After 14 years, David Hawks was controversially removed from his position as principal of Durham School of the Arts. The principal position has been temporarily filled by the energetic James Key, who has a long history in DPS. Through daily announcements, Mr. Key works to connect with students and foster school spirit; but many still don’t know the man behind the mask.
Q: How many years have you been working in education? What has your favorite position been?
A: This is my 37th year working in public schools and I’ve worked in a lot of different schools. I taught US history, civics and economics, and I taught psychology mainly for a good while. When I taught I mainly taught at Chewning junior high [now the School for Creative Studies], Northern high school and Riverside high school. I became an assistant principal around 1995 and I served as an assistant principal at Carrington middle school. Then I was a principal at Eno Valley elementary, Carrington middle school, Chewning middle school, and Riverside high school. Before I retired I served as the assistant superintendent for highschools for DPS; so at one point I worked for all of the high schools for the district. I’ve really enjoyed all of the jobs I’ve had. The highlight was when I was at Riverside high school. Being the principal of a large comprehensive high school, and when I was at high school (depending on the year) we would have anywhere from 850 students to 2,050 students. That was a very challenging position but it was also very rewarding, similar to whomever becomes the permanent principal here. After I retired I have had several interim positions, just like the one I am serving now at DSA. Those have been rewarding as well because of the relationships you get to develop with so many different people.
Q: How is DSA similar or different from other schools you have worked at?
A: I think DSA’s size is a challenge. Again, I have been principal of a school larger
A: I have a strong connection and loyalty to this school system. I am sure the permanent principal is going to be an outstanding leader, and I am not saying that I am even in that person's league, but I know enough about Durham, and I know enough about the schools, and I know enough about DPS and, quite frankly, I know enough about Mr. Hawks that I wanted to be able to provide a bridge. I wanted to be willing to provide some stability and to try to make sure that DSA could get the resources and support that it needed to help work through the transition.
Q: How has knowing that this position is temporary impacted your approach to it?
A: Being an interim principal, my leadership style is a little bit different than if I was coming in as the permanent principal. And you all are probably going to experience that
when the new principal gets here. She or he or they are probably going to lead differently than how I have because, hopefully, the new principal has the vision and the commitment to be here for many many years. It is a slow process of learning and listening and understanding the culture; and then collaboratively working with students and families, and obviously teachers, to determine what the vision needs to be for say the next year and 5 years and 10 years and beyond. What I have found is [that when you are an interim principal] you have to accelerate that process and sometimes you have to be willing to take some chances. [These chances may be] with many of the messages you send and the way you interact with students because you have to sort of cut through the getting to know you phase. It is important not to get too far ahead of yourself. That's the new principal's responsibility, but it is also an opportunity for the new principal and so you have to try to stay in the moment as much as possible. Every school, even a great school like DSA, has room for improvement. There are always areas where you say ok we can tweak this or maybe there is something we need to address really seriously. But if you are the interim principal it is more important to address things day by day or week by week and leave those kinds of considerations to the new principal coming in, unless it is something that is really major or than DSA, but not grades 6th through 12. I think you need teachers and assistant principals and leaders that are very flexible and adaptable and able to one day deal with an 11 year old type issue and the next day deal with an 18 year old. I think the part about DSA that makes it special is that most students are choosing to be here. They and their family’s applied to get in through the lottery process. Most students become invested in this school, most students have an arts passion, maybe not all, but a lot do. And I think that there is a culture here among the students and faculty. I think there is a lot of pride at this school and the reputation that has been built [around what] graduates and teachers and former teachers have been able to achieve.
Q: You have worked in DPS for a very long time…how has DPS most drastically changed over the course of your career?
A: When I first started with DPS it was just a different time. You had more of a sense of neighborhood schools and you had more of a sense of a pathway from your neighborhood elementary school. Most students then went to the same junior high back then (and then eventually middle school) and then most students kind of went on to their neighborhood high school. And so I think there was a deeper connection between neighborhoods within Durham and the schools that serve the students and families in those neighborhoods. And because of changes that have been made regarding choice [and] I think some political decisions have been
Q:What drew you to working in education? What has kept you passionate?
At first I was drawn to education because I really love history. I was a student at UNC Chapel Hill and I majored in history, and as I was getting closer to graduation I was trying to decide what I was going to do with that. I always liked school, not everyone does, and I had a lot of great teachers and coaches that had a big influence on my life.
Q: What drew you to working in education? What has kept you passionate?
serious. You want to make sure you aren’t taking something away and potentially making it harder for the new principal.made in terms of how schools are funded or not funded. I think that is probably true in a lot of places all over the nation, certainly in NC, so you don't have much of a sense of a neighborhood school kind of feel. There's just not quite as much of a connection between where you go to school and the neighborhood you live in. I don’t know if that's good or bad. That's just one example, I could tell you many but that's just one.