NEW ORLEANS—Principal Sharon Clark stepped into her football team’s weight room with a fearless stride. Boys in muscle shirts scattered about, the pungent bouquet of teen sweat clinging to the walls—this place signified male sanctuary like no other room in the Sophie B. Wright Charter School.
When they spotted their 48-year-old principal, the football players stopped what they were doing and quickly surrounded her. They jostled each other so that they could be first to offer her something precious: hugs. As if they were greeting their mom or a beloved aunt, one after another enfolded the tall, slender woman.
To anyone watching, the uncommon sight loudly broadcast the key to the success of this urban school: love.
When you walk into the Wright School and observe Principal Sharon Clark in action, instantly you understand. This is no ordinary school administrator. This is not your average struggling urban high school.
Sharon Clark has an indomitable presence, as if she’s holding up her entire school community by the lapels—all 450 students, their parents, and the dozens of teachers and administrators—ready to shake them to success or compliance whenever she deems it necessary.
But after 16 years as a principal, Clark has also become a dinosaur of sorts—one of the last principals remaining in the city’s Recovery School District who was there to guide the schools before Katrina. (District officials say there are a couple of other veteran principals remaining from the pre-Katrina era, though the number is dwindling.) In a new, charter-dominated landscape where change, data, and youth reign supreme, Clark’s school is increasingly an oddity. It is not part of a larger network of charters; it hires mostly veteran black teachers who come from the city; and it’s driven by one central premise: relationships matter.