There's never been a Northwest School of the Arts without Charles LaBorde – until today.
As Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools ponders its magnet programs, the man who launched two of the most successful ones, Northwest and Myers Park High's International Baccalaureate, is retiring.
It's hardly a curtain call. The 58-year-old LaBorde, an accomplished actor, director and playwright, plans to remain active in Charlotte theater. But it's a turning point for one of CMS's best-known schools.
In an age when superintendents move principals like they're playing speed chess, LaBorde led Northwest for 14 years. He turned the aging brick building on Beatties Ford Road into a haven for creative characters, racking up arts awards and sending graduates on to careers on stage and film.
“The fact that he's a working professional artist who's principal at a magnet school for the arts, how cool is that?” says Keith Martin, a former leader in the Charlotte arts community who sent his daughter to Northwest. “He treads the boards, walks the walk. Students can see him perform.”
The son of a warehouse worker, LaBorde grew up in Texas and was valedictorian of his high school class.
His sharp mind still impresses many who know him.
“I always knew that if I ever was on ‘Who Wants To Be a Millionaire' he would be my phone-a-friend,” says Grasan Kingsberry, a 1999 Northwest grad who has gone on to a Broadway career. “He's just a book of knowledge.”
LaBorde suspects his parents hoped he'd be a doctor or lawyer. But he'd been hooked on theater since seventh grade, when he saw the musical “Wildcat.” He still recalls the thrill of seeing an oil gusher on stage. He bursts into a snatch of its best-known song, “Hey, Look Me Over.”
LaBorde earned a bachelor's, a master's and a doctorate in theater, the last from Ohio State University. A job offer from Queen's College brought him to Charlotte. Three years later, he switched to teaching theater in high school.
He landed at West Charlotte in the 1980s, at a time when the school was considered a showcase of academic strength and successful integration. A competitive spirit pervaded the school, he recalls, and he vowed to take his department to the top.
In 1982, when the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial was completed, LaBorde had his drama class do improvisations based on veterans' memoirs.
That piqued LaBorde's interest; he interviewed local veterans and wrote “Memorial.” The play debuted at West Charlotte. In the years that followed, it won a national award and continues to be widely published and performed.
LaBorde eventually moved into administration. He became principal of Myers Park High in 1989 – and quickly discovered the depths of tragedy and drama that role can bring.
It was an August night in 1990, shortly after school had opened. A football game had just ended. LaBorde's wife and two daughters headed home. Students and faculty drifted toward an after-game dance.
LaBorde heard what sounded like a gunshot. Then, a series of pops, so many he was sure it was firecrackers. He ran toward the noise, ready to restore calm.
He recalls the scene with a playwright's eye for detail: The tires screeching out of the school parking lot. The cop with his pistol drawn, standing in the glow of streetlights. Then, the sight of a boy's sneaker clad feet, stretched beside a utility pole.
LaBorde rushed to young man's side. He watched 15-year-old Marcus Grier die of a gunshot wound to the head.
The shooting rocked Myers Park and the wider community, spurring efforts to fight gun violence among youth.
Fortunately, there were happier times.
Superintendent John Murphy wanted to bring the International Baccalaureate program to CMS. LaBorde was one of two principals who stepped up to introduce the rigorous curriculum, which focuses on research, foreign language and world culture.
LaBorde counts that as one of his career highlights, a move he says restored rigor to a school that had slipped toward mediocrity. Today, it's one of the district's strongest high-school magnets.
Creating a culture
LaBorde hadn't forgotten his first love. He told Murphy he wanted to start a high-school arts magnet.
Murphy decided to introduce the program in earlier grades. He put LaBorde in charge of creating arts magnets at Chantilly Elementary and Northwest Middle. In 1994, the district added 75 ninth-graders, and LaBorde became principal of the new arts high school.
Retired teacher Linda Howard Franzese and Assistant Principal Beverly Eury, who were there from the start, say LaBorde put Northwest School of the Arts on track for success by hiring not only strong arts teachers, but academic teachers who loved the arts.
“You couldn't do it with academic teachers fighting the arts teachers,” says Franzese, who taught music.
“When your English teacher shows up in costume, when your math teacher uses music to teach those theorems, it's just way cool,” says Martin, who used to lead Charlotte Repertory Theatre and now directs the Richmond Ballet.
If LaBorde and his faculty built the framework for Northwest's unique culture, the students who chose it brought their own flair.
“It's kind of made up of kids who were the fifth wheel somewhere else,” he says. “They really don't care a lot about where you live or how much money your parents make. They do care a lot about whether you're into the arts.”
Barbara Edwards credits LaBorde with setting her older son, Chandler Parker, on track for a career in movies and TV, and with keeping her younger son, Ashlin Parker, in school.
“His first language is music. He was miserable at a traditional school,” she says of Ashlin. Even Northwest wasn't an easy fit, but LaBorde kept working with him.
Ashlin Parker is now a professional jazz musician – “and he's in grad school with like a 3.9 GPA,” his mom adds.
While the arts culture thrives, LaBorde acknowledges he's passing at least one major challenge to his successor. Only about half of Northwest's students passed their math, chemistry and physics exams this year, even as about three-quarters passed biology, English and social studies tests.
The next act
LaBorde could have retired after last school year, but decided to stay. This year, he was directing the school musical “Pippin” when he realized this was what he loved most. He could stay on the stage, he decided, while turning over his massive key ring and the duties that come with it.
“I've turned off that 4:30 alarm,” he said.
Now LaBorde is gearing up for auditions. His longtime friend, Franzese, is giving him voice lessons.
She laughs when asked if LaBorde is any good. “He's an actor, not a singer.”
LaBorde may stop being a principal, but colleagues say he'll never stop being a teacher.
Fittingly, one of LaBorde's upcoming auditions is for “Peter Pan,” being produced by Children's Theatre of Charlotte.
“I figure they need pirates and things,” he said.