In the spring of 2016, East Mecklenburg High Principal Rick Parker heard that students were walking around wearing his face on t-shirts. "I immediately ran around looking for it," he said.
Parker found his seniors wearing shirts with his face on a dollar bill. They said, "In Parker we trust."
Today, one of those shirts hangs in Parker's office. All of the 2016 seniors signed it. "I can't imagine them wanting to put my face on something and wear it around," he said. "But they were proud I was their principal."
Strong student relationships are one of the many reasons that Parker is the Central Learning Community Principal of the Year. "Rick is an energetic, dynamic leader who ensures that each and every child at East Meck High School has the opportunity for success," said Tara Lynn Sullivan, learning community superintendent. "He is the model of a servant-leader who works hard to ensure that the teachers and staff have the resources and tools to help students be successful in his school. He is innovative, dedicated, passionate and hardworking."
Student achievement and growth have increased under Parker's leadership. The cohort graduation rate increased from 88.8 percent for the class of 2016 to more than 91 percent for the class of 2017. East Meck has also exceeded growth standards for the past three years. Through Parker's leadership, the school obtained a grant from the Cal Ripken Foundation to build a multi-use field on the campus for the school and surrounding community. East Mecklenburg High has been recognized as the first Global Ready High School in the state of North Carolina, a Magnet School of Excellence and a certified IB Career Program school.
Recently, a driver's battery was dead and Parker was in the parking lot trying to help when he got a radio call that there was an emergency in the media center. "I thought, 'Oh, no. What could this possibly be?' and I ran to the media center," he said.
It was a ruse. Parker was surprised by his staff, Sullivan and his wife, present for the announcement that he'd been named principal of the year. "It was quite a moment," he said. "It means so much when you have your friends and peers nominate you."
There are nine principals up for the district award this year and Parker said he was humbled to be nominated with such strong candidates. "I think of all of them as my friends," he said. "They are all amazing principals."
Parker grew up in Charlotte and graduated from West Mecklenburg High. He also attended Oakdale Elementary, University Park and Coulwood Middle School. "It's been very rewarding to give back to my community," he said. "I remember what it was like to be a student here. And while many things have changed, some things are evergreen like good studying habits, good manners and treating people with respect."
Under the influences of two great CMS teachers, Jim McConnell and Zelda Cline, Parker decided to go into education. "They made you feel like you were important and valued. You didn't want to let them down. I went into education to do that for other kids."
Parker earned his bachelor's degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has two master's degrees, one from Winthrop University and one from Appalachian State University. He returned to Charlotte as a physical education and health teacher and coach at Quail Hollow Middle. He worked there as an athletic director for 10 years and was offered an assistant principal job at East Mecklenburg High. He served in that position for nine years and has been principal for 10.
East Mecklenburg High is 67 years old, but has only had seven principals in that time. "I am so proud to be a part of the rich tradition of excellence here," he said. "Being the principal at East Meck is a dream come true."
After working 19 years at one school, Parker has been able to develop strong relationships with many students. The school has a large population of Exceptional Children and Parker developed a close relationship with one former student who used a wheelchair. He and Parker remain close. Parker frequently picks him up to celebrate his birthday and other milestones. They celebrate Christmas together. Parker recently attended the former student's mother's funeral with him. "I think that he's influenced me as much as I influenced him," he said. "I've been so inspired by his strength and faith."
Parker is a strong presence at school events, attending as many games and other extracurricular activities as he can. He stays in frequent touch with parents, sending out voice messages every Friday to update them about what's going on at the school. He calls students on the phone to wake them up and get them to come to school. This year, he became a walking billboard. He wears sandwich boards with messages for parents when he's doing carpool in the mornings. Graduation is a bittersweet time of year. "When they walk across that stage, I get emotional every time," he said. "I am their biggest cheerleader."
Parker says he has his own cheerleader, his wife. "She's heard me talking about all these students every year and has been supporting me the whole way," he said. "When you have people like that behind you, it creates positive energy."
He said he went into education with a purpose to give every child the best education possible. He lives by a PRIDE acronym: passion, respect, integrity, drive and energy. He also takes pride in being the principal at his school.
"East Mecklenburg, this building, is not a magical place," he said. "The work we do every day and how we work creates magic. We have an amazing staff that builds relationships kids and creates a family atmosphere. Every day we create magic."