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How a Principal of the Year runs a school

Tabari Wallace has developed quite a reputation in North Carolina education.

In Craven County, where he’s led three different schools in the past six years, people call him the school transformation expert. On the state level, he was named the NC 2018 Principal of the Year. His latest project is creating change at West Craven High School, which has stagnated on proficiency through several administrators.

“We haven’t moved proficiency in this school in a while,” Wallace said. “That’s why I was sent here: to move proficiency. We took care of growth last year.”

When we asked him how he turns struggling schools around, he explained his approach, which breaks down the teaching process into two parts: “can do” and “will do.”

That’s how Wallace looks at teaching, but he’s taking a deliberate approach with students, too. In his first year, one of his biggest takeaways from West Craven was the importance of camaraderie and social interaction between students during the school day.

The school serves 11 different areas in a wide spread across eastern North Carolina. The distance can make attending after-school programs, and other social activities, difficult for students.

“Living in a rural area, a lot of people underestimate the importance of that social-emotional component of students,” Wallace said. “That’s the key. It’s not really busy out here other than phones, okay? It ain’t like you’re living in the city, and things are going on that you can get to in a five-minute radius.”

So Wallace resolved to create time for more social interaction during the school day. Over the summer, school administration solicited feedback from teachers and students.

“All their concerns, opportunities, and threats that they had,” Wallace said, “we took that into consideration and we tweaked our own program.”

That tweaking involved making some adjustments to the school schedule and implementing new programs for breakfast and lunch. These programs aren’t unique to West Craven, but the school’s effective use of them has garnered statewide attention from groups like No Kid Hungry.

The first program is called the Second Chance Breakfast. The idea is that by moving breakfast later into the day, after first period, more students will take part. Wallace previously used the program during his time at Havelock Middle School, where he said it quadrupled the number of students eating breakfast.

Before he brought the program to West Craven, Wallace said, around 40 students would eat breakfast on an average day. Now, he said, that figure is closer to 500 students.

Feeding such a large number of students in only 15 minutes is no easy task. That problem was solved with breakfast “kiosks” that are rolled out across the school to various locations. Students have the option to grab breakfast in the cafeteria or at one of the kiosks in a hallway nearby. It’s a variation of a concept Wallace first saw in the Rowan-Salisbury School System.

Lauren Weyand, Craven County’s director of school nutrition, said they even have outdoor options for students.

“It’s more trendy,” she said. “And the kids are really enjoying that.”

Tabari Wallace, principal of West Craven High School, gives a presentation to No Kid Hungry on the school’s nutrition programs. Robert Kinlaw/EducationNC

The other nutrition-oriented program Wallace implemented is called Power Hour, and it’s a similar concept.

Lunch is served for an hour and split into two 30-minute sections, A and B. Students eat lunch during one section, and much like breakfast, they have the option to eat in the cafeteria or in various locations across campus. That includes classrooms, the cafeteria, and an outdoor patio area not unlike what you’d find on a college campus.

During the other 30 minute section, students have the flexibility to do as they please. They can visit teachers, socialize with friends, catch up on work, or just get some needed downtime on their own.

These students chose to spend their power hour in the library. Robert Kinlaw/EducationNC

There’s a catch, though: for students to retain that privilege, they need to keep at least a 75 average in all their classes. That’s checked per each progress report. Students who don’t meet the threshold spend the next four and a half weeks (the amount of time between progress reports and report cards) in academic tutoring sessions during B lunch. If they pull their grade up by the time report cards come out, they can rejoin their peers for power hour.

Teachers also have the authority to revoke the privilege on a same-day basis if students fail to turn in assignments or disrupt class. Wallace described it as a “carrot in front of the carriage” to keep students on task.

“You just lost 30 minutes with your friends,” Wallace said. “So powerful, so powerful. We’ve seen classroom disruptions decrease tremendously. When I first got here, we probably had 30-plus fights. We’ve only had five this year.”

Wallace said in a recent survey given to teachers, they reported students had better behavior, longer attention spans, and increased assignment completion.

But it’s tough to pin those improvements solely on the new meal programs, especially when Wallace is doing so much to change the culture of the school itself. He engages students with a high-energy leadership style that permeates through all of the school’s activities.

And there are many activities outside the traditional classroom at West Craven.

The school’s Career Academy is just getting off the ground and will be fully deployed two years from now. It gives students the chance to take occupational courses that culminate in an internship, and hopefully a great job.

Students declare what they’d like to do their sophomore year. The options include agriculture, nursing, emergency tech, firefighting, mechatronics, IT, and more. The credits and certifications on offer are equivalent to those at a community college, so by the time students graduate, they’re ready to enter the workforce.

“Your senior year, you actually go in the field,” Wallace said. “Your senior year, second semester. You’re doing an internship — in high school — that you get credit for.”

That provides a springboard for many students to gain full-time employment in the field of their choice.

These students are in the nursing track of West Craven High School’s Career Academy. Robert Kinlaw/EducationNC

“Our kids leave here with jobs already, or if they don’t leave here with a job, they leave with an industry certification that almost guarantees they won’t make minimum wage going in,” Wallace said.

What excites Wallace most about this model is that students are getting these experiences while still in the K-12 system. And some programs in the Career Academy, like IT, are set up so that students can automatically transition to Craven Community College. They can bypass the admissions process entirely, which is a huge win for Wallace, who had trouble getting into postsecondary education due to his own history.

“I’ve been through this,” Wallace said. “I’ve had doors close. Even though my transcripts and everything made it, they found something in my past to tell me no. And they didn’t let me in. Thank God East Carolina rolled the dice on me because I could play football.”

Robert Kinlaw

Robert was director of multimedia for EducationNC. He is a journalist and award-winning documentary filmmaker in the Triangle. Robert attended both public and private grade schools in North Carolina and graduated from the Media and Journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. He has produced video content for The News & Observer, ABC11-WTVD, UNC-Chapel Hill, The News Reporter and more. His short documentary Princess Warrior received an Excellence in Filmmaking award at the 2017 Carrboro Film Festival. Visit his website at