Drew Cook continues preparing Garner Magnet High School to open on Aug. 25. But that preparation will ultimately include moving out of his office.
Garner High already had a lot of changes on the docket in the near future – mainly a new building and a new rival high school. Cook’s sudden departure for a job at the central office of the Wake County Public School System adds a new dimension.
The school board formally appointed Cook on July 22. He knew, but only for a matter of weeks before his promotion.
Cook said the fact that he’s leaving a building that will be knocked down added a layer of bittersweet to his goodbye, as this year’s students will have a new leader roaming the halls.
“That’s the part that probably saddens me more than anything else,” the former Garner student, athlete, teacher, coach and administrator said. “Not being around the kids on a daily basis.”
Cook learned only this summer of the retirement of his predecessor, John Williams. But since the opportunity popped up, he has embraced the idea of a new challenge. Despite the unknowns, he thinks he’s well-positioned to positively affect the broader school system as senior director of high school programming.
“I’m excited, but anxious at the same time,” Cook said. “I have been very happy and still am happy in the role I’m in. I wasn’t actively seeking positions.”
Along with student interaction, he said will miss being interwoven with the fabric at the high school where spent his entire career. He compared wrapping up his duties at Garner to walking around a home after moving out one last time before turning over the keys.
But he will not necessarily miss the constant torrent of challenges that stem from running a large high school.
Fork in the road
There was time where Cook figured he’d end up teaching for 30 years while maybe someday becoming a varsity high school basketball coach. Along the way, plans slowly evolved.
“I’m not somebody who has these 5-, 10-, 20-year career plan goals,” Cook said. “I’ve always approached my career as a series of crossroads and kind of forks in the road.”
At the last fork – becoming the principal in 2009 – Cook didn’t flip his turn signal thinking it’d be his last job, either. Though he may not have envisioned the next jump coming this soon, he said he knew he was still short of the midway point of his career. Even if he wanted to remain principal for decades, he’s “not sure that’s the most healthy, productive model” for a school. Sometimes even successful schools benefit from fresh ideas and perspective.
That’s what he hopes to provide to high schools county-wide after generating a number of accolades and rising test scores at Garner.
“This is a position that very much aligns with the experiences that I’ve had as a high school educator,” Cook said. “I saw it as an opportunity for my own professional growth, and learning something new.”
Coincidentally, at WCPSS Cook will replace a retiring John Willams, the man who as principal first hired Cook as a social studies teacher in 1997. He said he hopes to continue Williams’ efforts to engage principals and value and incorporate their input.
The biggest difference for Cook in his new role will be the distance from the classroom, a position that can be problematic for administrators, he said.
“You have to guard against getting too far removed from the people you’re serving,” Cook said. “One of the things I hope I’m able to do is find excuses to get back into schools and be around it periodically.”
Mixed feelings, but no mixed decisions
While Cook loved his job and speaks glowingly about his time at Garner High School, that doesn’t mean he waxes nostalgic for every aspect of his old job. In particular, he spoke about the way a school Garner’s size always has something important happening – frequently some form of crisis or emergency.
“I won’t miss the long hours and the nonstop grind of the day-to-day operations of a school this big,” Cook said.
Even good things like graduations and other student achievements are often followed almost immediately by something that takes his attention in another direction. For example, he said while everyone had a great time at football games, he didn’t get to fully appreciate them until everyone left safely.
In addition, while a lot of the problems he faced contained a lot of nuances, they offen necessitated decisions from him that were not.
“You can have mixed feelings about a situation, but in this role you can’t make a mixed decision,” Cook said.
He does not know all that will comprise the day-to-day duties of his new job, but he can’t imagine it could be any more demanding and consuming as his soon-to-be former job. No longer will he be the constant point man for a single school with dozens of teachers and administrators and a student population comparable to a small town.
But the challenges that he won’t miss don’t negate the daily interactions that he will, noting that “99 percent of the interactions with kids are positive” in any given day. That he’s walked away from being a principal – and possibly higher risk of a heart attack – for a different kind of role doesn’t mean he will look back with any sense of regret.
“All those (stressors) are outweighed by the different positives of the job,” Cook said.