On his way to being named Clayton High School’s new principal, Bennett Jones changed colleges once and his major three times, entertaining a number of careers.
“I really took the indirect route to education,” Jones said. “When I graduated [from high school], I had no idea what I wanted to be, and if you’d of told me I’d be a principal, I would have laughed in your face.”
But Jones came to see the classroom and playing field as places he belonged when, as a 19-year-old N.C. State student, he took what he thought would be two GPA-boosting coaching classes.
“I found my passion; I found what I liked to do,” Jones said. “I found a way to mesh my love of sports with my love of helping people.”
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Jones, currently an assistant principal at South Johnston High School, will succeed Clint Eaves, who will be the new principal of Johnston County’s Early College Academy.
It’s a bit of a homecoming for Jones to move to Clayton High; he lives in town and spent five years at the school as a teacher and coach. He left Clayton for an opening as the head football coach at West Johnston High School, a move he said turned out to be the wrong one, but one that led him to where he said he was supposed to be, South Johnston. He’s been a teacher, coach and administrator at the school for the past six years.
On Monday, Jones introduced himself to Clayton High School parents, teachers and students during a town hall-style event in the school’s cafeteria. He said there was no other school in the district he would rather lead and pledged he would be accessible to parents and that students would receive the encouragement and support needed to find their passions.
“Clayton High School is where my heart always was, where I always wanted to be, where I live,” Jones said. “I live in this community. ... I live eight minutes from here.”
One of the first things Jones touched on was the “Power Lunch” program that Clayton started five years ago, where students got a less-structured period in the middle of the day to seek out tutoring or pursue their own interests. Exploitation of that period led the school’s faculty to tweak the program, calling it “Power Break,” shortening it to 30 minutes and holding it at the start of the day.
Jones said Clayton wouldn’t start the year with Power Lunch but might add it later.
“I’m a huge proponent of Power Lunch. I’ve seen it work, I’ve seen it be effective. I’m writing my dissertation on it; that’s how much I believe in it,” Jones said. “It’s my intention to allow students to earn Power Lunch back.”
Questions from parents drove most of the discussion Monday night, with some asking about dress codes, phone policies and activities for those not interested in sports. Respectively, he said teachers control the dress code in their classroom, phones are a modern reality but can’t be a distraction, and students will get any help they need finding out who they are.
“I was just an average student, kind of wandering my way through life; that is many students that walk through these doors every day,” Jones said. “There are some who know exactly what they want to do, who work their tails off, who have known exactly what they’ve wanted to be since they were 5. That’s fantastic.
“There’s others, the majority of them, they don’t know, they have concerns, they have home issues, family issues that we will never even grasp the scope of, and so my mission has been to find what works for each individual child. My educational philosophy is the ones who are toughest to love, those are the ones I’m going to love the most.”
Jones said there are three things he doesn’t tolerate: drugs, fights and gangs.
“There’s no place for any of it in Clayton High School; none of them have anything to do with learning,” Jones said. “I can speak the gang language. You can go back and tell them that I’m the O.G. (original gangster) in Clayton High School.”
Later in the night, Joe Doyle asked about Clayton’s older buildings and said a school’s looks influence the learning environment.
“Part of fostering good morale, part of fostering learning is aesthetics, let’s be honest,” Doyle said. “As you come into a facility, part of the way you feel depends on the environment around you. What is the school board doing? Are they going to give us some money to make this place in comparison to the other high schools that are quite a bit nicer?”
Jones said Superintendent Ross Renfrow is aware of the building issues at Clayton, a school with 2,100 students and a 100-seat auditorium. But he said major changes would require a bond issue approved by voters.
Earlier in the discussion, Jones encouraged Clayton to embrace its role as a community school.
“This school has something not many places have anymore; this is still a community-based school,” he said. “There may be some very nice facilities 15 miles that way or 12 miles that way. This is us. ... This school is a good place to be; this school can be a great place to be, and that’s our challenge.”
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson