Danville principal burns candle on both ends in daily work

Danville principal burns candle on both ends in daily work

6:45 a.m. It's daybreak when first-year Principal DeMarko Wright arrives at Garfield Elementary School.

In four years, the Danville native has gone from fifth-grade teacher to administrative intern to the 1903 school's chief.

"It's a lot of long hours, but I love the challenge," says Wright, described by staff as enthusiastic, innovative, caring and a strong male role model for students, many of whom don't have one at home.

School doesn't start until 8 a.m., but there's plenty to do: call parents, encouraging them to get their kids to school on time; meet with unit leaders Jeff Cooper and Lisa Colwell; remind staff members about a dental screening and send them a quote of the day: "A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops."

7:45 a.m. In the cafeteria, Wright greet students eating peanut butter, jelly and toast sandwiches and fruit. About 78 percent of the 348 pre-K-5 pupils are eligible for free or reduced lunches, and most come for breakfast.

"Are we going to have a super day today?" Wright says to students, eager for a hug, a handshake or a high-five.

8:15 a.m. Over the intercom, Wright announces yesterday's attendance: 94 percent. He reminds students today's goal is 95 percent, which they hit, and the class with the best attendance will win a party.

Next, he's off visiting classrooms.

"I want to see students engaged in instruction," says Wright, who makes it through the three-story school without being pulled away for a building or discipline problem.

9:30 a.m. But as Wright prepares a report, a student appears with a note that he's not working or listening to his teacher. Calmly and firmly, Wright gets him to open up about what's going on and decides to call his father in for a meeting the next day. "You always try to work with parents to resolve any issues before they get worse," he says.

10:05 a.m. Treasurer Marilyn Young and Teri Atwood, the finance director's assistant, are waiting to review the monthly activity fund report.

"You'll be audited this year because you're new," Atwood says.She and Young offer bookkeeping advice.

11 a.m. Wright heads to Meade Park Elementary for a meeting about a Garfield student in an alternative program there.

On the way, he phones daughter Kamryn, who lives with her mother.

"Hello, Birthday Girl! Daddy got you some presents," Wright says to his little girl, who turns 3 today. He also asks about books she's reading.

At the meeting at Meade Park, it's decided the student, who refuses to follow program rules, will return to Garfield.

"You still have to follow the rules and do the work," warns Wright, who hopes to build a relationship with the student and family in order to find ways to motivate him.

11:55 a.m. Wright returns to Garfield in time to monitor the last of three lunch and recess periods, but he's too busy to eat. On the playground, he retrieves balls and breaks up a football game. Colwell reports a boy slipped down a leaf-covered slope and got his foot caught under a fence – something that's happened before.

"In the past, we've had a staff cleanup day," Colwell tells Wright, who likes that idea.

12:30 p.m. There's little time to return messages or work on reports. Wright makes half a dozen trips up and down stairs to meet with social worker Amanda Pittman, finalize plans for a Thanksgiving dinner, round up students for the dental screening, distribute fliers about tomorrow's early dismissal, and tell a pre-K teacher three kids are returning because no one was at home.

Later, he catches five students "stampeding" down the stairs.

"Freeze! All of you in my office," says Wright, who questions them about their behavior. "It's about choices. We want you to make the right ones."

2:15 p.m. The day ends for students, but not for Wright, who's outside making sure kids get on the right bus, are picked up by the appropriate person or aren't horsing around on the walk home.

Back inside, a parent is on the phone. When she asks about a bus incident involving her child, he assures her he'll review the video and take appropriate action.

2:40 p.m. Wright meets with Pittman, learning resource teacher Erin Varvel and teacher Lois Bennett about a pupil who's having trouble reading. They discuss what's happening in class, what might be happening at home and ways to help him, including pairing him with an older student.

3:30 p.m. In the mostly empty school, Wright returns e-mails, makes an agenda for tomorrow's staff training and reviews a school improvement plan due this month.

4:30 p.m. He finally has a chance to grab his first meal of the day. But there's no time to relax before a 6 p.m. Danville City Council meeting. The Ward 1 alderman talks to a constituent and works on the school improvement plan before the meeting on the proposed tax levy, which lasts 2 1/2 hours.

8:30 p.m. Wright heads home, where he continues to work on school and city matters until 10 p.m. On weeknights, he usually works that late – or to 8:30 p.m. "on a good night." He also goes in on weekends to catch up or work ahead.

11:30 p.m. Wright falls into bed. Though exhausted, he looks forward to the next day. "Every day brings a new challenge as well as a new opportunity."

Getting to know DeMarko Wright

Age: 32

Hometown: Danville

Community involvement: Ward 1 alderman since December 2005; New Jerusalem Church of Jesus Christ youth activities volunteer

What's in my CD player: Gospel music and sermons on CD

What's on my nightstand: The Bible and "Renewing the Mind: The Key to Transformation" by Casey Treat

I like to watch: Christian Broadcasting Network and basketball, but only during the playoffs

In my free time: I like to spend time with my 93-year-old great-grandmother, Virginia Peak

My role models are: Parents Ernest Wright and Minnie Mills; Dwight Lucas, East Central Illinois Community Action Agency executive director; and Bobby Keys, New Jerusalem pastor

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