Rags to Riches

By Bess Keller — November 01, 2003 9 min read
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An elementary school janitor works his way into the classroom—and then becomes a principal.

At Hawkins Elementary School in Brighton, Michigan, nothing’s out of the ordinary for the suburban school a week before the close of the 2002-03 school year. Jack Yates, the principal, still has a heap of thank-you notes to write to parents who helped at the spring fund-raiser. The courtyard garden—with its native wildflowers, its butterflies, and its timid bat clinging to the wall— goes largely unvisited as teachers try to squeeze in final bits of the curriculum. And a stomach virus may be rampaging through the younger pupils.

Pale and anxious, one little girl is sitting on the edge of the nurse’s cot at the end of the day when Von Hardesty, a classroom assistant who helps get the children on the buses, walks into the main office.

“A 1st grader just threw up on the sidewalk,” she reports to the two secretaries and a teacher or two milling in the office. At that moment, Yates walks by.

“Just slosh a bucket of water,” the principal says, stopping for a second.

“Ah,” responds Hardesty, who hadn’t thought of that.

Yates would know. Twenty-six years ago, he entered the education field not as a teacher, not as an administrator, but as a custodian. His is a story of ambition. Gentle ambition.

Consider the broad strokes: A man takes a job as a school janitor and works his way to school principal, never blind to either the good or the harm he might do. The man, at once dogged and easygoing, finds his true métier. That seems clear, watching Yates go over a mental checklist for the Principal’s Pals lunch earlier the same day—pizza ordered, certificates in hand, Kool-Aid in the fridge. By the time he gets to the school library, six tables have filled with squirming honorees.

“Hi, guys,” the principal begins, speaking just loudly enough to be heard at the back in a voice with no rough edges. He’s dapper in a dark suit and bright white shirt, but it’s hard to take the baseball player out of him—the ruddy complexion, the gap between the front teeth overhung by a generous mustache. He looks powerful and friendly at the same time, a combination not lost on Derek, who gets a certificate for exercising self- control.

The old principal was “scary,” the 5th grader remarks. “She had long fingernails.”

Yates, on the other hand, “doesn’t lose his temper, and he doesn’t raise his voice,” Derek explains. “And he makes sure kids don’t push other kids around.”

Heather Allen, a classroom veteran of more than two decades, helped interview Yates in 1992 when he first applied for a teaching job at Hawkins Elementary. But she had met him years before at another district school, Lindbom Elementary School, where he had come to her classroom to fix a radiator. A good encounter, and a working radiator, she recalls.

The teaching job in leafy, well-clipped Brighton, where a subdivision immodestly called “The Dominion” recently opened, drew about 60 applicants. But thanks to his years in the 7,000-student district, Yates stood out as a known and respected quantity.

And so it was that one day Jack Yates set up chairs for the district’s new-teacher orientation, and the next, the 32-year-old former custodian sat in one.

Yates says he managed to work his way into teaching, and then the principal’s office, with the help of many people along the way. But questioning him in his office at Hawkins Elementary, you know there’s more to it than that. He was the one who did double duty as custodian and student teacher, sat through more than a dozen years of night school in two decades, and left his 3rd grade classroom to take the job that, he jokes, hoarfrosted his full head of brown hair. At 44, he may not have more than the usual load of debts, but he’s unusually ready to acknowledge them.

Starting with his parents. Yates grew up on the northwest edge of Detroit, the son of a homemaker and a city policeman. His father, Ray, got lucky and drew crowd- control duty at the old Tiger Stadium, passing his keen love of sports to his only son. At 9 or 10, Jack started collecting baseball cards with their romance of names and numbers—which today may account for his facility with student names. He has most of the 530 or so children at Hawkins down pat.

Playing mostly shortstop as a kid, Yates dreamed of life as a pro. “We tried to talk him into going to college,” says his mother, Ruth, “but he said he didn’t want to go.”

Yates pulled ahead of the pack because, in addition to knowing the school and the district, he had gained people’s trust.

By the time Jack graduated from Henry Ford High School in 1977, his father had retired and both parents had moved out of Detroit, into what was then the country town of Fowlerville. Jack’s sister, Barb, was driving a school bus for Brighton Area Schools. The young Yates needed a paying job, and his sister suggested he try the district’s maintenance department. Filling in for others led to a full-time position, at what was then Miller Elementary School, and the beginning of a long career in the district.

“I realized,” Yates later wrote in an article for Principal magazine, “that if I worked hard, I could become a head custodian, work days, and make a little more money.” And sure enough, he was 19 when he landed the job of head custodian at Lindbom Elementary, supervising two older people on the afternoon shift.

A few years later, he signed up for some classes at Washtenaw Community College. More important, he was about to meet his future wife, Debbi Walker.

In summer 1983, Walker was working as a custodian while Yates had a temporary assignment stripping and refinishing the district’s gym floors. He came to her school, and co-workers made sure they sat together at lunch. They were married two years later, making Yates an instant father. Debbi, six years older than her new husband, had from a previous marriage a 7-year-old girl and a 6-year-old boy whom Yates adored from the start.

“We knew I could further myself in my life,” he says now about those years. But he needed to find the way forward, a calling that could compete with his old baseball dreams.

At Lindbom, that started to take shape. The school’s teachers, who’d allowed him to make up for the temporary loss of P.E. classes by supervising games of floor hockey and volleyball, told him he had a gift for working with children. And the youngsters made him feel good.

Soon Yates was taking classes toward an education degree at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti. The drive from Brighton was 35 minutes each way, and he did it several times a week for more than eight years, adding three minors—science, social studies, and English—to his elementary education major.

Yates transferred in 1988 to another district school, Maltby Middle School, where he supervised a maintenance crew of five and made more money. But he had another reason for moving to Maltby. The middle school then occupied the same building as the superintendent, and Yates wanted to be seen. He decided, too, that he would try to teach elementary or middle school, where men are rare.

When at last it came time for Yates’ student teaching in 1992, administrators rearranged his custodial schedule so he could be in the classroom at nearby Hilton Elementary School in the morning. To fit it all in, Yates, then 32, worked from 7:45 a.m. to midnight every weekday.

“I would go to Maltby in my shirt and tie and then change into my T- shirt and jeans,” he recalled for the Detroit Free Press the fall after he started student teaching, when he won the coveted job at Hawkins. “I just put it on automatic pilot.”

Just as at Lindbom, he had boosters at Maltby, among them principal Rae Ann McCall. She recalls putting 250 youngsters jostling for places in the lunch line in Yates’ care for a minute when she was called to the office. By the time she came back, he had gotten all the kids in line to sit down. “We’ve used his technique ever since,” McCall told the newspaper.

That same year, Yates won the job at Hawkins Elementary and began teaching in earnest. In professional terms, that first year was the hardest of his life, he says now. But soon the tension melted into a new goal, his wife recalls. “He would always say, ‘You know, I’m going to be principal. I’m going to be Hawkins’ principal.’”

Yates returned to Eastern Michigan University in the mid-'90s, earning a master’s degree in educational leadership in 1999. By that time, he had proved himself as a teacher and a professional peer.

“He’s a delight as a colleague,” offers Allen, who taught alongside him in 3rd grade for his eight and a half years as a teacher. “Easygoing, wonderful with kids, fun to be around.”

‘We used Mr. Yates as an example of someone who put forth effort and made a success of his life. They know him, so it means more.’

Peg Regruth,
Hawkins Elementary School

Those qualities served Yates well when the principal’s job at Hawkins opened up in 2000. “Somebody like Jack, who’s been on the inside, has an advantage,” says Brighton’s superintendent, David Pruneau. Roughly translated, that meant Yates pulled ahead of the pack because, in addition to knowing the school and the district, he had gained people’s trust. He also brought a style to the job different from that of his predecessor, who had been known to clash with a teacher or two.

Yates got the job, but only as an “interim” principal because he lacked administrative experience. A year later, the modifier was dropped. With the new position came a $22,000 salary hike, a considerably larger increase than many educators get going into the principal’s office as teachers moving into administration are typically higher on the experience ladder.

About the only downside to the change, according to Pruneau, who has pushed promotion from within the district, was the loss of Hawkins Elementary’s only male teacher. He cautions only that “being a nice guy, [Yates] sometimes struggles with the tough decisions.”

Within the school, the principal wins kudos from teachers and support workers alike. And one classroom assistant wants to make sure it’s understood that when students plant themselves beside Yates during his classroom visits or lunge at him for a hug, they’re not just putting on a show.

“I think students don’t want to disappoint him,” says Hardesty, who works in the school’s special ed classroom and calls the principal “a father figure.”

This morning, Yates is a guest of honor in Hardesty’s classroom, where the children have prepared a complete eggs- and-pancake breakfast for him and other notables such as the school’s part- time social worker and its speech pathologist.

Amid the many words that adorn the walls, one stands out. On a big red cutout of a heart, bold black letters spell “effort,” the classroom’s watchword.

Ally, 9 years old but small for her age because of a thyroid ailment that for some time played havoc with her physical development, bounces over to Yates and pipes, “I love you.”

“What did we learn about Mr. Yates this year?” asks her teacher, Peg Regruth. Then Regruth answers her own question for the students: “We used Mr. Yates as an example of someone who put forth effort and made a success of his life. They know him, so it means more.”

When Regruth is done, Ally eagerly responds to the question. “I learned you used to be a janitor,” she recites, “then a teacher, then a principal.”

And he did so without forgetting his origins. Just ask Timothy Parks, the school’s current head custodian. He says that Hawkins “feels like a family.”

Coverage of leadership issues in education is supported by the Broad Foundation.


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