'This is going to be a school where people are calling me up and wanting to get their kids to attend here,' Henrietta Williams said.
By RON COLE
VINDICATOR EDUCATION WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- As the new principal of The Rayen School, don't expect Henrietta Williams to run away from the school's reputation as the Mahoning Valley's roughest high school.
Dangerous. Chaotic. Failing.
She's heard it all.
But also don't expect her to feed into it.
The day-in, day-out reality of the 800-student high school on the city's North Side simply doesn't match the perception, she said.
"I've even heard teachers say, 'I don't think I could teach at Rayen,'" said Williams, 50, who taught at the school for nearly 25 years before moving into the principal's office this summer.
"The perception is that you have children who don't want to learn. You have kids who want to do harm to you -- and I'm talking physical harm. So, therefore, why do I want to be in that building? Why do I want to send my child to that building?
"I tell people every day, come and see it for yourself. Come and talk to these kids. Do we have bad kids? Yes. I haven't been in a school in the state of Ohio that doesn't have a core of bad kids. But these are warm children, and they're just kids."
Determined to succeed
"If your expectations aren't high, they'll reach the level of your expectations. My success has always been that I have high expectations for these kids, and they haven't failed me yet."
And Williams said she doesn't expect to fail now.
"In the end, this is going to be a school where people are calling me up and wanting to get their kids to attend here," she said.
Prick Williams' finger, and she'll bleed Youngstown.
Born and raised with 12 siblings in a part of the city's East Side known as the Sharon Line, Williams was nicknamed "Red" as a child because of her fire-engine-red hair.
Her father was a steel worker, and her mother was a cook at Squaw Creek Country Club.
She graduated from the former North High School in 1970, got her bachelor's degree from Youngstown State University four years later and went directly to Rayen.
A high-energy classroom teacher, Williams grew into one of the most highly regarded teachers at Rayen and in the school district. She coached girls track and basketball for 17 years. Four years ago, she started Rayen's Positive Connections program to help dropouts earn their diplomas.
Two years ago, she left the school to be assistant principal at Chaney High School. She pounced on the chance to return to Rayen this year, replacing Claude Bentley.
Prepared for the challenges
"People look at me like I'm crazy when I say I'm so happy to be back," said Williams, whose 22-year-old son graduates from Mercyhurst College this fall.
"Rayen is a beautiful place. We have parents who are very caring and warm people who will support you if they know you care about their children."
But the challenges are daunting.
On any given day, more than 10 percent of the school's 822 students don't show up for classes, according to the Ohio Department of Education. The graduation rate is 54 percent. Only about one in four ninth-graders pass the math section of the state proficiency test.
Turning around those numbers won't be easy, Williams concedes. Teachers must develop stronger relationships with students. Students must get more involved in school activities. Parents must be welcome to come to the school and help.
"Kids have to come to an environment where people, first, care about them," Williams said. "Ask kids why they dropped out of school, and they'll say, 'Well, no one cared.'
"We have to care, and we have to show the kids that we care. I'm not saying change your discipline. I was probably one of the strongest disciplinarians in this building, but they also knew that I cared about them."
In addition to attendance and test scores, Williams said one of her biggest challenges will be getting the teaching staff "to really see the sincerity in my heart."
The school has been in a decade-long transition since South High School closed and the bulk of those students were transferred to Rayen. Later, East High School closed, causing another shuffle of students. And in the next three to five years, Rayen will be converted to a middle school as a high school building on the East Side is completed.
"There's been a lot of questions: Where are we headed? Where are we going? Where is the consistency in our lives?" Williams said. "Every time you turn around there's another building closing and merging and there's a lot of transition."
Now, the school gets a new principal. On top of that, Williams is believed to be the school's first female principal, a fact she said she thinks can give her an advantage.
"One of the things I used to tell my kids in the classroom when I got really disturbed, I'd say, 'Do you know what an angry mom is like?" she said. "Everybody can relate to an angry mom. I'd tell them, 'You don't want to make me angry.'
"I think the kids will see that in me. I will be a caring mom, but it will be a firm and stern mom, and you don't want to make me angry."