LEXINGTON COUNTY, S.C. — Akil Ross, the newly crowned national high school principal of the year, flunked third grade.
He repeated the grade because he was “not up to par” as a student. He also tried to doctor his report card, turning the Fs into As, in an unsuccessful attempt to convince his mother he was a top student. Eventually, he learned that a better way to turn Fs into As was studying.
The experience taught him the value of attention to detail and how to better focus, which turned his life around and laid the groundwork for a career in education that has earned him top awards.
The most recent came on Oct. 20 when he was surprised at a school assembly with the announcement that he had been named best in his profession by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
Ross said he frequently uses his experiences from back in third grade to inspire students to do better. “I tell them academic struggles are a huge part of personal development,” he said.
Ross, who attended Duke University and played linebacker for the Blue Devils, became a teacher with the idea of also coaching football. But he decided he could have more impact as a principal.
He wants to help change students so they mature and become successful after leaving school, he said.
Many Chapin-area parents credit him with making a good school one of the best in South Carolina after he became principal in 2010. With his leadership, the school’s graduation rate has jumped from 82 to 96 percent, an improvement cited by the national principals group.
Dan Kelley, a Rhode Island principal who is president of the association, compared Ross to an orchestra conductor who makes sure “all parts are in harmony” to achieve success.
Ross is known for roaming the Chapin High halls to chat with students and listen to their concerns, offering suggestions and encouragement. “He makes himself so reachable,” said Mary Kate O’Shaughnessey, a junior.
The 38-year-old is the chief cheerleader at school gatherings and activities. He often repeats themes such “a thousand passions with one heartbeat” to champion achieving individual goals through teamwork.
“He’s a constant source of encouragement and excitement who is always there for them,” said Stephanie Martin, mother of two recent Chapin graduates. “He sees potential in students that they don’t see in themselves and helps bring it out.”
The day after he received the national award, Ross took a dozen students to a leadership seminar at Duke University. That gesture exemplifies his habit of “making a genuine effort to change things for the better,” Martin said.
His approach endears Ross not only with the 1,300 students he oversees but also with families. “He knows how to build a community, not only with students but also with their parents,” said Kelsey Taylor, a teacher at nearby Lake Murray Elementary School who is a Chapin High graduate.
Ross is there in tragedy as well as celebration. He often attends funerals, telling families he is available for advice or to allow students time to mourn amid writing notes of compassion.
Ross’ interests extend beyond the school into the community. “I never look at the classroom as the end of my influence,” he said.
As a leader of the Chapin Rotary Club, leader, he helped develop efforts to provide dictionaries to third-graders at four schools, build a playground in the Providence neighborhood, and create a library for youngsters at a local center that assists families in need.
“He’s a visionary who takes an idea and runs with it,” said attorney Lisa Lee Smith, another Rotary leader. “He makes things happen and not just at the high school.”
MORE TO DO
The national award caps a series of milestones for Ross.
He was state high school principal of the year in 2016 and a member of The State newspaper’s 20 Under 40 class for 2017. The school was honored as one of Palmetto’s Finest in 2015.
The school has earned numerous other honors in recent years, including Athletic Program of the Year by The State Media Co., three state band championships and Best Student Section in the Nation Award from Varsity Brands.
For now, Ross is concentrating on finding new ways to enhance instruction at the school. He wants to ensure that students are better prepared for careers, especially by improving job training and providing more choices for those going straight to work instead of college.
Graduation can be “like a Rubik’s cube” for some students uncertain about what to do next, he said.
The national recognition will likely give Ross a chance to promote his ideas about education across the nation, Lexington-Richland 5 Superintendent Stephen Hefner said.
Eventually, Ross would like to become a school district superintendent. But that’s not imminent, he said.
“That comes with experience,” he said. “Even the best quarterbacks aren’t ready to become football coaches right away.”