Superintendent preaches the power of potential

By Lena Mitchell/NEMS Daily Journal

ASHLAND – A decade on the “mean streets” of Memphis was good training ground for Benton County Schools Superintendent Patrick Washington.
Elected to the county superintendent’s office in 2007, the 34-year-old Ashland native returned home to help each child in the district fulfill his or her potential.
The unique way he found to reach those children, and help instill faith in themselves, was a visual presentation he developed with skeptical teachers at Georgia Avenue Elementary School in Memphis, where he became principal at age 27.
The Memphis ZIP code that is home to the school – 38126 – is described as the 13th poorest ZIP code in the nation, and one of the most violent, based on 2000 census data.
“I would randomly hear conversations among faculty in the hallways and teachers’ lounge, negative comments about the parents and students,” Washington said. “I felt a connection with some of those parents, though, because many of them were my age.”
The thought came to Washington to show the teachers, rather than tell them, where he was coming from.
As he prepared for one of the regular Wednesday afternoon teacher meetings, he put on a typical teen outfit – jeans sagging below his rear end, a baseball cap with the bill turned sideways, covered by a zip-front hooded sweatshirt, sneakers, sunglasses. The thug look was capped off by gold-colored metal braces across his front teeth, called a “grill” by rap music fans.
As Washington walked through the cafeteria to get to his meeting, he heard one of the children waiting for transportation say to another, “He looks just like my dad.”
It was exactly the look he was going for.
When Washington entered the library for the teachers’ meeting, no one recognized him at first, and when they did they were shocked, to say the least.
“We’re in the business of educating kids,” he told the faculty. “However, until we see the potential in them, see below the surface, we will never be successful in educating them.”
That presentation had a powerful impact, and through word of mouth Washington has been invited to give his presentation to school and church groups many times since.
This son of a teacher of more than three decades, and a minister, is comfortable with sharing his message. He also is a minister who pastors Palestine Missionary Baptist Church in Blue Mountain.
“Whenever I’m called upon I am glad to share the message, regardless of the setting,” Washington said. “It has been a useful vehicle for communicating with youths and adults, making age-old messages relevant today.”
Two objects Washington uses in the presentation include sungalsses, representing lack of vision, and a cap, representing capped – or limited – potential.
When he takes off the clothing and those trappings to reveal a dress shirt and tie and dress slacks, he shows the potential in each and every child – person.
“When I was younger I made mistakes, but I had the potential to become a school district superintendent,” Washington said. “Children need to know that they’re loved, have value and can be successful. That’s what this is all about.”

Contact Lena Mitchell at (662) 287-9822 or lena.mitchell@djournal.com.