Millbrook High School’s administration suite was in full swing as the clock ticked closer to the end of the school day last spring.
Assistant principals jogged from one room to the next to confer with one another while the office secretary stayed busy on the phone answering a seemingly endless stream of questions from a concerned parent.
Hushed whispers gave the school a quiet yet unusual sense of excitement in the school, as students waiting for rides outside the school confirmed the reason: prom night.
While the students prepared to party, Principal Dana King prepared her schedule for a well-needed nap. The festivities are not new to her; it is her 27th prom night.
“I can’t do midnight anymore. On a regular night I go to bed at 9:30 or 10,” said King laughing. “The kids will be great. There will be 600 to 700 kids dressed up to the nines, on their best behavior, and I’ll get bored out of my mind by like 10 o’clock.”
Millbrook High School has just more than 2,500 students, 31 percent of whom rely on free and reduced lunch programs. After King’s 12 years serving as the high school principal, the school is just shy of a 90 percent graduation rate, according to assistant principal Charles Patton.
“The mystique of Dana King has never been lost on me,” said Patton, who has worked with King since February of last year. “The shelf life of high school principals now is, what, two to three years? More often than not we hear stories of schools falling apart.” That’s not the case for Millbrook High School since King arrived.
Patton explained that in 2002, when he graduated from Millbrook High School, it was far different from what it is today. In 2002, Millbrook’s primary issue was reducing gang violence. Now the school boasts one of the only three International Baccalaureate programs in Wake County.
“Before I came here, Millbrook had five different principals in 10 years,” said King.
“When I got here the cheerleading coach had been fired and the sanitation rating was a C. Those were both examples of benign neglect. No principal stayed long enough to clean up the place or keep people accountable.”
What was the first thing King did when she started at Millbrook?
“We bought more trash cans! How stupid is that? It doesn’t take a college degree to buy more trash cans,” she said. “I read the report on why the school got a C rating, and by the way a C rating is like an F, it’s not allowed to remain open, and no other school had gotten a C.”
King sees problems like these as easy fixes. She got a new cheerleading coach and cleaned up the school to increase the sanitation score. She also terminated the entire custodial staff, giving each staff person the option to reapply. The move she hoped would make them more accountable to her.
“So many central office administrators are focused on this result and this project and this thing that’s a two and three year vision, and Mrs. King is specific about, you know in seven years that’s not going to happen, in seven years there is going to be a problem,” said Patton.
Deciding to dismiss people, or beginning the paperwork to do so, does not faze King.
“If you do it for the right reasons,” she says, “it’s not personal.” She goes on to say that she thinks of her two children, who attended Millbrook, and the environment she would — or would not — want for them.
Dismissals are not the only contentious decisions King has made, though.
Simple changes, like switching a teacher’s room, can be highly polarizing, along with any other upset to the status quo.
“I can see why in some places, schools don’t change or improve,” she says. “It’s a lot of emotional work and some people won’t do it.”
While King certainly feels justified in many of the decisions she makes, some have unintended consequences. According to The News and Observer, two students were suspended and eventually deported because of their connection to a gun found on school grounds.
“I had no idea that these kids wouldn’t come back. I knew that I had to follow policy, and that if you agree to this job then you have to follow the practices and policies,” said King.
King was powerless to bring the students back to their families. King knows the Latino community at Millbrook often live in fear and anxiety due to President Trump’s stance on immigration.
In response, she pulled the teacher out of the English as a second language class where the incident occurred and replaced her with a more experienced teacher.
King’s job is stressful in other ways. While her connection with the community that surrounds Millbrook is strong, and it provides her with support from involved parents and community organizations, the weekly hours she logs are intense. It is not uncommon for King to spend 12 hours or more at the school in a given day.
She especially enjoys watching teachers grow in experience and ability, especially when a teacher is a former student, as was the First-Year Teacher of the Year.
“First semester he wasn’t doing well,” said King. “I went in for an observation and I tried not to break him or make him cry but I told him, ‘Buddy, this just isn’t good,’ and he got it. And since December, each time we go in, he is getting better and better.”
Other times rewarding moments come unexpectedly in the middle of a hectic day, like one when a former graduate of Millbrook came by to see the school.
The student plays professional basketball in Europe, but came back on a break because he wanted to visit his former high school and to see his younger brother dressed up for prom.
“He didn’t have to come back but he said, ‘I wanted to see my old high school principal,’ and you know what? I want to see you too,” King said.