Kannapolis City Schools honors A.L. Brown chief
By Sarah Campbell
KANNAPOLIS — A green graduation gown hangs in Kevin Garay’s office at A.L. Brown High School.
It’s not his, but it serves as a reminder to students that it can be theirs.
“It’s a good conversation piece,” Garay, the school’s principal, said.
Garay, 37, said he typically points to the gown during counseling sessions with students.
“It’s a good reminder when they are dealing with issues that are distracting them from their goals,” he said.
When students walk through the doors at A.L. Brown, Garay said, the first thing he lets them know is that his No. 1 goal is to see them graduate.
That’s why when he came to the school as an assistant principal in 2005, he started the Freshman Academy, a program that groups ninth-graders together for core classes, broken down into three teams similar to middle school. Freshmen have one elective class where they can mingle with students in other grades.
Garay said each team of about 120 students has a group of six teachers.
“It gives the teachers an opportunity to really get to know their students,” he said.
It’s those personal touches that Garay says have contributed to the school’s rising graduation rate, which has climbed steadily from about 68 percent in 2006 to 85 percent in 2011.
After taking the reins as principal in 2009, Garay created a dropout prevention committee of about 15 people to work one-on-one with students who are at risk of dropping out.
“We make phone calls and do home visits, whatever it takes to get students back on track,” he said.
Dr. Debra Morris, assistant superintendent of Kannapolis City Schools, said she’s been impressed with Garay’s quest to improve the graduation rate.
“There has been a more intensive focus on the dropout problems,” she said.
Morris said Garay has also streamlined the credit recovery process.
He’s added a facilitator to work with students on online credit recovery during all four blocks, another step to get students to the finish line. Credit recovery is also available after school for about 12 weeks each semester and six weeks during the summer.
“I think the effort that has been devoted to coming up with ideas to improve the graduation rate has been really good,” Morris said.
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Increasing the graduation rate is just one of the things that has made Garay stand out, earning him the title of the district’s Principal of the Year, an award given by his peers.
During his first year at the school, Garay implemented a student uniform policy that he says has improved the climate at A.L. Brown.
“By climate, I mean the way they conduct themselves,” he said. “I think they take pride in how they look and the way they interact with adults.”
Garay was also instrumental in launching the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Academy, which opened this fall. He got teachers involved in the planning for the nearly 50,000-square-foot building.
“We knew we had a very special opportunity to make a difference,” Garay said. “We wanted our teachers to think about new ways to improve instruction if they had the right resources and facilities.
Garay also brought back the school’s theater arts program and is investigating a fine arts academy with the addition of a new dance program next year.
“We have implemented programs that really improve the opportunities for our students,” he said.
Senior Dakota Palacio, who plans to become a veterinarian, said she’s benefited from those specialized programs.
“Mr. Garay helps students find an area they are interested in and then points them in the direction of which classes to take,” she said “I think it’s great that he’s one of those principals that if I have a problem, I can go to him and talk and he’ll help me figure things out.”
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Garay said making personal connections with students is another top priority.
That’s why he stands at the front entryway every morning, talking with students as they come in. And the subjects don’t always revolve around school.
“Sometimes we’ll talk about sports,” he said. “It’s about that visibility factor. I want them to see me and know I”m here.”
And Garay doesn’t just show up for students during the day, he’s there at sporting events and theater performances.
“I try to make it to as many away games as I can because I know it means so much to the students,” he said.
Senior Dalton Ozmun, who recently performed in the school’s production of “A Christmas Carol,” said it was nice to see Garay in the audience.
“I really like that he’s on a first-name basis with the students here,” Ozmun said.
Morris said Garay’s passion for students is one of the things that makes him stand out.
“He’s willing to put in the time to support the students,” she said.
Morris saw firsthand how Garay dealt with students when he worked as her assistant principal, traditionally a disciplinarian role.
“He was a really good role model for the kids because he took the time to really help the kids understand what they did wrong and what they need to do to improve in the future,” she said.
And Morris said that commitment doesn’t just apply to students.
“He’s a highly effective communicator,” she said. “He doesn’t go home any day without returning all his phone calls because he knows that parents expect to hear back from him in a timely fashion.”
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Garay said there is still room for improvement at A.L. Brown.
“Our biggest challenge right now is college readiness,” he said. “Our SAT scores have not improved the past two years.”
He’s hoping to remedy that problem by having ACT and SAT review courses for both English and math.
“We’re also going to have a committee that reviews the data and tries to work with students who are performing at an average or below-average level,” Garay said.
A professor from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte will also be working with teachers on ACT strategies that will help boost scores.
Garay is also working with The Princeton Review, a standardized test preparation company, to provide supplemental review courses for students in the future.
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Garay, a native of a rural town in West Virginia, wasn’t always planning to go into education.
After graduating from Concord University, he went to law school for a year before deciding to take a break.
“When I decided to leave law school, my intention at the time was to get into education and teach for a while and maybe go to law school part time, “ he said.
Garay ended up teaching high school social studies and coaching football and baseball.
“I really enjoyed the school atmosphere,” he said. “I decided really within the first year that I wanted to get into school administration because I really enjoyed teaching and I felt like I had the capability to be a leader.”
Garay said he knew going down the administrative path would give him more opportunities to impact students, staff and the community at large.
During his third year of teaching, Garay began pursuing his master’s degree in school administration from Gardner-Webb University.
Prior to coming to A.L. Brown, Garay taught in Lincoln County Schools, where he worked as a teacher and part-time administrator his final year. During that year, he worked with Morris, who was the high school director.
“She took the principal position at A.L. brown after that year and she got in contact with me that summer and I started here as an assistant principal,” he said.
Garay said Morris modeled the qualities that he now tries to embody.
“Everybody on this campus has to know that I put in the time, that I’m committed, that I’m the hardest-working person on campus,” he said. “She was that person when she was here.”
Garay said Morris showed him that there are no shortcuts.
“I thought I was staying last as assistant principal at the time, but she would stay later,” he said. “I thought I was working hard, but she would work harder.
“I try to model that for the team we have now.”
Garay said Morris also taught him that the principal has to be the most empathetic and compassionate person on campus.
“When you’re working with people trying new projects or trying to solve an issue, you have to be compassionate about it,” he said.
Morris said she brought Garay on board because of his no-nonsense work ethic, a trait she’s seen grow.
“I’m really proud of the fact that he has stepped in and has done the job that he has done,” she said. “He’s one of those people that you hire and you know you made the right decision.”
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.
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