David Wilson has begun his run as principal at Chaparral High School, which has one of the Clark County School District’s worst graduation rates. District officials put the school’s 2010 graduation figure at 48 percent, but Wilson believes it’s much closer to 28 percent, when accurately accounting for students who disappeared between the start and finish of the last school year.
Chaparral is one of the school district’s five newly designated turnaround schools—it replaced half of its staff, making it eligible for federal dollars that provide for enhanced teacher training. Wilson inherits a school that was in poor shape. There were few working toilets. Air ducts were covered with filth. Carpets and tile were blackened from years of poor maintenance. Windows throughout the campus were deeply marked by knives and car keys. The school district spent $2 million to repair the facility with the aid of work crews that put in 80-hour weeks.
Wilson, 48, began his professional career as a salesman but made the transition to education, which is something of a family business. His parents, aunts, uncles and wife have worked in the field, and his father, Al, was an education professor at Kansas State University, where one of his students was a young Dwight Jones, now the superintendent of Clark County Schools.
The new Chap principal has a folksy demeanor and greets friends with hugs while fist-bumping students, a greeting that teens readily accept.
What was your first day of school like for you when you were a kid?
I was always extremely excited to get back to see friends. I loved school, the feel of it, the smell of it, the social aspect of it. I think a lot of that goes back to kindergarten. It’s hard to describe the smell of it; elementary schools have a specific smell.
Is that a good smell?
I think it’s a distinct smell. When I think of smells of school I think of the smell of paint, erasers, sweaty kids.
Does a high school smell different?
High school smells a lot more antiseptic. Kids generally keep themselves clean. You have myriad colognes and perfumes. The locker rooms smell like an Axe commercial that’s going to clash because you have 20 different smells that collide.
What did Chap smell like when you first visited it in March?
Chap smelled to me like decay. There was literally a black fur on the air ducts. That means every piece of air that circulated was basically old, musty air. It wasn’t the smell of the kids; it was the smell of decay.
When you were a kid, did you have a special outfit you’d wear to school on the first day?
My parents were dirt poor. I literally had one or two new outfits. That first day was literally like a fashion show. I would wear a shirt that wasn’t an uncle’s shirt, a hand-me down, new pants. That was probably all I was going to have new until Christmas.
It’s hard to believe where we come from versus what we have now. That’s why every year I’ve been a principal I’ve brought every one of my kids a new T-shirt in October. I know that literally that may be the only new piece of clothing they will have this year.
At Chaparral it will cost me about $15,000 to do. It’s not just about clothing, it’s about unity, pride. You’re doing something spirit-oriented, and kids can participate. That kicked me in the gut when I first started working at Ullom Elementary School years ago. They were selling T-shirts for 10 bucks apiece and kids couldn’t afford to buy one.
Does the money you spend come from your pocket?
No, I get donations.
Your wife is an elementary school teacher. How much money do the two of you personally spend every year toward school?
I thought when I went from being a teacher it would go down. As a teacher, you always spend $4,000 or $5,000 a year out of pocket. Out of pocket between the two of us it’s going to be $12,000 and $16,000.
That buys food, material, peanut butter for my football team. I went in and talked to my football coaches and I asked, “What’s the one thing Dave Wilson could do out of pocket for the success of the team?” Their No. 1 answer was, “Feed them.” The coach said, “We want peanut butter. We want bread. If we can feed them before practice we’re going to be successful.”
It seems as though most people don’t get this.
You know, they don’t. They think the childhood kids are having today is going to be a lot like ours. We remember the parties, the athletics. We remember the dating. We think the environment is safe. You look at a high school, and I’m talking about most high schools, the majority of schools are not what we experienced. It’s a different culture. In order to be successful the two things that graduate kids are quality experience/quality adults and co-curricular activities—the arts, athletics, after-school clubs. It’s a difficult culture because you’re struggling to get kids into those co-curriculars.
Why is it such a struggle?
I think it’s our society. Most people under the age of 30 would rather text me than call me. We continue to lose touch with the personal touch. It’s just a different culture. That’s not good or bad. It’s just a different culture.
What’s the main thing about the start of the school year that keeps you awake late at night?
No. 1 is Monday morning, the first day of school. I almost puke over this one. It is such a change of culture. That very first time those kids walk off that bus, see Chaparral High School, I have to positively, absolutely instill that change of culture, not for that 20 percent who already get it, but for that 80 percent … who didn’t squawk or complain about the condition of the school. I need to change that culture so they believe education is important, that they are going to graduate. The thing that keeps me up at night absolutely is that first day of school because I only have one chance, one shot to make that first impression on those kids.