As a pastor and former teacher and basketball coach, John Carter has no shortage of experience directing others down a chosen path. In his previous jobs, he strived to be a transformational leader, a path he’s followed in four years as principal at James A. Cawood Elementary School.
In the church, he worked to transform the lives of his congregation, bringing them closer to God and leading them down the path to salvation as promised in the course of study he followed with his religion through the Bible.
As a teacher, he followed a course of study approved by his district to reach the prescribed destination, which meant his students were ready for the next step, or the next grade, in their procession toward graduation and a better life.
As a basketball coach, he followed a path to success that began with fundamentals and hard work and included a heavy dose of confidence-building activities. Carter helped rebuild a program that had struggled and turned them into one of the county’s top teams.
In his latest job as principal, Carter took on his biggest challenge, transforming a school that was one of the nicest in eastern Kentucky when it opened in the 1960s with much promise and a bright future. With a declining economy taking away many of the best students in the time when it went from a high school to an elementary school, the hope of the 1960s had been replaced by years of negativity and low expectations.
“It was a challenge, but it was so bad that it set up whoever took this job to look like a genius,” said Carter, who brings the same honesty to his job as a principal that he follows as a pastor. “There was no other way to go. You couldn’t go down any farther.”
“I absolutely love building things from the floor up,” Carter said. “I enjoy watching things grow. My wife, and she’s a blessing, reminds me all the time, ‘John, you’re the principal of the school, not the pastor of the school.’
“I think each job has helped prepare me for the other. Sometimes it’s hard to know which hat to put on, but I do like seeing transformations take place. The only way that can happen is through unity.”
Carter said enrollment at a school that once held over 1,200 students as a high school in the late 1960s had dropped to 267 students in kindergarten through the eighth-grade. The school scored in the first percentile, meaning 99 percent of the schools in the state were performing at a higher level.
“The morale amongst the staff was absolutely horrendous,” Carter said. “Group 1 didn’t like Group 2 and Group 3 tried to get along with everybody. I told them I wished Group 3 would pick a side so we could clean up the mess quicker.”
Carter began the job of cleaning up almost immediately, beginning with painting the halls and classrooms.
“My first words to the staff were to either get on board, get out of the way or get run over,” he said. “The kids knew the teachers didn’t like each other, and you had kids pitting one teacher against another.”
Carter brought his inspirational and transformational style to his new job, which began with trying to convince those closest to him that it could be done.
“I told the teachers that my job, if they were ineffective, was not to get rid of them but to help them become effective,” he said. “I let them know we’re going to put you in a corrective action plan to get you the help you need to be a better educator. We’re still working on things, but I’m seeing exponential growth, and we’re trying to find places where everyone can fit.”
“In that first year, he may not have been the most experienced man for the job , but he was definitely the leader we were looking for,” said JACES teacher Dianna Blanton Tipton. “Sometimes, a ‘good fit’ is all that’s needed for necessary changes and improvements.”
Carter immediately worked to change the culture at James A. Cawood, beginning with one of his first decisions, moving his office across the large building at JACES to the classroom section.
A visitor to the school who was a James A. Cawood High School alumnus searched in vain for the principal during the summer break before being directed to the right spot.
“He said he wanted to be closer to the kids,” said Lisa Blanton, a school-based counselor.
Carter was no stranger to the school when he took over as principal. He graduated from James A. Cawood High School in 1997 before going on to college at Southeast Community College, then Lincoln Memorial University and Union College.
He started teaching at Hall Elementary School in the 2003-2004 school year, then moved to James A. Cawood in 2008 when Harlan County High School opened and Hall’s students shifted to the former high school building. After four years at Cawood Elementary School, Carter returned to JACES to take on his biggest challenge in his first job as principal.
Carter began his work as a pastor in 2004 and led a major expansion in that job when his New Covenant Community Church at Bobs Creek merged with the Cawood Church of God in 2014 to form the New Covenant/Cawood Church of God. The size of the church has grown exponentially in recent years.
“We average about 200, so it’s grown quite a bit,” Carter said. “They needed a pastor and we needed a building, so it worked out well, plus it was the church I was born and raised in. But none of this is about me. It’s Christ who lives in me giving me strength.”
The ability to bring people together also helped Carter in his job at JACES.
“My staff can quote this: I’m not asking you to have slumber parties and go out for dinner every evening, but I’m asking you to be cordial and friendly with each other for six hours. It’s about the kids. Let’s get along.”
The results of that teamwork began showing dividends almost overnight and continues to bring the school closer to the goals Carter set when he started. The school enrollment is expected to be around 360 students, over a 25 percent increase in four years, and is now in the 88th percentile statewide, ranking third in the county on the middle school test scores and fifth on the elementary school level. JACES is now considered a high performing, proficient school.
“We were No. 2 in the state, out of hundreds of schools, for the biggest gain in scores,” Carter said. “This school’s perception is still not the best, and it’s taking a little bit longer than what I wanted for the community to see and believe in what is going on here, but it’s happening slowly. People aren’t driving past us as much to go other places. It gets tiring and stressful sometimes, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134