Mentors helped shape Baton Rouge Magnet High’s Nanette McCann
Nanette McCann had not planned to go into teaching when she arrived in Baton Rouge in 1984 just out of Louisiana Tech with an English education degree and a minor in library science. Her plan was to pursue a master’s in library science at LSU.
“I wanted to be a librarian because I love books,” she said.
Along the way, McCann’s interests and some exceptional mentors led her in the direction of school management. For 11 years, she has served as principal of Baton Rouge Magnet High School and in July was named Louisiana Department of Education High School Principal of the Year.
McCann grew up in McGehee, Ark., in a close family with a strong interest in education. Her father, the late Ken Brantley, was president of the local school board when she was in elementary school. “When we sat around the dinner table, it wasn’t if you go to college. It was when you go to college,” McCann said.
Her father suggested that she do a little substitute teaching while she was pursuing her master’s. She was sent to Capitol High School for an interview with the principal, Tex Turner. He hired her for a job that turned out to be full time.
In her second year at Capitol High, Turner gave McCann some life-changing advice. “You are not going to get your master’s in library science,” he told her. “You are going to get your master’s in education, and you are going to be a principal.”
“Mr. Turner told me to think out of the box. He told me not to settle for the same thing,” said McCann, who took Turner’s advice and enrolled in the graduate program at Southeastern Louisiana University, where she earned a degree in education leadership. However, she soon learned that finding a leadership job in the school system was not so easy.
In 1995, she accepted an internship through the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, LSU and Southern University. She was assigned to Baker High School under Principal Harry Ingalls and Assistant Principal Wayne Messina.
“I went to work every day as their intern,” she said. “I learned everything from football management to discipline to doing a master schedule. They taught me the nuts and bolts.”
Ingalls gave her some important advice she remembers to this day. “I always had a hard time making a decision,” McCann said. “He said, ‘You have to be able to make a quick decision. You can always change it, but you have to learn how to do it quickly.’”
In 1995, Gary Mathews was hired as superintendant of education for East Baton Rouge Parish. He hired David Carona as assistant superintendent. “That gave an opening at Tara,” McCann said. “Linda Thomas became principal at Tara, and she hired me. I went from being an intern to assistant principal.”
McCann stayed at Tara for six more years under Principal Warren Drake.
“Mr. Drake would let me do whatever I could to improve our AP (Advanced Placement) courses and our honors courses,” she said. “Baton Rouge High was what I was patterning after. We were always looking for the top school to do what we could to pattern after it.”
Drake advised McCann to seek a job as principal. “He said you decide where you want to be principal and then make it happen,” said McCann, who set her sights on Woodlawn or Baton Rouge High.
Six months later, McCann learned that J.B. Williams, principal at Baton Rouge Magnet High, was thinking about retiring. In 2002, she got her dream job. “Here I was, this little old girl from Arkansas at this great big school,” she said.
McCann describes her leadership style as “hands on.” “I like to have my door open. I like to be that person that can make a difference to the teacher, to the community leader, to the parent, to the custodian, to everybody,” she said.
Acceptance at Baton Rouge Magnet High School is not automatic. To be considered, a student must have a cumulative middle school average of 2.5 or above and score at least “proficient” on the eighth-grade tests. “If they achieve these standards, they go into a lottery,” McCann said.
Students from McKinley Middle Magnet and Sherwood Middle Magnet are “automatic feeds” if they achieve the required standards.
Is it easier to achieve success as a principal or teacher at a school where students must meet admission standards? McCann said her experience at Baker, Capitol, Tara and Baton Rouge High has taught her that it is possible for students to succeed in schools with all ranges of learning.
“My philosophy, no matter what school you are considering, is to have high expectations,” McCann said. “I don’t care where you are on the spectrum. I may raise it even, but I will never lower that bar. Kids at Capitol High are eager to learn, but they have to know that you care, that you really want to help them.”
McCann has seen success in working one-on-one with students. She believes that it is helpful to identify weaknesses and give a student a route for success.
“You can sit with them one-on-one and see how they have scored on their tests. You tell them, ‘if you did this a little more’ or ‘if we just worked on writing’ or ‘if you could just improve your reading skills.’ They all want to please you if you take that interest in them,” she said.
She remembers students at Capitol High who could not read. With help, some were able to see success, like the student who, with effort, learned to read on a fourth-grade level. “At least he could function,” she said.
The process for determining Principal of the Year is involved and begins with a nomination by any employee of the school system.
After being nominated by her school librarian, McCann was asked to assemble a book with an essay demonstrating examples of her collaboration, instructional leadership, personal leadership and gains in closing the achievement gap. “You write an essay and then prove through artifacts that you have done those things,” she said. She also had to provide letters of recommendation.
McCann was chosen East Baton Rouge Parish High School Principal of the Year and then regional Principal of the Year. All eight regional winners were required to create PowerPoints, which were submitted to a committee of the Department of Education. On July 20, the regional winners were all recognized, and McCann was announced as the state winner.
McCann is the mother of two — a daughter, Emily Greer, 22, and a son, Morgan Greer, 21, who is autistic. She is married to John McCann, who was principal at Woodlawn for 10 years before he retired. He came back into the school system and is now working at Lee High School. Her mother, Lois Brantley, still lives in Arkansas.
By October, McCann must prepare an application for the 2014 MetLife National Association of Secondary School Principals Principal of the Year. In March, she will travel to Washington, D.C., for the final results. “We’ll see,” she said.