Transforming a Culture Through Relationships

By Brad McEwen

In an era where negative reports about our school system abound, I made it a point to swing by Monroe Comprehensive High School recently to spend a little time with Principal Vinson Davis hoping to discover the secret behind all the positive buzz I’d been hearing about the school throughout the community. I wanted to learn why area leaders and fellow educators are raving about the South Albany school and the impressive students roaming its halls.

Like most such meetings I expected Davis and I would simply adjourn to the comfortable confines of his office where he would run down the litany of programs that have been started at the school in the four years since he took the helm, and fill me in on top-notch faculty he’s assembled to get the job done.

I assumed—even though I KNOW that’s never a good idea—that I’d only need about 30 minutes of the hour block of time I’d allotted for my visit to get what I needed.

How wrong I was.

When I finally left the school some two hours later, wishing I hadn’t made lunch plans and could have stayed to enjoy a meal with the Monroe family that had embraced me, not only was my head swimming with valuable information about a bevy of exciting initiatives, I was filled with a tremendous sense of excitement—excitement not just about the future of the school—which will be undergoing extensive renovations in the coming months—but about that of the entire Albany-Dougherty community that will benefit from the students graduating from Monroe High.

My preconceived notions about the tone and tenor of our meeting were squashed just minutes after my arrival at the school and Davis and I never got close to his office.

Instead, my visit began with a firm handshake and the principal informing me he had to handle some unrelated business and that he was turning me over to the care of two Junior ROTC cadets he grabbed at random from the hallway.

As it turned out, charging Zayquan and Marquesia with shepherding me through the halls of Monroe, not only gave me a up close look at the school’s many amenities, spending time with the two cadets afforded me an honest view of the powerful impact Davis is having on the student body.

From the very start of our tour I was struck by the candor and enthusiasm of the two students and it was abundantly clear Davis had placed me in very capable hands.

Although they had not expected to spend part of their morning showing a complete stranger around their school, both junior Zayquan Jenkins and sophomore Marquisia Bradley, seemed not only completely at ease guiding me through the halls, but delighted to show off their school and genuinely thrilled to tell me why they are proud to be Tornadoes.

The two students shared different specifics about why they love Monroe Comprehensive High School, but the roots of their feelings were the same—at Monroe they’ve found abundant learning opportunities and, perhaps most importantly, they were being nurtured by a faculty that respects and cares for them.

“They make you do the right choices,” said Zayquan in his soft spoken manner. “They inspire you to go to college or to the military and really you can find your talent here. It’s a really good place to be in.

“Everybody cares about you. If you feel like they don’t, they actually do. All the teachers, they make sure you pass. They’re going to make sure.”

Although Marquisia—who despite only being in the 10th grade has already earned college credits at both Albany Technical College and Albany State University through the Move on When Ready program—shared Zayquan’s sentiment and also shared with me an almost unbelievable list of available classes and extracurricular activities that made me wish I could return to my high school years and explore some new opportunities, she was also the one who first touched on what (or whom) many in the community believe to be the reason Monroe is, in the words of Zayquan, “coming up.”

“I like the school spirit and Mr. Davis, he knows his students’ names; he knows them all by name,” she said. “He interacts with them. You see him in the hallway and he’s like, ‘you’re supposed to be in this class.’ He’s knows what class a student is supposed to be in! He cares about every program. He cares about us.”

That Davis cares about the students of Monroe was evident throughout my visit, which after my tour with the cadets, found me strolling beside Davis as he filled me in on some of the school’s recent achievements and a few of the factors behind them.

As we walked, students of all shapes, sizes, colors and creeds—eyes bright, fresh faces beaming—flocked to the two of us hoping to give Davis some dap or an affectionate hug, and every one of them was greeted not only by name but with warmth and respect.

“I personally interact with every kid that comes through the doors,” Davis later told me. “I meet every family. If it’s a new family, our registrar is going to call either me or Mr. Bentley or one of the administrators in to say ‘ok, this is who we are, welcome to Monroe,’ that kind of thing.

“The other thing that really helps, and works, in terms of our connecting with the kids is: every grading period there’s an opportunity to sit down with a whole grade level to talk about what some of our challenges are.

“We sit down and we have conversations, consistently, throughout the year, with every single grade level. We talk about what our expectations are; we’re constantly reminding our kids of that. That helps with that connection part too. So now I can see a kid who’s been late to class a few times and I can remind him of the conversation we had in the cafeteria. That really helps.”

By deliberately and diligently taking the time to get to know each and every kid, or as Davis says, “their stories,” the principal, and by extension the entire faculty, is playing an important role that is often missing in the lives of too many Monroe (and really Dougherty County) students.

“You have to be relentless,” Davis says of the interactions with students. “It’s relentless especially because we have kids that sometimes don’t have anybody at home to ask for their report card. So it’s our job. With a lot of these kids nobody cares; nobody asks for their report card. So, it’s that accountability too. Somebody’s going to ask how you’re doing in school. That, to me, has been what this staff, this faculty, has done.”

That level of involvement with the student body can certainly be described in a number of ways, but at its heart, that connection forged between student and faculty is relationship building, something Davis takes very seriously.

“I’m hard now; I’m tough; I don’t let up on them at all,” he said with a smile. “But it’s the relationship. When a kid knows you care about them, you can be hard on them. We knew that with our high school coaches. We knew they had our best interest at heart. They could be really, really tough on you when you knew that. That’s what it’s been about with our faculty. We’ve worked really hard.”

In addition to developing impactful relationships with the students, the Monroe team has also leveraged outside relationships in an effort to get the entire, extended Monroe and Albany communities involved in the education of the students.

To that end, one of the school’s most stunning recent successes is the reduction of the 9th grade dropout rate, which is almost nonexistent today thanks to the involvement of the Monroe Class of 1966 alumni group.

Davis explained that when he took over as principal the school had roughly 85 dropouts, 55 of which were 9th grade students.

“We needed to do something to arrest that dropout rate in the 9th grade, so we targeted all of our support in terms of the external support, the mentorships, our partnerships with various religious institutions and we targeted all of that to 9th grade,” explained Davis. “Last year we had one 9th grade drop-out and he was incarcerated for something he did in the community.

“It was a tremendous effort by a lot of different people. A lot of different people were involved in monitoring the cohort and getting the kids what they needed.”

Davis said the alumni group got involved in every aspect of the students’ lives to help ensure they stayed in school.

“Right now they’ve mentored over 100 kids, over 4,000 hours man, every year,” the principal said. “And they marry the families. They pick the kid up; they take them to church, to their home. They have permission to look at their report card. They come in and meet with the teachers, the whole nine.

“The kids affectionately call them grandma or grandpa. The kids who they’re mentoring now, our most challenged 9th grade student—a kid who would have been written off, who would have failed all their classes, who sometimes has a parent who works and just can’t be involved as much as they’d perhaps want to be—that kid has a mentor who will be here with them and they’ll get a positive message.”

The involvement of the Class of 66, Davis said, is only one example of how the entire community has embraced the students of Monroe, which he believes is the relationship that is having the most impact.

“The community support is unbelievable, and I’m proud to tell you that,” said Davis. “It is unbelievable the community support that comes to Monroe High School in terms of alumni, in terms of people who want to see the school do well. And right now, they’re giving more than just a monetary donation.

“What we’re seeing now is so many classes and alumni and community people have poured in mentorship opportunities, job opportunities, career exploration opportunities, internship opportunities, and we’re seeing a lot more of that coming to Monroe and that’s really helping us to continue to move the needle in an upward trend.

“It’s been very positive.”

Of course Davis is also quick to remind me that a lot of what is going on at the school has to do with the dedicated faculty and teachers, many of whom are not only new to the school in the last four years, but are relatively new to the profession and were recruited to work at Monroe.

“It’s a great team of folks,” Davis said. “About 70 percent of the staff is new. Out of the instructional staff of 60, 24 of them have less than 5 years of experience and that can be a great thing.

“We have a great faculty man, a great faculty. We have some amazing leaders here in terms of our academic coaches and counselors and principals. It’s just a great team of folks here all pulling in the same direction. I think that’s why we’ve been able to see such great success.”

While that team has obviously worked hard to build vital relationships with young, impressionable students, they’ve also put in tremendous effort to make sure the school, which is populated by a largely impoverished community, offers innovative programs.

After taking our seats in the school’s auditorium to enjoy a bit of the ROTC cadet’s Honor’s Day program, Davis explained how some of the school’s past struggles had led to its recent success.

Davis said Monroe is a priority school and has received School Improvement Grant (SIG) funding, which has wisely been directed at improving the school’s CTAE (Career, Technology and Agricultural Education) pathways and its STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) disciplines, which will hopefully position the students for higher education or a career after graduation.

“One of the things we’ve been able to really capitalize on is getting more kids excited about STEM,” said Davis. “Those are our strongest programs, engineering, ROTC, early childhood education. And another growing program is law and justice. We’re a SIG school so being a SIG school and being a priority school, we qualified to receive the school improvement grant and with that SIG money we’ve really been able to invest a lot into our CTAE pathways.”

By investing in those pathways Davis and the Monroe team are showing that they understand that high school is not the end for students, but hopefully an important stop on a longer journey, which in some ways is alien to the students and to their families.

“We talk a lot about not graduating to the street; we’ve coined that over here,” said Davis. “The kids know what that means. By the time they graduate they need to have a next step. It’s not just graduation, high school completion. A lot of them will be first generation high school graduates, but it shouldn’t be the end all. It shouldn’t be the last accomplishment or the greatest. It should just be your preparation for the next step. So that’s been our work. That’s been our challenge.”

Of course just as important as providing students with exposure to things like robotics, computer design, or the school’s new 911 operator certification program, it’s vital for the Monroe leadership to create and environment that’s not only inviting and exciting, but also safe for a student body that might not feel protected outside of the school.

Davis shared that the school has had a lot of success getting students into after school tutoring programs and “Saturday School,” where they can get help with grades, and that a lot of that success has to do with creating the right environment for them.

“One of the things we’ve discovered is that kids that live in impoverished communities, they don’t want to go home,” he said. “This is safe for them. There are lights here, there’s Wi-Fi here. So we have a lot of kids who stay after school for tutoring and come to Saturday School. We were averaging, last year, about 115 kids in Saturday school.

“We have a lot of things going where kids can repair grades, and work toward mastery, that kind of stuff. But the other thing was we made it a safe place for kids.”

While the school’s several accomplishments—increased test scores, higher numbers of students dually enrolled through Move on When Ready, a reduction in discipline issues, and a greatly improved dropout rate (to name a few)—are a team effort, it’s clear that Davis is setting the tone.

In Vinson Davis I found what I’d heard I’d encounter—a bright, professional, passionate educator, dedicated to enriching the lives of the Monroe students. That Davis has a knack for running a school was also not a surprise, as he spent eight years (five as assistant principal and three as principal) at Radium Springs Middle School, and he comes from a family of well-known educators, a fact he embraces.

“My brother is a principal and my younger brother is a coach at Dougherty High, an academic coach,” Davis explained. “Of course my dad’s a retired principal; my mom’s a retired educator, so, I’ve grown up around kids. All I’ve ever known was working with young people.”

As he ruminated on that past growing up in a household of educators, Davis drew a comparison between his family and famous athletic family to illustrate what his upbringing was like.

“I didn’t know that Peyton and Eli Manning’s dad was a Hall of Fame quarterback,” he said laughingly. “I don’t know how I missed that piece, but I missed it until about four or five years ago. Once I found that out, I began to reflect on my family.

“I can just imagine the conversations that they would have around their table. It was about football, it was about the plays; it was about the reads; it was about all of that stuff.

“Around our table we’d talk education. We’d talk policies and strategies—what this city is doing, what this country is doing, how they’re getting kids interested in school. That was our talk; just sitting around the dinner table on a Sunday evening, we’d talk education. It’s wired into me.”

Although Davis’ choice of career seems natural, he freely admits that he fully understands it’s up to him to take the things he learned growing up and apply them in a way that works for him.

“You have to have your own passion for it,” he said. “I tell people all the time, ’listen, knowing people and having a lineage, whatever it is, is a good thing. But you’re success is going to come by the roads you cut. You’re going to have to cut some roads. You’re responsible.”

The success Davis has been responsible for over the past few years is evident in the aforementioned list of accomplishments, but his true impact and what will ultimately be his legacy, is really seen in the way the Monroe students, and former students for that matter, feel about their principal.

“It was like a major turnaround,” former student Charity Fuller, who had stopped by the school for a visit, said of the feel of Monroe after Davis came onboard before her senior year. “It went from like, the beginning of East Side High (the famed New Jersey school immortalized by the 1989 film “Lean on Me” starring Morgan Freeman as Principal Joe Clark), to an actual school, an institution.”

When asked what she attributes that change to, her response is direct and decisive.

“This person right here, standing in front of you,” said Fuller, her kind eyes pinned squarely on her former principal and likely lifelong friend. “And because the people who came in, the children, our class, everyone wanted to see a change. And that’s the change that we just made, as a community and as a student body.

“It was a culture shock for me (when I came here) because I came from a magnet program into Monroe High School. It was a big culture shock. I wasn’t used to it. I wanted to go to like Westover. I actually wanted to go to Sherwood. But I stayed here. I love it.”

The affection Fuller, and seemingly all the Monroe students who have matriculated during Davis’ tenure, feel toward the principal is clearly reciprocated. As he speaks of the students of Monroe Comprehensive High School, Davis is very clearly speaking from the heart. When he tells me how much each and every one of his students mean to him, there’s no doubting his sincerity.

“They are my inspiration,” he said. “And my heroes too. The kids are my heroes. A lot of them have gone through things that you wouldn’t imagine. You name it. It’s a rough world. Especially for a kid coming from an impoverished area. It’s a rough world. They’ve gone through things. They have responsibilities.

“My kids they have a busy schedule. They are scheduled to death with dance and acting and all kinds of different things. But our kids here are obligated. There’s a difference in being scheduled and obligated. They have to go home because no one is there to see about their 6 year old brother. A lot of them they get honor roll or they get a scholarship or they’re going to the military, and now they get a chance to go off and do that. They get to make something of themselves. Those are my heroes.”

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen