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Principal Janice Drake’s Master Class at Brown Elementary

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Principal Janice Drake, Ed.D., inside classroom at Charles A. Brown Elementary School. (Amarr Croskey, For The Birmingham Times)
By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times

Janice Drake, principal of Charles A. Brown Elementary School in Birmingham’s Belview Heights neighborhood, waits for a student to open the door to a third-grade classroom on the second floor.

Once inside, Drake thanks the boy and stands just out of the classroom’s center, quizzing the students on a story they read yesterday called “Finders Keepers.”

“Would you rather be Sophie or …? What’s the other character’s name?” Drake asks.

“Veronica,” seemingly every student in the class says at once.

As the youngsters begin to write out their answers, Drake gives tips on writing, telling them to restate the question followed by “because” and their reasoning. She loops in and around the circles of desks, checking answers and giving further instructions to the class and to individual students.

Though she’s the principal, Drake’s average Thursday looks like this, working alongside her staff of teachers to educate and motivate.

“I want [my students] to remember that [they] had a hands-on principal and [they] had somebody that cared about [them],” Drake said.

Laying A Good Foundation

Prior to becoming the principal at Brown, the only elementary school-age children Drake had worked with had been her own. Working with younger age students is “totally different” from working with the high school-age students at Woodlawn and P.D. Jackson-Olin high schools, where she previously taught.

“Elementary [school]—that’s the foundation, that’s the key, that’s where [students] get everything they need in order to carry them through to high school,” Drake said. “If they don’t have the foundation by the time they get to high school, it’s kind of hard to get them through sometimes.”

Drake, Ed.D, is in her second year as principal at Brown, and she makes sure teaching is a team effort—teachers, administration, even cafeteria staff are all involved in educating students.

When she first arrived at the school, Drake noticed that many children struggled with multiplication, so she personally did an oral test of the kids and saw many counting on their fingers. She told the students to study multiplication tables for the numbers one through five for a quiz she would give the following week.

“I went back, and they knew them. I went back again and saw that some of the students had made flashcards on their own. … Then I got my cafeteria workers involved and said, ‘When students come through the line, ask them about their [multiplication] tables,’” Drake recalled.

Through Birmingham City Schools (BCS) funding, a new tutoring program has been established at Brown Elementary. Two Birmingham college students—Tashara Cooper, a freshman at Lawson State Community College, and Charlie Cho, a junior at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB)—provide tutoring in math and reading. On January 19, the first day of the new tutoring program, Cooper and Cho worked with 20 students in three hours. The tutors will also come in every other Saturday.

Cooper, a general studies major, concentrating on elementary education, said she enjoyed her first day at the school.  “I went over some comprehension skills with [the students]. I had to read a passage and they did way better than I actually thought they would. I can actually tell that they were actually excited to learn new things, study new things. I can’t wait to do it more. . . I just want to make an impact and continue to teach new things.”

Cho said a lot of students are set back because of the COVID-19 pandemic and it has hindered them from being where they’re supposed to be. He’s looking to help students catch up across the board. “It varies . . . like multiplication, as well as reading problems and understanding word problems, how to dissect them,” he said.

He added that he’s also available “to offer the kind of the voice where students can ask individual questions . . . if they’re behind in class, they can’t really ask questions, but they can ask me, and I think that really helps.”

Ensley Roots

In addition to working with the tutors and being directly involved in academics at the school, Drake participates in other ways, like last year when she dressed up as a unicorn jockey for Halloween and won the costume competition or when she played Mrs. Claus during the week of Christmas events.

Drake grew up with a homemaker mother and a steel plant worker father. She has two sisters, Jackie and Geraldine, and two brothers, Rodney and Carl. Two cousins came to live with the family after an aunt passed. They lived in a three-room house in Ensley.

As a youngster, Drake wanted to run a chain of beauty salons, but her cosmetology teacher at Jackson-Olin High School, Geraldine Brown, thought teaching would be a more fitting career for Drake.

“[Brown] was my mentor in high school, through college, and even when I got out of college. … She encouraged me and said, ‘You can do it!’ I would say, ‘Me, teach?’” Drake said. “I always admired her, … [so much so that I] was a cosmetology teacher at [A.H. Parker High School].”

After graduating from high school, Drake went to Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University (AAMU), where she pursued a bachelor’s degree in business administration while putting together her own beauty salon. Before she opened the location in Birmingham on Third Avenue West, she also earned an associate degree from Lawson State Community College to operate her salon.

While running her business, Drake taught cosmetology at Parker High School on the side, something that also enabled her to coach the school’s dance team. Working with the dancers, Drake said, convinced her to leave the beauty business and focus on teaching.

“I actually made up the dances and exercised them,” Drake said. “I am still in touch with a lot of my majorettes and dancers. … Those were my girls because I didn’t have any kids of my own at the time.”

Coaching the girls at Parker is one of the most cherished periods of Drake’s life: “I was a mentor, a counselor, a mother. Those girls [were] growing up, and I instilled discipline in them that they still use today.”

While Drake was teaching cosmetology, Oscar Martin, another BCS employee, “recognized her leadership” and suggested that she seek an administrative role.

“Anybody Can Do It”

Drake returned to AAMU, where she earned a master’s degree. She also obtained an administration certification from UAB. In 2001, she became an assistant principal with BCS, a role she served in for more than nine years before she pursued a doctoral degree from Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Drake was named principal of Jackson-Olin in 2011.

Reflecting on her past, Drake said her story provides a valuable lesson for young people: “You can do whatever you want to do.”

“Your ZIP code does not describe who you’re going to be. You’ve got to have it within,” she said. “If I could do it, anybody can do it.”

While advancing in her career, Drake raised four children: two girls and one boy, who are her nieces and nephew, as well as her daughter, Jana, who is now 21 and a junior at UAB. Similar to her mother, Jana wants to be a business owner.

“She wants to own a chain of day care centers, but I’ve talked to her,” Drake said. “I said, ‘Well, why don’t you go into education? … She loves kids, just like I do.”

Drake passed her love of children and education on to her nephew, Johnathan, as well. The young man who Drake adopted from her sister—and who still calls Drake “Mama TT”—currently works at Glen Iris Elementary. In addition, one of Drake’s nieces, Jenise Burks, is a vice president at Atlantic Capital Bank in Atlanta, Georgia. “[She makes] more money than me,” Drake said.

Drake would like her students to remember her the way she remembers her former cosmetology teacher. “[I want them to remember that they] had a role model and a disciplinarian,” she said.