Rick Parker remembers how certain teachers, especially his Coulwood Junior High baseball coach and his West Mecklenburg High School French teacher, believed in him.
“They made me feel like I was on top of the world,” he said. Now, that is a feeling he tries to recreate for the 1,907 students who attend East Mecklenburg High School, where he has served as principal since 2009.
It is a goal that seems fitting for such a diverse student body, comprised of 50 different countries and representing 60 different languages. The diversity extends beyond cultures and countries. East Meck houses the largest IB program in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, based on the number of students in the program, as well as an AP program, an Academy of Engineering, English as a Second Language and Exceptional Children populations, and a Career and Technical Education program that includes culinary arts, auto technology and biomedical science.
“They see the world when they come in our school,” Parker said, noting that the school’s new slogan is “A world class education to create lifelong learners.”
He is the seventh principal in the school’s 66-year history, a role that he takes to heart.
“There has been very little turnover at East Meck,” Parker said. “I take a lot of pride in the East Meck tradition. I don’t want to let down the ones who came before me.”
Parker, 50, grew up in Charlotte, graduating from West Mecklenburg High School in 1983, where he played both baseball and basketball. He attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, earning a bachelor’s degree in education in 1987 that he followed with an master’s in physical education from Appalachian State in 1989.
He returned to Charlotte and took a job at Quail Hollow Junior High School (now a middle school) as the physical education and health teacher, and he also coached baseball and football.
“I wanted to make a difference in a kid’s life the way my teachers and coaches made a difference in mine,” Parker said.
He has never looked back.
“As soon as I saw that look in students’ eyes, knowing I’d made them believe in themselves,” he said, “I knew I was in the right profession.”
Three years after Parker’s arrival at Quail Hollow, the athletic director, who had served as Parker’s mentor, retired and Parker took his place.
The principal noticed that Parker had a good rapport with the kids and encouraged him to consider going into administration. Parker attended Winthrop University at night from 1997 to 1999 to get a masters degree in education. As soon as he had the degree, he joined East Meck as the assistant principal, a role he filled for 10 years before taking over as principal.
The relationship he has with the students is still what energizes him and characterizes his administrative style.
“Being their cheerleader and celebrating with them when they have successes is a highlight of my job,” Parker said. “My coaching background really helps me be a motivator to push them along.”
He describes himself as an approachable principal, and students agree.
“You don’t go a day without seeing him,” said senior Meredith McVadon, 16. “He says ‘hi’ to you in the hallways and he is always in the student parking lot.”
“He goes out of his way to make the school better and to get us pumped up,” said senior Juan Mazuera, 17, noting that Parker is known for his motivational slogans.
Parker’s favorite saying is “Plan to win. Prepare to win. Expect to win.” Those words are painted on the wall of the media center, and are often repeated at assemblies and in Parker’s school-wide announcements. Other favorites include “OTOT,” which stands for “on time, on target,” and “faith over fear.”
The latter saying is Parker’s way of telling the students to “have faith in how far you have come in your life and be proud of that, and how far you can go from there,” he said.
A new addition led this year by Parker is the 212 Connection that is part of Wednesday homeroom, when the students are taught life skills particular to each grade. The 212 campaign is based on the fact that water boils at 212 degrees. “It’s that extra one degree that creates a positive reaction,” Parker said.
As for staff members, he said they go “above the call of duty to help children. We all have the mindset of trying to figure out what is best for the kids.”
Together they have raised the graduation rate from 73 percent when Parker became principal to 90.6 percent last year.
A pinnacle moment for Parker was when he invited all of the school’s former principals to walk in the parade celebrating 60 years of excellence at East Meck in 2010. But for him, every day walking the halls is special.
Katya Lezin is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.