When Douglass High School Principal Brian Staples first entered an Oklahoma City public school as a student teacher almost 20 years ago, he asked if he could take over teaching the class on the second day and was "hooked."
He spent the next five years teaching science at the same place, Northeast High School. But if he'd listened to his peers while finishing his pedagogy work, he'd never have gone there.
"People strongly advised against going to Oklahoma City Public Schools, so I figured that's where I needed to be," he said.
Today, Staples' résumé is a litany of leadership roles in OKC schools: principal at Northeast Academy, Capitol Hill High School, Taft Middle School and About Face Academy; assistant principal at Classen School of Advanced Studies.
"Can't hold down a job," he said, joking, from behind his impeccably neat desk at Douglass, where he took the reigns in February 2008. But the humor that punctuates his conversation belies his seriousness: "I believe every single child can be successful and go to college," he said.
Three years after MAPS for Kids opened the new Douglass " part of facility improvements OKC education patrons hope will parallel student achievement " Staples' seriousness has been yielding results and garnering support.
In spring 2008, Douglass High students taking End of Instruction tests scored well below state averages in core subjects, according to the state Education Oversight Board's "School Report Card." Yet during Staples' first year, the high school also got off the state's "needs improvement" list. Last year, it and the middle school made No Child Left Behind's adequate yearly progress (AYP) benchmark.
Sonja Caddell, vice president of Douglass' parent-teacher-student association (PTSA), said Staples' commitment to students' success was evident from day one.
"Dr. Staples came on and made a lot of changes "¦ but the changes he made were for good," she said. "He would go through every single child's grades on the weekend. If they had a C or below, you had to go two days a week to tutoring during lunch. We know this helped a lot with kids who otherwise would fail their class."
PTSA President Anna King echoed her sentiment:
"He is all about education," she said. "Those kids " he needs them and wants them to learn so they can go to college. He's serious about that."
The McLoud native has been college-minded since his start at Northeast High in 1990, teaching advanced placement (AP) biology and chemistry. As principal at Northeast Academy, he implemented a program providing college classes to eligible juniors and seniors.
At Douglass this fall, 23 juniors and seniors are taking college courses, and the school recently became an ACT testing site. The first student to take the test worked on it from a round table in Staples' office.
For Staples " who earned a master's of education degree from the University of Central Oklahoma and a doctorate in education from California Coast University " being an educator in an urban district is more than a career choice. In such places, he believes "school folk" can greatly impact students who lack the resources of their peers in suburban districts.
"You have an opportunity to make a difference in the life of a kid," he said. "Most people have jobs. We (OKCPS educators) don't have a job. I would say a mission or a calling."
Part of Staples' mission at Douglass this year includes increasing student retention. When he arrived in spring 2008, all the seniors graduated, according to School Report Card statistics. But the class had a four-year dropout rate of 26.1 percent. Staples implemented a team to focus on helping ninth-graders move up. Now the large group is sophomores.
He also wants to continue improving teaching at the school through professional development. Never mind that the high school has a 90 percent free and reduced lunch rate.
"Those are issues, not excuses," he said. "It's the reality."
Staples ought to know. When he was 12, he went to work on a dairy farm " not because he wanted to, he said, but because his family needed him to.
Like his students, he said, "We had issues of poverty growing up. Farming is not a wealthy business."
Today, he still gets up before 4:30 a.m. But now it's to take care of e-mails, paperwork and other tasks that would otherwise eat into his time at Douglass.
Part of what makes him effective, according to OKCPS board member Thelma R. Parks, is his professional attention to students. Teachers might stand in the halls during passing periods to help avert any issues, she said, but Staples does, too.
King said he knew both her boys by name " and expects it's the same with all the students.
"He walks down the halls, he knows the kids, he helps with the PTSA a lot," she said.
When it comes to those who most impacted his education, Staples credits his mother, Billie Staples.
"My mom was a dropout of Tulsa Public Schools "¦ but at that time (dropping out) didn't have (the same) impact," he said, adding education was important to her. She stayed home with her sons and taught them to read.
Now Staples reads 10 to 15 books at once, a couple hundred a year. That's thanks to a "dedicated mom," he said. For OKCPS students who don't have the same help at home, the district's pre-K and kindergarten efforts are crucial, he added " not unlike helping them register for the ACT or take advantage of concurrent enrollment later on.
"When kids don't have that, we have a responsibility as a community to provide that," he said. "Emily Jerman