A former NFL player-turned-principal, Curtis Weathers knows about the hope and promise that often accompanies a new season or year. In a few days, he will get to experience that sensation anew as the head of Hamilton High School.
After eleven successful years as the first principal to lead the charge at Memphis’ – and the state’s – first charter school, Memphis Academy of Health Sciences (MAHS), Weathers made the move to Hamilton in February. Seven to eight hundred students are expected to show up on opening day (Aug. 4th) for the beginning of his first full year at the helm of the historic high school that is now designated a Shelby County I-Zone (Innovation Zone) school.
Weathers, who has worked the entire summer in preparation for the first day of classes, smiles and his face lights up as he peeps ahead during a recent interview with The New Tri-State Defender. It seems that he is a man in love.
“What I love about the kids here is their spirit is very high with their love for Hamilton,” said Weathers. “They want their school to be great and they want their school to be safe. …They’re proud of their history and of their school.”
Hamilton once served 1600 to 1800 students, with as many as 3,600 at one point, said Weathers. “This community used to be the hub of Memphis’ black middle class. It was once thought of as a prime spot for living and raising a family.”
The school’s history can be traced back to the early forties, and for many years it was the only high school for blacks in the city of Memphis. Over the years, Hamilton has had many notable principals, beginning with Green Polonius Hamilton, which bears the school’s name.
Now it’s Weathers’ turn.
‘A non-traditional career’
Not an educator, but a political science major, Weathers’ career began as a professional athlete with the Cleveland Browns.
“I ventured into education through a non-traditional career in athletics and football. While living in Cleveland for a number of years, I worked at a public utility company that was involved in education. I was hooked and I went back to school and got my Masters in Curriculum and Instruction,” said Weathers.
“Memphis is home. I love the weather here. I enjoyed my time in Cleveland, but I thought I’d never get home.”
The opportunity to “get home” came via the Urban Systemic Initiative through former Memphis City Schools Supt. Dr. Gerry House. Cleveland had a similar program and connections led to an interview with House.
“I was so happy,” said Weathers. “If I’m to help young people change their lives, I’d rather do it in my hometown.”
His first leadership opportunity came when the first charter school – MAHS – opened.
“We were the first charter school to open its doors in 2003. It was a great experience. Charter schools were fresh and in unchartered waters,” said Weathers. “The experience was challenging and very rewarding. …“We opened the middle school and four years later we opened the high school. I had a chance to lead that effort.”
Now Weathers has an opportunity to demonstrate over the next five years that he can take Hamilton – a newly designated I-Zone school that falls in the bottom five percent of schools in Tennessee – and turn it around.
“It will take a lot to turn it around,” he said. “There are a lot of pieces needed to make it work.”
On July 13, 2013, prior to Weathers appointment to Hamilton, Shelby County Schools (SCS) reported encouraging results on the 2013 Statewide Accountability System data regarding Shelby County’s 69 low performing schools. In the SCS statement was a nugget about I-Zone schools that should lift Weathers and his Hamilton team.
“Achievement scores are up in most subject categories and grade levels for both districts, and the legacy MCS Innovation Zone (I-Zone) schools showed dramatic improvement in student proficiency scores,” SCS reported.
Weather’s is hard at work demonstrating his commitment to make it happen. As one who’s always admired the work done at Hamilton, he says, “I’m honored to be leading the charge.
“I love my job. I love coming to work every day. Education is a mindset. It’s a service attitude. It’s about you giving and not about you taking. It’s about being authentic and you giving your heart and soul to it.”
‘It’s not about widgets’
During the summer, Weathers often has been on the job by 8 a.m., leaving between 6 p.m. and 7 pm most days. The hours go with the territory when you really “don’t know of any greater contribution than what we do here. We prepare our kids for the future.”
It seemed quite natural for Weathers to add, “I think I have the most important job on the planet. … Education is a people business. It’s not about widgets. It’s about shaping the lives of people. … “We’re here with kids 7-10 hours per day. We shape a part of society that will contribute in one way or the other and we want them to contribute in a positive way.”
Several new programs and initiatives are in place for the Hamilton student body. They are geared at attracting students, not only from the neighborhood, but from across the city, if Weathers has his way.
“One of the programs I’m proud of is ‘Leadership Hamilton,’ a collaboration with Chick-fil-A Leadership Academy and Hamilton.”
It’s a program where all class officers from ninth to twelfth grade will be trained as student leaders.
“Twenty to thirty executives will come to Hamilton monthly. Team captains will be recruited and (they) will be trained to be great,” said Weathers.
To jumpstart the process, Weathers said, work has been done throughout the summer with six senior officers elected at the close of the previous school year.
“We took them on a college tour and we visited five colleges. I can’t wait to see the excitement when the school year begins.”
Weathers is nurturing the idea that Hamilton is “a real college prep school,” where the focus is to make students college- and career-ready.
“We’re developing various programs. We will install our own instructional programs with a very thoughtful and comprehensive approach to teaching and learning. We’re working on a process and strategies to put (them) in place and to make it a reality.”
A new Early College Initiative and collaboration with Southwest Tennessee Community College may provide parents from across the district with additional incentive to enroll their children at Hamilton.
“Our collaboration with Southwest will allow our students to earn college credits here or at Southwest,” said Weathers. “The college has hired at least one adjunct professor to be assigned from Southwest to Hamilton.”
With the number one goal of being able to produce students who earn college degrees, strategies to make that happen include recruiting and identifying kids who can start college early as ninth grade, said Weathers.
“We want to get them interested in taking college courses. The goal is to graduate on time and accumulate college credits while in high school,” said Weathers.
Students will take dual enrollment classes at Hamilton and Southwest.
“The more dual-credit courses they take the better; plus summer classes added, causing them to finish with a college degree by twelfth grade,” said Weathers.
“If they start as early as freshmen taking one course, as a dual-credit course, they can accumulate as many as 36 to 44 credit hours and graduate with both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree.”
While Weathers and his Hamilton team want people to be proud of Hamilton, he said the first priority is “order, safety and we want people to bring students here from across the city and not just in the neighborhood.”
What about parental involvement?
“We need to rebuild trust with parents. They’ve had three principals over the last few years,” said Weathers.
“I tell parents, ‘You’ve got to trust me with your child. My agenda is to make them the best they can be while they’re here.’
“All I ask my parents is to respond when we call.”