New superintendent wants to bring community together

Published 11:18 am Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Willie J. Bell and his wife Cassandra greet Nicole Greene, of Franklin, and her daughters Jayla Greene, 10, and Rahmiyah Wiggins, 9. Jayla goes to S.P. Morton Elementary. -- SUBMITTED

Willie J. Bell and his wife Cassandra greet Nicole Greene, of Franklin, and her daughters Jayla Greene, 10, and Rahmiyah Wiggins, 9. Jayla goes to S.P. Morton Elementary. — SUBMITTED

FRANKLIN—Dozens of people lined a hall at Franklin High School to meet “The New Guy in school,” including a 12-year-old J.P. King Middle School student who got there as the program was just about to get under way.

Lillie Phillips had asked her mother, Amy, if she was going to go to the introduction meeting of Superintendent Willie J. Bell. The answer was yes, and Lillie decided to give up watching TV — usually the Science or History Channel — for a couple of hours and go meet Bell.

“I was just curious what his agenda was for the schools, since I go to school here,” she said.

While there, she not only met Bell, but she had a long conversation with his wife Cassandra about, well, history and science, her favorite subjects.

“I was just getting a science lesson,” said Cassandra, who is a math teacher. “And we talked about history before we came and sat down. That’s what I do. I like interacting with young kids.”

Lillie was telling Cassandra a little about the physics concept of resonance and how sound can cause glass to shatter.

“There are so many forces in the universe,” she said. “You can affect one thing, and cause another thing to happen. It all intrigues me.”

Willie Bell also received a guest that he had not expected in Lelia P. Baxter, who taught the superintendent when he was a fourth-grader.

“I called him my little young man,” Baxter said. “His father, who had been a principal, always made him stand straight, walk straight and sit up straight.”

Baxter said she knew Bell would be someone some day, and she was glad to see him involved in education.

“He was a very good student,” she said. “He always liked to sit in the front seat.”

Bell said he was honored to have his fourth-grade teacher present.

“Oh, my God,” he said. “I couldn’t believe she was here. She was an excellent teacher and an excellent role model. I’m just so appreciative of her support.”

Once everyone had arrived, and Bell had shaken almost everyone’s hands and introduced himself to them, School Board Chair Edna King and Mayor Raystine Johnson-Ashburn had him come forward to give a speech.

“Look at the people here, we are the Franklin City Public Schools family. We are team FCPS, and it starts tonight,” he said to begin, which drew the applause of people there.

Then he got into his five-point thrust plan, which had an acronym of TEACH.

“T stands for technology,” Bell said. “In today’s paradigm, technology is integral for students. We might have some trouble with an iPad, but babies 2 and 3 can go to town.

“E is environment,” he continued. “We aim to create a culture that is safe and conducive for learning.

“A is for achievement. We have to get successfully accredited. And our principals have done a great job getting us on the cusp of success.”

Bell, who had played football in high school, college and went on to coach, had a football analogy.

“We are 6-4. A lot of coaches will take 6-4,” he said. “But we can’t relax. We need to be champions, and we need to go 9-1 and 10-0.

“And it does not begin here [in Franklin High School] with Principal [Travis] Felts. We have to start in Head Start, in pre-K, in kindergarten, and all the way up to strengthen those babies so that by the time they get to Franklin High School, there is no question that they will accomplish.”

C stands for communication and collaboration.

“Some of you may have read in The Tidewater News that my door is always open,” Bell said. “And I mean it. Do not hesitate to come and see me because I am definitely going to come and see you.”

H stands for an old-school model that Bell said has been left out of schools — the home-to-school relationship.

“Administrators used to not be afraid to go sit in someone’s house,” he said. “They say that parents won’t come to our buildings, well, it’s the same distance from those buildings to the house.

“We will get on the bus and go home with kids and do whatever we have to do to make sure our kids prosper.”

Chamber Executive Director Teresa Beale said there was a lot of excitement in the business community.

“I think it was a great speech,” she said. “We are already making plans for getting involved.”

Bob Holt, who used to serve as school board chair from 1995 to 1999, said the new superintendent has made a good impression on him.

“When he was first announced, I sent Willie an email and within 10 minutes, I got a reply,” he said. “I feel really good about him. His excitement and energy — we have not seen that in a long time in Franklin City Public Schools.”

Holt, who graduated from FHS, said he felt great about the path the system is on right now.

“I really like his emphasis on the community in collaboration,” he said. “We’ve lacked that for so long. I think the community can play a role in helping the system.”

Mona Murphy, ward 4 councilwoman, said that she was particularly impressed when Bell was talking about how far Franklin City Public Schools would go if everyone in the community would join hands and work together.

“I really believe that will work,” she said. “But it is so easy to speak it. We’ve got to do it, and we’ve got to be here to support the schools and school board in whatever.”

Murphy was also excited to see that he was planning to get the parents more involved.

“I’ve been saying for so long that if the parents won’t come to us, that we should go to them,” she said. “It does take a village to raise a child, but that also includes parents. You’ve got to have the parents on board.”

Lillie Phillips was the last person to walk up to Bell and have a long talk with him after the speech. She later said that she enjoys going to J.P. King, particularly participating in the Type II gifted program.

“The principal and vice principal are very good,” she said. “I like it there.”

But Lillie did recognize that there are problems. When she was in sixth grade, they had a program for parents in the cafeteria.

“It looked basically like just the sixth grade class eating in the cafeteria,” she said. “Not a lot of parents showed up.”

Most of her fellow students are good students, but she added that sometimes they could get out of hand and discipline was a problem.

Meeting Bell did set some of her worries at ease.

“I think that they are going to be really good for the school,” Lillie said of Bell and his wife. “They are planning on doing a lot of things that I did not hear from the last one. I especially like that they are getting the community involved.

“Based off of what I heard, it seems like they are going to do well.”