Camden Principal Dr. William Hayes on Building Relationships, School Climate and Teamwork

This is a guest post from Tre Johnson, deputy director for JerseyCAN and a leadership member of The Fellowship–Black Male Educators for Social Justice. It originally appeared on the JerseyCAN blog and was reproduced here with their permission.

Dr. William Hayes, the second-year principal at East Camden Middle, knows it isn’t going to be easy—but it would be hard to tell being around him. Walking around East Camden, now in its second year as a renaissance school (partnerships between charter schools and the Camden City School District), Dr. Hayes walks with a casual ease that might make you think the job of running a school is a breeze.

Much of that is likely due to Dr. Hayes’ upbringing though; he hails from the South after all, born and raised in Hartsville, South Carolina. A hometown with less than 10,000 people where half the town is black and nearly a quarter of the population below the poverty line, it would be easy to see how Dr. Hayes might feel at home here in Camden. So as we walked East Camden Middle, you can see the ways that the school has already taken after the leader’s demeanor: calm, thoughtful and social.

The social part felt particularly present on this visit. As we stopped by classrooms and moved through the hall, our time together went over by 25 minutes because of the number of students and staff that frequently stopped to talk to the principal. It’s not, or at least it shouldn’t be, a revelation that Dr. Hayes knows everyone in the school, but you can tell that it matters to him, largely because it’s clear that relationships have always mattered to him.

Dr. William Hayes attended college at Morehouse College, where he majored in psychology on an academic scholarship. Later, when he enrolled in a graduate program at Harvard to get his Master’s in Risk and Prevention Counseling, he began forming a relationship with a local public school in the nearby Boston Public Schools (BPS) district. Initially this started as a sort of wish fulfillment to work with youth.

“I knew that I wanted to work in programming at the school level,” Hayes shared with me as we sat in an office that he had given up for other staff to use instead (it’s clear by his Nike running shoes and laptop that he prefers a roving office). His internship with the BPS school was working with 20 black and Latino young men who had failed the 9th grade. His job was to get them back on a productive path, which was daunting.

To advocate for these youth, Hayes understood quickly that the path forward would “be through advocating for these kids to the adults in their lives—parents, family members, the principal and teachers” in an effort to meet every kid where they’re at and push their needs, and their story, from there.

Listening to him recount this can be misleading due to the low, cool, confident tone of his voice, but he’s quick to share how challenging it was if you’re listening. “I was overwhelmed,” he shares, “because as I got more ingrained into the school and the community, I was learning how much I just didn’t know about Boston”.

Over time though, that dynamic melted away, and by the time that he left the school—a five year stint as a 12th grade seminar teacher and AP—he was ready to try and serve as a school leader. After getting his principal certification from Northeastern his next stop was Cleveland, Ohio, where he led a pre-K to eighth-grade turnaround school.

After being encouraged to pursue school leadership by mentors, he joined Cleveland Public Schools as a part of a large campaign aimed at getting new leaders into the system. Hayes described his school as “high needs”, a challenge he relished given his specialization from Harvard, and his focus on special education. The school, with over 450 students, was a welcome challenge for the 2-3 years he was there, once again focusing on building relationships: first with the staff he inherited, working hard to try and build their trust; but also with the students and their families.

Once again, Dr. Hayes found himself doing this from the outside, but was similarly undaunted, even as he was routinely humbled by politics, school community and the demands of school leadership.

Now at East Camden Middle, you can see how much those lessons have meant to him before coming to Camden. He chose Camden, New Jersey, after leaving Cleveland because he’s “still committed to public schools and neighborhood schools” and sees the renaissance schools partnerships as a way to blend two school type worlds.

He doesn’t spend much time obsessing over these particular politics though; halfway through our tour he’s talking about the resources that they’ve created for helping their students deal with trauma. On the upper floor of the school there’s a room dedicated for students and staffed with a skilled therapist, and inside the former classroom has been transformed into a sanctuary of peace and tranquility—a respite from the everyday trauma too many of them have been experiencing living in Camden.

The response, and the need, have been both underestimated and overwhelming; the room stays busy throughout the day, and the reverberations of this trauma has even prompted the East Camden Middle leadership team to start extending trauma care and support to the school staff too.

As he’s walking the halls, nodding and stepping into classrooms, playfully teasing students about getting their homework done, or chatting with a staff member about their personal life for a hot minute, all of this is on his mind, and more. Climate is something he’s keenly aware of, and not just in the halls. Dr. Hayes says that at East Camden, he and the staff are working to create a culture that can develop and maintain a high academic bar.

Early results so far show that this is possible too; in their first year the English proficiency scores on PARCC tripled, though Dr. Hayes would be the first to admit that “we (still) have miles to go”, and stresses that developing a positive atmosphere around supporting students doesn’t have to come at the expense of maintaining high academic standards.

He also recognizes that while the buck stops with him as the school leader, this isn’t work that he does alone. He emphasized several times that what East Camden has and will continue to accomplish is the result not of just him, but “a great team of leaders and teachers that support the kids 100 percent.”

Dr. Hayes has come to care a great deal about Camden in his short time too, and so he’s trying to anticipate being at the ready for everything from any impact from Camden High’s renovations to whatever the next season of Camden Enrollment brings to his school, to how to support what’s essentially a two-school model (the lower floors are the middle school; the upper the high school at East Camden).

It’s how you can tell that underneath the cool, Southern-style exterior his mind is still racing—probably even when his running shoes are hung up for the night. There’s still miles to go.

Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.



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