As this academic year drew to a close, Escambia County School District Superintendent Malcolm Thomas paid a visit to Oakcrest Elementary School. He told the students he had an announcement to make and, for a brief moment, Principal Denny Wilson got a little nervous.
Wilson half-thought the superintendent was about to announce he was being transferred to another school. Instead, Thomas told the students that Wilson was being named as the district’s Principal of the Year.
“It’s very humbling,” Wilson said, redirecting the honor, “but to me it’s a recognition of what’s going on at Oakcrest.”
What’s going on at Oakcrest can only be described as a dramatic turnaround. It’s been a gradual progression since Wilson took the reins a few years ago.
“It didn’t happen over night,” the principal said. “We’ve made a lot of progress. We went from an F to a B, we went from a low-F to a B.”
When Wilson found out he was headed to Oakcrest he was excited. It would be his first gig as principal.
“Then reality set in,” he recalled his realization that he was headed to the district’s only F school at the time.
The first few years were tough. The new principal faced an uphill trek.
“That third D, I’m not gonna lie, that’s when I was like, ‘Mr. Thomas, I don’t know what to do, you might need to find somebody else,’” Wilson said.
But over time, Oakcrest experienced what Wilson describes as a “culture change.” The principal focused on things like reading instruction, reducing the number of suspensions and increasing the level of parental involvement.
“This place is going to become a lighthouse for this community,” Wilson remembered thinking.
The principal pointed to the Oakcrest school motto: “Every student, every day, whatever it takes.” He takes these words seriously, offers it up as the foundation of the school’s philosophy and reason behind its success.
“Kids all have the same ability,” Wilson said. “It’s not determined by what we grew up thinking, or what neighborhood we grew up in, or how much money we have. Kids all have potential.”
Wilson also credits the school’s faculty with its success. He describes his teachers as “incredibly, incredibly dedicated” and “almost missionary-like to be here.”
That’s exactly the kind of people that Wilson has tried to staff his school with. He wants people that are as excited and passionate as he is about educating children and involving the community. He wants people that want to be there.
“You’ve got to believe that you’re at the right place. If you’re not where you feel like you’re called to be, I don’t know how you can be successful,” Wilson said. “I see this as my mission field. I feel like teaching is a calling. I feel like being a principal is a calling. I’ve felt like for seven years I’ve been at the right place at the right time. I wouldn’t trade places with anybody right now.”