since my interview, it’s been announced that Ross will be leaving Chapin High School next year to accept a job as the district’s Director of Secondary Education. In that job he will oversee, mentor, and coach all the principals of the district’s high schools. Although he won’t be at CHS every day, his fingerprints will forever be on it, his words and ideas will be forever implanted in the minds and hearts of those who were lucky enough to attend school under him. Now, he’ll just be impacting a much larger resource, the entire student body of Lexington-Richland School District Five.

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