The first day of school for Decua Jean-Baptiste began shortly after 7 a.m. last Wednesday, when he pulled into a parking space reserved for the principal of Franklin Elementary.
He carried a sack with his breakfast and looked a little tired, but also sharp. He wore a dark suit with faint pinstripes, a crisp white shirt and a blue paisley tie, repping the colors (royal blue and gold) of the north Omaha school he's led since 2006.
It didn't take long for his energy to pick up. In the office he greeted the school secretary, Ms. Lori, who reported enrollment at 293 students, up 30 from last year. He booted up a laptop used to track attendance and set out a trophy celebrating Franklin's attendance victory over a rival school last year.
Back outside, Jean-Baptiste — everyone calls him “Mr. J.B.” — instructed the school's new security guard, a former correctional officer, on the morning procedures. Kids would start arriving in a half-hour. It was the guard's job to line them up before Mr. J.B. came out and did his thing.
“I kind of get them wound up,” he said. “You'll see.”
In the meantime, he made a quick loop through the school, welcoming teacher after teacher. He stuck his head into a first-grade classroom — “Good morning, Mrs. Wolfe! How are you doing? Ready?” — and darted across a landing overlooking the school's freshly renovated library.
To a teacher passing below: “Good morning, Ms. Wilson! All ready to go? 'Maybe'? That's the best answer I've heard.”
To a third-grade teacher carrying supplies: “Mr. Samson, how are you, sir? Are those cotton balls?”
One by one, they waved and hollered back, and the first day at Franklin began as it has for the past eight years.
This was not the plan.
The plan, announced by the Omaha Public Schools back in April as part of a larger reorganization of administrators, was to send Mr. J.B. to a new school.
The news sent a shock wave through Franklin. Inside of a day, parents were campaigning against the decision. Over the next month, they spoke their minds at a pair of school board meetings. One mother walked door to door in her neighborhood requesting signatures. Another took her effort online, emailing everyone she knew.
The news hit Tanya Valenzuela hard. Last year, Valenzuela moved into the neighborhood from South Omaha and enrolled her two daughters at Franklin. At first, she worried about how her daughters would handle the change. She didn't expect the welcome they received. She didn't anticipate their principal meeting them at the front door each day.
“I've never seen that before,” she said.
She couldn't believe it when she heard kids in her neighborhood talking and acting like Mr. J.B. She found herself pulled into the school's dynamics, joining Franklin's parent-teacher partnership and recruiting others to get involved.
“I should feel new,” she said going into just her second school year at Franklin. “But I don't at all. After the first week, it felt like home.”
Valenzuela joined the chorus of voices calling for the district to reconsider it's decision. Parents knew it was a long shot — such decisions are rarely reversed — but they made their case anyway.
It worked. In mid-June, the district announced that two of the affected principals, including Mr. J.B., would stay at their respective schools.
Now, as dozens of students lined up outside of Franklin Elementary for the first day of classes, he emerged to greet them. He hadn't made it through the doorway before the first girl in line threw him a hug.
“Good morning, Franklin Eagles!” he boomed. “Did we have a good summer? Did you have fun? Did anybody read? No?!”
He began to strut in place.
“Let's see if you remember,” he shouted, and then led his students through the school's daily call-and-response — “B-E-S-T! Best is what I want to be, Go Eagles!”
He led the long line of students, some accompanied by parents, into the school and a dual-purpose gym and cafeteria nicknamed the Eagles Nest. One by one, he welcomed each student into the cafeteria with a handshake, high-five or hug.
For a half-hour, students filed in, the majority of them making their way through a food line for a plate of pancakes and strawberries before finding their classroom's table. As the gym filled with hundreds of students, the smallest among them gathered at the table of longtime kindergarten teacher Kaye Hensley, or Ms. Hensley as she's known at Franklin.
“I was devastated,” Ms. Hensley said when asked how she felt when she heard Mr. J.B. would be leaving. “He's made such a difference to our kids. He genuinely cares about every child. There is a positive in every child. He finds that positive and builds on it.”
Franklin has its challenges. Almost all students at Franklin come from low-income families. The school is trying to improve its test scores — reading and math results lag well behind the district average. A couple of years ago, Franklin received a five-year grant to improve its numbers. When the district wanted to move him, Mr. J.B. pointed to the grant period. He wanted to see it through. He believed he'd changed the culture at Franklin but had more to do.
“I just didn't feel I completed the job I started,” he said.
He is a product of OPS himself. He attended Fontenelle and Springville Elementary Schools, then Nathan Hale Middle School. His photo still hangs in the school hall of fame at Northwest High School, where he played football, threw the shot put and played saxophone.
He never imagined he'd become a principal, though he jokes that as a student he spent plenty of time in the office. He recalls jumping onto a cafeteria table and declaring that one day he'd be president. The stunt earned him a trip down the hall.
Now, all these years later, he was back in a cafeteria, shaking hands with every single student as they started their first day. In this school, he didn't need to jump on tables to draw attention. Here, a trip down the hall led to his door.
As students finished their breakfasts, Mr. J.B. roamed from table to table, making jokes and trading fist bumps. After the last students filed out with their classes, he helped put away tables and scooped up an errant backpack to deliver to Lost and Found.
Back in the office, Ms. Lori gave him the update: 10 new students registered during a hectic morning.
The newest stood before him, a 5-year-old boy named Courtlin, who waited nervously as his mother filled out his paperwork.
“Has he had breakfast?” Mr. J.B. asked her, and then crouched down so he could look his new student in the eye.
“Courtlin, do you know who I am?” he said. “I'm Mr. J.B. I am your principal.”
Courtlin's principal then escorted him to class. He introduced Courtlin to his teacher, Ms. Hensley. Then he zipped back down the hallway, through the gymnasium and into a kitchen reeking of cooked broccoli and put together a small tray of cereal, milk and fruit.
In the classroom, as Ms. Hensley directed her students to the room's reading circle, Mr. J.B. motioned Courtlin to a desk and sat next to him in a tiny kindergarten chair.
“See, it says 'pull' right here,” he whispered, holding a prepackaged cup of strawberries, “so what you do is hold on to it and pull here, and that way it doesn't spill all over the place.”
In the reading circle, Ms. Hensley showed her kids how to raise their hands to ask a question. A few feet away, Mr. J.B. sat shoulder to shoulder with Courtlin as he unwrapped his plastic silverware and whispered a few more words of encouragement as he poured milk into his cereal. It was 10 a.m.
“Have a good day,” he said finally, and moved on to the next classroom down then hall.