Once a Lion, always a Lion? Former Lawrence High School principal Brad Tate is nearing the end of Park Hill South High School's first year.
After 24 years of proclaiming, "It's a great day to be a Lion" at Lawrence High School, Brad Tate can be forgiven if he slips up every now and then when addressing Park Hill South High School panthers.
But don't expect the 1,050 students at the Riverside, Mo., school to cut Principal Tate any slack. A reminder of his new loyalties sits on his a cabinet behind his desk at the school. Fourth-grader Breena Shaffer, the sister of a Park Hill South student, made Tate a card to stress he's a panther now.
"If you say it's not, you're a Lion!!" the card proclaims, chiding Tate for a mistake he made over the school's intercom this year.
"I'll try not to make that mistake again, I'll tell you that," he said, laughing.
Mascot gaffes aside, the 60-year-old Tate has eased into his role as the head administrator at the new school, which is nearing the end of its inaugural year.
"When we opened the school, I was as nervous as the dickens," he said. "You do all that preparation, but you never know what you might have left out, like did I order down markers for the football field?"
Tate said Park Hill South has about the same square footage as LHS, but there are far fewer students than the 1,700 to 1,800 in his final years at the Lawrence school, though PHS enrollment will probably jump by 350 next year because no seniors attend there now.
The high enrollment at LHS was recorded before Free State High School opened, just months after Tate left, fueling rumors that he resigned because he didn't want another high school stealing his thunder.
Tate maintains that just isn't true, that Free State wasn't part of the equation.
Lawrence is home
Tate said he likes to be on the road between 5:30 a.m. and 6 a.m. every morning for the 35-minute drive from his Old West Lawrence home. He and his wife, Susan, originally planned to build a house in the Kansas City area, live there for five years, and then retire and return to Lawrence. Splitting time between an apartment in Kansas City and one in Lawrence didn't work out, and the Tates decided to return to Lawrence. They live two doors down from their old house with their 4-year-old daughter, Sophie.
"(Lawrence) is where a lot of our friends are. It's home, and we love our neighborhood in Old West Lawrence. My wife is on a lot of boards and is involved in activities in Lawrence," Tate said about the decision.
When he joined the Park Hill district in 1997, the job certainly came with its perks. He was in charge of staffing, policies and setting a tone for the school before it was even built. He didn't have to be the new guy on the block, following someone who ran the school for, say, 24 years.
"I came in not locked into what was already being done," Tate said. "... There's no background, no history. You're starting new; that's a good thing, and it's a bad thing."
Perhaps Tate has more in common with the students than most administrators might have. Everyone at the school, including the teachers, is forging new territory -- from something as simple as getting used to the new school color -- purple! -- to as complicated a task as making sure everyone out there knows about Park Hill South, including scholarship committees.
"You can't talk about tradition too much here," he said.
Scattered around his office, which has a glassed-in southern exposure overlooking downtown Kansas City in the background and the Argosy Casino in the foreground, are trappings of the traditions he gave up when he left LHS. A framed picture of the LHS Lion celebrates the 1993 state football game, when Lawrence scored 27 points in the second half to beat Derby 27-23 in Manhattan. Without prompting, he pulls from his desk a tape, a copy of Hank Booth's frantic and excited radio broadcast of the game.
As Lawrence residents know, splitting a district in two for a new high school affects those winning seasons. The Panther boy's basketball team finished 1-21. But Tate points to the trophy case off the commons area, almost full after one year, including a state award for a second-place boys' soccer finish and national trophies for weightlifting competitions.
The new school has a dance studio with mirrors, a weight room, a wrestling room, a black box theater that doubles as a classroom, an on-site alternative high school and an art gallery. Only 155 students applied for the 700 available parking spots.
"It's kind of hard not to like this job with a facility like this, and we have a great staff," said Tate, whose boss, Supt. Gayden Carruth, was named Missouri Superintendent of the Year last October.
On June 9-10, the school will be the focus of a seminar, "Planning High Schools for a New Millennium," sponsored by the DLR Group, which designed the school. There are four different areas, each with its own "resource room" stocked with computers. The media center -- library -- alone has 32 computers.
Every Thursday, a strange phenomenon occurs at the school: Students want to be sent to the principal's office. Tate calls students' names over the intercom, and they have a minute to arrive at his door with their daily planners in hand. If a student's planner is up to date, he or she gets at least $10. If no one wins, the cash goes to the next winner. The program, part of the nationwide Renaissance student awards program, also awards weekly pizza dinners for a student and three guests for improvement of grades.
In February, the school had an academic pep assembly.
"It just blew my mind. I wanted to call the TV people and have them come out here, but I was real nervous because we've never done one before," Tate said. "If you've never seen a thousand kids cheering for improved grades, attendance or things like that, it's really amazing. I bet we had 200 parents here for that."
One of Tate's three assistant principals handles discipline, and, although there have been a few fights, things have been quiet at Park Hill South. This past week, however, couldn't pass without concern about school safety in the wake of the Littleton, Colo., deaths.
Tate swiftly dealt with a small contingent of students who wore their trench coats to school following the shootings. The students suspected of killing 12 classmates and a teacher reportedly were part of a group dubbed the "Trench Coat Mafia."
"We've got a few kids with trench coats, which have a few kids kind of nervous, so we had them take them off," Tate said.
This summer, a 'guard house' will be built at the one access drive to the school. Everyone coming or going will be stopped in accordance with a plan that was in place months before the recent school shootings, Tate said.
"This is probably the safest campus I've ever been on," he said.
"I think he's a good principal," freshman Brianna Belke said Friday as she worked in the school's library. "Everybody's watching you when you start a new school. You kind of have to set the tone for the future, and that's a hard job."
Her classmate, Megan Bois, agreed.
"He walks around and kind of looks in the classrooms to see what's going on," Bois said.
Physical education teacher and volleyball coach Debbie Fay said Tate is respected and liked by the staff.
"Sometimes that doesn't go hand in hand," Fay said.
Park Hill South band director John Bell has been with the school district 14 years, and an administrator has never accompanied him on school trips. So when he mentioned a three-day band trip to the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana to Tate, he was surprised when Tate accepted an invitation. They returned two weeks ago Monday.
"I think it tells (the students) they have a lot of support from their principal," Bell said. "... But I don't think it was a unique situation for Dr. Tate."
The following week at school, the band students gave Tate a huge thank-you card.
"Those band kids think I walk on water, but I saw it as part of my job," Tate said. "They're not used to an administrator doing that. I'll go to some practice, and geez, they'll come over and thank me."
It's those rewards that make him think twice about sticking to his original retirement plan.
"My intention was to be here five years, and I've already been here two," he said. "But if it's this good, I could stay a couple of more years."
After all it is a great day to be a Panther.
-- Chris Koger's phone message number is 832-7126. His e-mail address is email@example.com.