Two veteran principals leaving EBR schools

Longtime Baton Rouge school principals Sherry Brock and Leroy Helire are hanging it up after years of working to help children and teenagers succeed in school.

Brock led Westdale Middle School for 15 years; Friday was her last day on the job. Helire ran Northdale Magnet Academy for 26 of the past 27 years and was principal at the school’s founding; Jan. 10 was his last day on the job.

Both are former state principals of the year — Brock even competed for a national middle school principal of the year honor.

Their departure leaves behind just a handful of principals in Baton Rouge who have spent a decade or more in their current jobs.

Both are leaving their schools on midyear on purpose to give trusted assistants, now interim principals, a chance to take over and carry on the traditions they started.

“It really hasn’t hit me yet,” Brock said. “I’ve been at other schools, but there’s just something about Westdale. So many people have been through this school.”

“What we were doing is we made all kids productive,” Helire said.

The two schools are much different from each other.

Westdale Middle has about 1,200 students, one of the largest schools of any type in Baton Rouge. It offers eight different instructional programs, including a traditional middle school, a large gifted-and-talented program and a foreign language immersion program. It has a B grade and earned a “top gains” distinction last year for academic growth.

Northdale, by contrast, has historically been a small school, a school of choice for struggling high schoolers who were lost in their big high schools and wanted a smaller setting. It has always had relatively low test scores, like most alternative schools, but a high proportion graduate.

On Friday, as the school day neared an end, 36 buses rolled into Westdale Middle to take kids home. Brock was worried she might lose her composure as she grabbed the intercom for the last time.

“Thank you and stand by for the bus,” Brock said, ending with the words she says every day.

Then she walked out her office, issuing a steady of stream of greetings and directives to keep the flood of kids on track and onto their assigned buses.

“Hey baby, y’all be good.”

“Hey, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go, come on baby!”

Brock hasn’t made an official announcement that she is leaving — that’s coming in a parent newsletter this coming week — but word has been out for days.

“Bye, Ms. Brock,” one girl yelled from a bus window. “I’m gonna miss you.”

Not everyone is taken with Brock. She’s a high energy, fast talking leader who has been doing many things the same way for decades and hasn’t always been big on consensus.

“I have slowed down,” Brock says. “I listen more than I did. I take more time before making important decisions.”

Brock, however, has often had to make decisions quickly. In summer 1998, when she started, the middle school had about 400 students, but that didn’t last. Then Superintendent Gary Mathews told her she had just two days to prepare to receive almost 100 students from a gifted program formerly at McKinley Middle School. That program now has more than 400 students.

Brock became so attached to the school that she moved across the street and said she would have left years ago if she had had a long commute.

“We do things here the Westdale Way,” she said firmly, then added. “What that means is we do literally whatever’s best for students.”

Northdale Magnet Academy opened its doors in 1986 as an independent school formed with the backing of the local chamber of commerce. The idea was to give students who were behind but motivated a second chance to get a high school diploma.

“There weren’t charter schools back then, but that’s what it was,” recalled Helire.

The school started with about 60 students, but for most of its existence the school had about 120 students. Many years it had waiting lists of students trying to get in.

“We looked at kids who had a desire to change their lives,” he said

The school’s quiet independence began to change in 2012, when Northdale was merged, thanks to budget cuts, with another alternative school. It changed again this year when Superintendent Bernard Taylor revamped all alternative schools, so that they relied more on technology and less on teachers. With the changes came less independence and more outside scrutiny.

Some kids thrive on computer-based instruction, others don’t, he said. Also, enrollment soared to more than 250 students, making it harder for his staff to give the students the kind of close attention they had previously.

“If you go big, you might as well as be another high school,” he said.

Helire, however, remains loyal to the school he started and shepherded. He plans to continue to serve as a mentor, adviser and fundraiser for Northdale.

“I’m more than a principal,” he said. “I’m more like a preacher.”