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Columbia Business Monthly

Top Principal Focuses On Student Preparation

Jan 02, 2018 01:26PM ● By Emily Stevenson
By  Annamarie Koehler-Shepley
Photography ©2017 Brian Dressler /

Between answering to a board of directors, managing different personalities, and making sure that various departments have the resources they need, corporate CEOs have big jobs. Now, imagine that the primary stakeholders are teenagers and their families, and you’ll have an idea of what it’s like to be a high school principal.

Dr. Akil Ross, principal at Chapin High School and the National Association of Secondary School Principals’ 2018 National Principal of the Year, is taking it in stride.

 “As a principal, I’m more in the social sector,” Ross said. “My bottom line is student preparation and student growth. What resources do I have available, and how can I leverage those resources to help my teachers and my students?”

Ross, 38, joined Chapin High School as an assistant principal in 2005 and took over as principal in 2009.

This most recent accolade is one in a string of successes for both the school and for Ross: The school received the Palmetto’s Finest Award in 2015, has won multiple state band championships, and was recognized by Varsity Brands for its outstanding student section; Ross himself won the state high school principal award and made The State’s Top 20 Under 40 list in 2017.

“Early in my administration,” Ross said, “I asked my staff, ‘Why are we here?’”

After everyone had answered, all of the responses were put into a graphic where the words that were used most frequently appeared the largest.

“The largest terms were ‘students,’ ‘prepare,’ and ‘for life,’” he said. “That was our doctrine at that point: to prepare students for life. Everything that we do, everything that we say, that we fund, that we sacrifice for, has to be to that mantra.”

Ross cultivates this culture every day by identifying the individual needs of a child and meeting them with the right resources. Because learning can easily become a passive experience and because achievement is not necessarily the same thing as growth, Ross has identified two separate visions for students and teachers to hold everyone accountable for the outcome.

“My overall mission as a principal has never changed,” Ross said. “The strategies we use are ever evolving, but the purpose of growing the student’s mind, body, and spirit and looking at the whole child...has been since day one.”

One of his most recent strategies: setting up a temporary desk in the hallway. Just like for many successful CEOs in the business world, accessibility and visibility go a long way. When he learned of another principal doing this, he wanted to implement it right away.

“I said, ‘How ingenious’—because one, you’re visible, and two, you’re getting that administrative work done,” Ross said. “Part of [a principal’s] responsibilities is responding to those things that keep you in the office, but if you stay in the office, you’re not going to be an effective principal... so what a perfect way to meet both needs.”

While Ross is blatantly passionate, the job isn’t easy. A 2014 report from School Leaders Network found that almost half of all principals end up quitting within the first three years on their job, a statistic Ross can sympathize with.

“Schools are held accountable for sometimes impossible things, and as a result, people think that [schools] don’t want to be held accountable and that we don’t believe in accountability, which is incorrect,” Ross said. “We want to be held accountable for the right things. When I asked my staff why we’re here, they said to prepare students for life; they didn’t say to have the best achievement scores.”

Between managing achievement expectations, fostering a positive campus climate, and making a presence at any and all school events, it’s clear that the idea of a high school principal as an elusive administrative figure stuck behind their desk is no longer accurate. In its place is the expectation of a dynamic leader with responsibilities more akin to a corporate mogul.

“Most CEOs have that responsibility of leading an organization that has multiple parts,” Ross said. “We have students and their families, teachers and staff, and community. You have state and national guidelines, too. These are all entities that need to get to where they need to go.”

And get there they will, with the help of Ross and other school principals.

“I see the principalship as a circle of professionals, and I’m one point in that circle that’s been highlighted,” Ross said. “We all become better when we keep telling our stories and we keep learning from each other. We have all the solutions; they’re just separated over thousands of schools, and so our goal is now to bring together a collective knowledge so that we can all benefit.”