Microphone in hand, in the Fairley High School cafeteria, Julius Blackburn is aware of every movement his students make. He checks his watch as to not go over the allotted time for recess. He calls every one of the students by their first name when he needs to grab their attention.
This has been part of Mr. Blackburn’s every day routine since he got the nod to become principal at the Memphis high school in Whitehaven. He took over for Christina Austin, who became Green Dot Tennessee’s Chief of Schools. The transition has been pretty smooth as Blackburn was, among other things, the assistant principal and math curriculum specialist.
“I’m a hands-on guy, get-to-know-my-students type of person. Now, if you ask me two years ago or three years ago when I first got into administration, I would have said ‘Oh, I miss the classroom.’ But I realized, you have to make the time for the things that you want. I value these relationships,” said Blackburn.
As a teacher, he admits he knew his 100 students as a math teacher and maybe a few 11th or 12th graders. As the new principal, he needs to touch base with every student that enters the building, as well as their parents and the community.
“It’s hard to do, I haven’t mastered it yet, but it’s things like transitions and cafeteria duty that has allowed me to know them. I’m at a point now, in the cafeteria, I can sit down and have the microphone now and talk to students by name,” adds Blackburn. “You must be very intentional in this role to get to know your school community, because it’s so easy to get caught up in the other work we have to do as administrators.”
Blackburn compares the relationships he makes with both parents and students as a bank account, where you must deposit money to withdraw money later. The deposit, in Fairley, is equivalent to walking up to their parents’ car, interacting with both the student and the parent. That way, he can better anticipate when the students require additional attention and what to expect.
“If I know there’s a kid that’s upset about something that happened a few days ago, I can touch base with that parent and get the back story on what happened. So, when a student is acting out or something, I can speak to whatever experience they are going through. It really helps because they don’t see me as this mysterious figure, they see me as Mr. Blackburn, a person who cares about me, who loves me,” said Blackburn.
He started his career in Green Dot Public Schools seven years ago, when the partnership work in Memphis began. At the time, he was a math teacher at Wooddale Middle School, teaching next door to Marysa Utley, a teacher at the school and later its principal.
“We take our time to foster individual relationships with each parent, so that they know that their student is cared for, we are going to do everything we can to support our students, whether it be academically or emotionally, because coming out of Covid they need more than our academic support”, continues Blackburn.
Blackburn values that relationship, as Ms. Utley ultimately became his mentor and an integral part of working toward the success of the Green Dot partnership at Memphis.
As Blackburn gets ready for a new school year in the Fall, he has set his goals in continuing what Green Dot has started. He also wants Fairley to be a Level 5 school, focused and recognized on academic achievements while having students become the main magnet for new enrollment.
“I want to establish a culture where students are recruiting other students to come here, I want our students to love Fairley so much to where they are begging their friends to come here, and they are begging their friends to join the football, the basketball team, the volleyball team, to be part of something positive in the community,” said Blackburn.
He has faith in achieving this goal by keeping his focus on the relationships with the students, motivating them and getting to know them.
“My mentor told me: for students, it can be hard for them to see the long-term impact of something, but when they know that you have high expectations of them and you’re pushing them to do something, they want to prove it, they want to work for it, they want to make you proud.”