‘Vision, courage and leadership’ – SOT principal French retires after 25 years in county system

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Last Thursday afternoon proved an emotion-charged day for retiring School of Technology principal Phyllis French.

The woman who was entrusted by School Superintendent Evan Major to keep the School of Technology going when its closing was being considered was honored upon her pending retirement.

June 29 will mark the end of 25 years with the Shelby County School System for French.

French has been principal at the SOT since 2000. A reception was held in her honor last week at the school. In attendance were school officials, community leaders, family and friends.

And to French’s surprise, a new garden at the school was dedicated in her honor.

The engraving on a stone plaque at the garden, which included painted stones and a birdbath with a statue, reads, &uot;This garden is dedicated to the honor of Phyllis French in gratitude for the vision, courage and leadership she brought to this campus from 2000 to 2005.&uot;

French received her education specialist degree from the University of Montevallo. She taught what was then called home economics at Thompson Middle School and family and consumer science at Thompson High School for 11 years.

French next worked for three years as a program area specialist at the central office in Columbiana before serving as principal at SOT.

Shelby County School Superintendent Evan Major said there was discussion among school board members &uot;that it was time to shut this facility (SOT) down.&uot;

However, he said, &uot;I can be stubborn.&uot;

Major said he wanted a chance to keep the school going because he believed &uot;we&uot; could &uot;make a difference.&uot;

&uot;I called Phyllis into my office. I said, ‘I want you out to the School of Technology until further notice.’ She said, ‘Yes, sir.’&uot;

Major said French had many successes and improved programs. And he said of SOT, &uot;This campus has never looked better. It was newer – but never looked better.&uot;

Major also said, &uot;Show me a good program, I’ll show you a good leader.&uot;

High school coordinator Larry Headrick also said the successes of the School of Technology were a tribute to French’s leadership.

He praised her for getting the school’s parking lot paved by the county (a $50,000 project) and for receiving numerous grants for the school. He said both French and Linda Major worked on those grants.

Headrick noted that enrollment at the school increased from 289 students to 513 students and called that a tribute to French as well.

Headrick said SOT changes students’ lives.

He spoke of the school’s culinary arts class, its public safety academy, business and finance academy and its work with BE&K.;

He also said youngsters who cannot do math in a regular school setting come to the School of Technology and are doing it at SOT where it is applied.

While Headrick noted that some students at SOT are &uot;not the easiest kids to work with,&uot; he said, &uot;They need to have a chance and we give them that.&uot;

SOT assistant principal Tim Elliff could not hold back his emotions. And he said of French’s retirement, &uot;This is not the end.&uot;

English teacher Delia Anderson read a statement before a Powerpoint presentation on French’s career at SOT.

&uot;Nearing closure at the end of the 1999-2000 school year, SOT became the ‘phoenix that rose from the ashes’ as Phyllis French took flight at SOT’s new principal during the summer of 2000.&uot;

French used a collaborative team approach to gather teachers and staff to promote shared responsibility.

&uot;She boosted teacher morale from an all-time low to an inspiring high by leading us as a team to believe in ourselves in ways we never thought possible.&uot;

French led staff, students and community volunteers to paint, clean, decorate and restructure departments and to landscape the previously decaying campus.

&uot;She solicited financial aid to add state-of-the-art technology and equipment to academic classrooms and technical departments. In relentless pursuit of turning a dream into a reality, Mrs. French persuaded the county to construct a student and visitor parking area on the barren front lawn. She set academic goals that were not only reached but also surpassed,&uot; the statement said.

&uot;SOT now houses three schools within one campus with two full-time counselors.&uot; And, &uot;The Career Technical Programs have expanded from eight to now offering 13 diverse fields for certification.&uot;

But, &uot;Much more interestingly, Mrs. French has added additional tutoring services for academic remediation classes, a health class and night school that services all eight county high school’s failing seniors.

&uot;She continues to recruit business sponsors. Inspiring school recognition, Mrs. French has led our faculty and staff to achieve SAC accreditation in 2003-2004. Just recently, during spring 2005, SOT has been honored as one of Alabama’s CLAS Banner Schools. Obviously, that’s why she is, without a doubt, the &uot;wind beneath our wings.&uot;

Following the presentation, French said her actual retirement date would be June 29.

&uot;At first I was excited, then I got teary-eyed,&uot; she said.

But she said her husband retired seven years ago and the two were looking forward to doing some things together.

&uot;I’ve never regretted one day being in education … I’ve loved coming to work.&uot;

She said teachers, students and their parents have embraced her.

Student Ashley Pearce said of French, &uot;She’s kind of like a mom to everyone because she cares so much. She’s not like a normal principal, she helps you solve your problems. She doesn’t punish you – she just helps you solve them.&uot;

Career Academy Students at the SOT have also expressed appreciation for French.

Chris Holcombe said, &uot;She made my school experience (at SOT) easier and enjoyable. She was always there to help – if there were scholarships or other opportunities – I knew she would always help me.