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‘Ambitious’ Houston ISD principal earns national educator award

November 27, 2018

During his first year as principal of Young Men’s College Preparatory Academy, Houston ISD’s new all-boys school in the city’s Greater Fifth Ward, Dameion Crook traveled across the district recruiting potential students.

Yet, in the academy’s backyard, at nearby Bruce Elementary School, Crook landed one of earliest students. There, in 2012, he found fifth-grader Roy Washington, who believed in Crook’s vision for the campus, even at his young age.

“He seemed pretty excited and he was telling us there would be a lot of academic opportunities, that we would be getting in on something that would be big later on,” said Washington, now a senior at the since-renamed Mickey Leland College Preparatory Academy for Young Men. “I would say he was pretty ambitious.”

Six years later, Crook has lived up to his pledge for students like Washington, who has been accepted to three state universities and plans to major in engineering. From its humble roots, with an inaugural class of 150 students in the aging E.O. Smith Education Center, Crook has built the school into one of HISD’s highest-performing campuses. Today, the school attracts 500 middle and high school students — nearly half black, nearly half Hispanic — from virtually all corners of the district.

For his work at Mickey Leland College Prep, which boasts some of the district’s highest Advanced Placement participation rates and lowest disciplinary rates, Crook this month received the National Alliance of Black School Educators’ Principal of the Year Award. The alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit founded in 1970, annually issues the award to one principal among its more than 100 U.S. and international affiliates.

“This one is different because I actually got to represent our school district and our state at a time when there’s a crisis for young men in this country,” Crook said in a recent interview at the school’s new facility, opened in 2017 as part of the district’s $1.9 billion bond program. “It’s big, but I can’t say it’s the pinnacle of my career, because the pinnacle has been creating this place — and I don’t think I’ve gotten there yet.”

Crook, 44, has tended to Mickey Leland College Prep from its start in 2011, when the district’s first two single-gender campuses opened (the Young Women’s College Preparatory Academy is in Third Ward). From the outset, Crook faced a difficult task: closing down the historic E.O. Smith Education Center, where he was finishing his first year as principal, while preparing to open the new, selective academy at the same site.

Crook adroitly navigated the challenge, eventually winning over many community members who saw strong academic and behavioral standards at the revamped school. Mickey Leland College Prep has traditionally performed near or above district averages on state standardized tests, while boasting that nearly all its high school-age students complete Advanced Placement courses. Students engage in various extracurricular activities — several athletic teams, choir, robotics and more — despite the school’s relatively small size. Crook’s staff emphasizes character education and a fashionably strict dress code of vests, ties and khaki pants.

William Fortson, a senior at Mickey Leland College Prep, said Crook has created a culture of brotherhood at his school. Fortson recalled a tone-setting experience in sixth grade when Crook moderated a bullying issue by gathering the students involved to discuss solutions, rather than issuing harsh discipline.

“That worked out better, because that kid stopped getting bullied,” Fortson said. “That’s when I realized Dr. Crook wasn’t the traditional principal.”

Houston ISD’s leadership development officer, Dawn DuBose-Randle, said Crook has been a consistently energetic presence, remembering how the principal once drove a school bus full of his students across the city to judge a science contest at Red Elementary School, where she previously served as principal. Crook also has brought stability to the still-young campus, a relatively rare principal who lasts more than five years leading a school with higher percentages of at-risk students.

“Continuity can make a world of difference, because you’re able to not only accomplish short-term goals, but you’re able to see major initiatives come to fruition,” said DuBose-Randle, who nominated Crook for the Principal of the Year award. “I definitely would say that they have become a spotlight school for our district.”

For Crook, education runs in the family. As a child growing up in Roseland, La., a town of nearly 1,200 people about 50 miles northeast of Baton Rouge, Crook watched his mother teach first grade in the town’s only elementary school, which racially integrated during her tenure. Crook earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Texas Southern University and went to work for chemical manufacturer FMC Corporation, testing hydrogen peroxide byproducts in a La Porte lab. Within two years, though, Crook quit his job to become a science teacher at HISD’s Sharpstown Middle School.

Crook worked his way through administrative roles before landing the job at Mickey Leland College Prep, where about half of the students qualify as “at-risk” and two-thirds are deemed “economically disadvantaged” by the state. Crook said his campus aims to set high standards for students, many of whom come from lower-income families still grappling with the effects of intergenerational poverty.

“I think, in some ways, I’m still carrying that torch from when we did segregate schools, because you have to teach them all the same,” Crook said. “You have to be invested in every last one of them the same. If there are obstacles, you have to move them.”

jacob.carpenter@chron.com

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