One day after the 2021-22 school year ended, Chad Drake was already settling into his new office at Mann Middle School, prepping for his first year as the principal of a campus that will be in its 62nd year of serving Abilene ISD students.

Drake hadn’t yet taken the time to decorate any of the walls in his office (he was leaving that up to his wife), and he was barely 18 hours away from having walked off the campus of Dyess Elementary School for the last time as principal. But he was already immersing himself in what needed to be done at Mann to get ready for the 2022-23 school year.

“Leaving Dyess was bittersweet,” said Drake, who was named the new principal at Mann on March 25. “It’s crazy how quickly three years at Dyess went by. My first year there (2019-20) was the COVID shutdown year, the next year was the virtual year, and last year was the year everybody had COVID. We didn’t have a normal year, but because of that our team came together. I loved working with all of the people at Dyess. Ultimately that’s what’s great about coming to work is the team that comes together, so I’m going to miss them.

“And, of course, I’ll miss the kids,” he said. “Elementary kids are sweet, and they had a lot of gifts and notes for me, and it was fun to be reminded how much they appreciate my connection with them at the kid level. It was a great day, but it was also kind of sad.”

Drake said he’s leaving Dyess in good hands with Janaye Wideman, who was announced on May 6 as Drake’s successor at Dyess. Wideman has seven years of elementary school administrative experience in the Abilene ISD, including the last two years as the assistant principal at Stafford Elementary School. She’s been an assistant principal and instructional coordinator at three different AISD elementary campuses and has been an educator for 16 years.

“Janaye Wideman will do a great job,” Drake said. “I think the world of her and have heard nothing but great things about her. We had several good conversations throughout May about systems we had in place at Dyess and things she might tweak.  That’s another reason I feel the way I do because I trust her to do great things.”

Drake is returning to a campus familiar to him; one that holds special memories and is full of familiar faces from his time there as an assistant principal and instructional specialist. An Abilene native, Drake returned to his hometown in 2017 to begin his career in AISD after serving for four years as an assistant principal at Atkins Middle School in Lubbock ISD.

“Mann Middle School is a very special place,” Drake said. “During the last couple of months of the school year, I was able to be over here one or two full days a week, building relationships with the students, families, and staff. I was able to make it to a few events and we had a ‘Meet-The-Principal’ event that gave me a chance to meet a lot of people. Now that I’m here full-time, I’m ready to get things going for the 2022-23 school year.”

For Drake and every other person associated with Abilene ISD, that comes with the hope that this school year will continue to return to a more normal feel than the last three years.

“I’ve been emailing and talking to staff re-assuring them that I believe the upcoming school year will be different,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll continue getting back to normal because the last normal year we had was 2018-19. We’ll still have kid challenges just because they’ve had three years of trauma. But I can’t imagine starting the upcoming school year in the same way we started last year with the wave of COVID that went through the district.”

Drake also said he’s ready for the different pace that will greet him when the school year starts.

“I’m sure that will be different,” he said. “The work will come at a faster pace at this level, and I know that. But every level of principalship has unique challenges, and if you haven’t done any other level you might think your level is the most challenging or rewarding. Having gone down to elementary and seen the challenges of doing that well and supporting students and staff well and then coming back to middle school you understand it’s different. But it’s the same in terms of having people buy into a shared vision and supporting kids the right way. That doesn’t change, no matter what level you’re on.”

That shared vision has been a big part of what Drake has been sharing with current and potential staff members at Mann.

“That’s what I’m talking about in interviews,” he said, “and what I want to hear is that if you’re doing this really well you’re finding the relationship between high structure and high expectations is met by a high level of relationship from the staff to the students. Certainly, there are specific things that fall under that, but our philosophy as a team and what we’re going to ask our teachers to do is to do both of these things really well: you have to be organized, and you have to have clear expectations and plans.

“At the same time, you have to see every one of these kids as people with genuine challenges and things they’re going through in their lives, and when you see them that way, they’ll be willing to work to meet the expectations,” Drake said. “If you’re too relational, they’re just your friend and they won’t get the work done. If you’re too high structure and aren’t relational, then the kids are unhappy. They might be doing what they’re supposed to do, but they’re not really with you. That’s true at any level. But at this level, especially, the relationship piece is so important. It’s a matter of us collectively having those conversations with the staff throughout the summer and setting up our teachers to have that perspective.”