It’s hard to imagine John Williams as the unruly teenage boy he describes.
“I was not doing right,” Williams said in a Down East drawl tempered by travel around the world during a 20-year stint in the Air Force. “I was really living dangerously. I’d gotten cut in a street fight, walking around trying to be a little gangster in the neighborhood.”
These days, Williams, 60, the bespectacled principal of Phoenix Academy, an alternative school for students struggling academically and with behavior issues, looks very much the part of high school principal as he walks through the school he’s led since 2012.
He jokes freely to put visitors at ease, but is mentally taking note of everything around him as principals are trained to do.
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The youngest of five boys who grew up poor on a farm in Greene County near Snow Hill, Williams, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools 2017 Principal of the Year, has an infectious laugh and a quick smile.
And he cares so deeply about the well-being of the students in his charge and the staff he oversees that he’s sometimes moved to tears when discussing them.
“John Williams is a different kind of leader,” said CHCCS Superintendent Pam Baldwin. “He has a unique way of making everyone around him feel good about themselves and their challenges, and he brings a sense of calm to any situation. We are very fortunate to have him on our team.”
That sentiment is shared by staff and students.
Different kind of leader
Clyde McPherson, a social studies teacher at Phoenix Academy, met Williams when Williams was principal of Chewning Middle School (now The School for Creative Studies) in Durham.
McPherson said one of Williams’ strengths is his ability to manage people.
“He’s a good manager and you need someone who can manage people as well as resources,” McPherson said. “Sometimes, you don’t have that.”
Williams’ willingness to support teachers is another strength, McPherson said.
“He supports his teachers very well and lets them know over and over [that he supports them],” McPherson said. “But he also makes it clear that he’s here for the students.”
One of those students, Dayanara Meza, 18, spoke freely and honestly about her behavior problems, explaining that Phoenix Academy is her “last chance” because none of the district’s other schools would take her.
Meza said she was “being mean and fighting” and spending whole class periods on her phone and cursing out teachers when they asked her to put it away.
However, Meza, who is in her second stint at Phoenix Academy, behaves differently at her current school, and she credits Williams who she believes is sincere in wanting what’s best for students.
“It’s his personality,” Meza said. “He’s always happy and fun and he has a great sense of humor, but he knows when to be serious. He knows how to make people happy.”
But beneath the humor and calm demeanor, there is a sense of urgency and purpose when Williams begins to talk about the students in his school.
“Many high schools are focusing on how to get children through high school and into college, and possibly into a career. My focus is on saving children’s lives so that they can have a better quality of life.” Williams said. “Every time I see a child, and it doesn’t matter, male or female or whatever the racial, ethnic, religious background is, I see a child and I see someone who deserves a fair chance, just an opportunity.”
The back story
To understand Williams’ sense of purpose and urgency when it comes to the students he serves, it’s important to know his back story.
Williams’ father disappeared when he was 10 after falling victim to alcohol abuse while trying to eke out a living for his family of five growing boys in one of the state’s poorer counties.
“I didn’t see my father again until I was 21 and he was in his casket,” Williams said.
His father’s demise led Williams to make a few promises to himself: “I decided I would never leave my children. I would do whatever I can to support them. I would never drink alcohol, but I don’t have a problem with others drinking.
Williams’ behavior between his junior and senior years of high school led his mother to kick him out of the house, and she refused to speak to him when the two passed each other on the street.
“When I was in high school, there was a time when we didn’t speak to each other,” Williams said. “She’d pass me on the road, we wouldn’t even look at each other and acknowledge each other. Now, I take care of my mom. I make sure that I provide for her financially. I spent all of the past weekend with her. She’s in the middle stages, or lower-advanced stages of Alzheimer’s (disease) but she has seen me turn my life around.”
Williams, who now sports a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland and master’s degrees from Troy State and East Carolina universities, barely graduated high school.
“College was never spoken to me as an option,” Williams said. “I wasn’t a real strong student, and I didn’t know I was going to graduate until the day of graduation.”
He managed to graduate by posting a 71 in chemistry and two days after earning his high school diploma, Williams left Greene County on June 13, 1976, for the U.S. Air Force in a move that would become a defining moment in his life.
“I just wanted to get away,” Williams said, echoing the sentiments of so many young African Americans of his generation who found opportunity scarce in small towns all throughout the U.S. but particularly in the South.
It wasn’t until after Williams had joined the Air Force that anyone mentioned the possibility of him attending college.
The encouragement came from Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Edward Patterson, the first person to view Williams as college material.
“He was the one person in my life, ever, to say John you need to go to college,” Williams said. “He wouldn’t leave me alone actually; I wouldn’t listen to him.”
Williams, who was friends with Patterson’s daughter, said he would often visit Patterson’s home and Patterson simply wouldn’t let up, repeatedly urging Williams to take “just one course.”
“He broke it down to me one day he just told me, John, if there’s an opportunity that comes between you and a white guy who is enlisted and you guys are even with everything, education, rank, there’s a good chance that you will not get it. You have slim opportunity to advance above him. However, if you have one college class behind you, it puts you ahead.”
Finally, Williams broke down and enrolled in a college class, but not for the reasons Patterson hoped.
“I actually went to college because of two things: one to get him to leave me alone and to prove to him that I couldn’t take college classes because I wasn’t smart enough to go to college. As I’ve said, I barely graduated high school.”
But Williams underestimated himself. When he received his grade in the English 101 course he’d taken, he’d earned a “C.”
Surprised, Williams called the professor, insisting that she’d given him a higher grade than he deserved.
After she checked her records – students were given credit for attendance, class participation and test scores – the professor confirmed that Williams had indeed earned a “C.”
She added that if he’d tried a little harder, he would have gotten a “B” because he missed earning a “B” by only two points.
“That changed my life,” Williams said.
He spent that weekend in his room, walking back and forth to his sink, looking in the mirror and asking himself: “Who are you? Who’s in there? How did I pass that college class? It didn’t make sense.”
While serving in South Korea, Williams found his next attempts at college classes considerably more difficult.
After withdrawing from classes he found too difficult, he asked for a college entrance assessment from the education office and learned he had a serious reading deficiency.
“They did the assessment and it came back that I had a seventh-grade reading level, and that was good because my math level was actually at fifth grade,” Williams said. “I asked the guy what I could do and he said just read.”
Becoming a principal
Opportunity is a word Williams uses a lot.
Maybe, it’s because there wasn’t much of it in Greene County for a poor, black youth who dabbled in criminal activity and struggled in school.
But strangely enough it was Greene County, the one he left so hastily two days after graduation in 1976, that gave him his first job in education, and it was his once-estranged mother who brought him back.
He moved back to North Carolina to care for his mother after retiring from the Air Force as a senior master sergeant, then operating a private mental health counseling practice in Panama City, Florida.
Williams grows animated as he talks about stopping by the Greene County Board of Education office on a whim to drop off a resume during one visit to North Carolina.
He canceled scheduled job interviews in Raleigh where he was hoping to get work in the mental health counseling field to interview with the Greene County Schools.
Williams was hired the same day as a lateral-entry exceptional children’s teacher, and a few days later his wife learned that she’d gotten a job as a social worker.
Several months later, Williams successfully applied for a vacant assistant principal position, which launched his career as a school administrator.
He’s held administrative posts at Riverside High School and Chewning – where he became principal after one year as an assistant principal.
“When I took over Chewning, it was considered the most violent and lowest-performing middle school in the district,” Williams said. “I had the school one year and cut the discipline [problems] in half and for the first time in six years, the school showed and met school growth in performance.”
Williams moved into his current job after Chewning was closed and transformed into The School for Creative Studies, a technology-themed year-round magnet school.
Jim Key, a former Riverside principal who worked with Williams at Riverside, described Williams as an excellent assistant principal who was popular among parents and students.
“He just genuinely cares about people, and has a way of setting high expectations for those around him and holding them accountable,” Key said. “You just don’t want to let him down.”
Key said Williams’ military background and his work as a mental health counselor has served Williams well at Phoenix Academy.
“I think he’s a natural fit for a non-traditional school,” Key said. “He’s the right fit, has the right heart. It’s almost like he was born and made for where he is right now.”
Paying it forward
A year ago, Williams called Chief Master Sgt. Patterson to thank him for his encouragement, but Patterson didn’t remember the conversation.
“All he thanked me for was paying it forward, helping children because I needed someone to intervene,” Williams said.
Williams believes Patterson’s encouraging him to go to college was critical to his development as a young man and also the man he has become.
Of course, Williams did the work, but it was Patterson who convinced him to take the first step.
“He encouraged me, he told me to do it and I went to prove him wrong,” Williams said. “Ultimately, it had to be me to move forward to get my degrees, but if he didn’t speak to me about it, I could never have provided [for my family]. Going to school provided me with the opportunity to read and to understand the world around me. It helped me with my promotions. I made it all the way to E-8 [Air Force senior master sergeant] in less than 20 years.”
Before his talks with Patterson, Williams, who retired in 1997, said he had few goals other than to make it to the rank of E-5 — Air Force non-commissioned officer — which would have allowed him to remain in the Air Force until retirement.
Fortunately for Williams, Patterson saw just how lost Williams was and reached out to help.
“He saw a young, black male who was lost and completely oblivious to what the world had to offer and what the world is going to do to him if he was not better prepared,” Williams said.
He recently shared the story about Patterson and how one person with encouraging words can have a profound impact on the lives of others.
“One person spoke to me about college and now I have one bachelor’s degree and two masters degrees,” Williams told the 40 or so students who attend Phoenix Academy. “What would have happened in my life if two people had spoken to me, if three, if my brothers and my mother, if my friends?”
The hard-learned lessons from Greene County, and those he’s learned on his journey through the military and as an educator have become valuable tools in the work Williams now does at Phoenix Academy dealing with children some consider “problem children.”
“My children here aren’t problem children, they’re children with problems,” Williams said. “When you approach it from that perspective, you’re constantly trying to come up with creative ways to help them work through whatever issues they may be dealing with.”
Williams explained that that the world can be a cold, cruel place, particularly for young people who are not prepared to face the challenges it will surely present.
“No matter what is thrown in their direction, whether it’s intentional or by accident or because of the systemic issues that are in place now in our society, they need to have the skills to maneuver around those things to survive, but not only survive, but do better and more,” Williams said. “My goal is to do right by those children and the people that I serve.”