Booker principal finds footing on shoulders of giants

CCSD Newsmakers

Booker principal finds footing on the shoulders of giants
by Anthony Springer, Jr., CCSD Communications

Clad in his trademark suit and tie, Marcus Mason, principal of Kermit R. Booker Sr. Empowerment Elementary School, walks the halls with a cool stride.  He waves to students, teachers and support staff alike, greeting all with a smile.

Despite the construction of a brand new building in 2007, Booker is one of the District’s historical landmarks, educating Las Vegans for more than fifty years. As a native Las Vegan himself with deep roots in the District and the community, Mason playfully laments being reminded that elders in the community have known him since he was a kid. The road to the pinnacle of school administration was hardly a straight path.

“I always knew that I was supposed to preach and teach,” Mason said amidst an office backdrop of photos of civil rights icons like Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
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Instead of grading papers, Mason started his tenure at CCSD disposing of them as a night custodian. Though he would later enroll at CSN and UNLV to earn formal credentials, Mason used his on the clock hours as unofficial job training.

“Being a custodian, I’m hanging around all the teachers. I’m hearing the text book information. While I was dumping the trash, the teachers were putting those methods to work. I never said anything, I just watched.”

Mason did more than watch and took time to pick the brains of teachers he found effective.

“Your mom,” he told this writer, “she was another one that was feeding me information. I could tell that she was an influential person. She got stuff done. I paid attention to those types of dynamic personalities, but I [mainly] kept quiet.”

Describing his desire to teach as “a pull,” the load Mason carried to his first teaching job consisted of two full days of work. He was Mr. Mason by day, as a student teacher at Doris French Elementary School, and custodian Mason by night at Quannah McCall Elementary School.
“I was literally changing in my truck,” he recalled with a laugh.

After graduation, Mason went straight from his student teaching job to a long-term substitute position. The long-term sub position led to a permanent position. The dream was realized, or so he thought. While in the classroom at H.P. Fitzgerald Elementary School, Mason began to think about becoming an administrator—and others were also thinking about it for him.

“I saw relatives [who were principals]. That’s the image I remember. Once you see something, it becomes doable. I also didn’t see a lot of African-American principals. When I’d go to conferences, people would ask me if I was going into administration.”

Not too many people return to school just because, but that’s exactly what Mason did, earning a master’s degree in Educational Leadership. It was an insurance policy of sorts. Despite the images at family functions, he had no concrete plans to run a ship of his own. “I figured I’d just sit on it,” he said of the advanced degree.

The “trigger” as he recalls, came when a supervisor told him that running his own school meant not having to wait for funds to carry out activities he cared about. Suddenly, the degree made more sense.

Mason is relatively cryptic about the steps following, for obvious reasons. His first administrative bid for an assistant principal position fell just short. Undeterred, he didn’t get bitter, he got better.

He recounts his initial thoughts: “You said no. I’m not going to argue with you, but I’m going to prove you wrong,” he explained. “I took it up another notch.”

With a renewed sense of purpose, Mason’s hard work caught the eyes of the administration at Dr. William H. Bob Bailey Middle School. He accepted a position as the school’s dean, diving head first into the world of discipline.

“Best thing that ever happened to me,” he said of the position. “I learned how to do investigations and be precise. How to document and back things up with facts and learn policies and standards.”

From the first day he set foot on campus, Mason was looked at as an anomaly of sorts.

“Everyone was looking at me strange because I looked like Robocop. I always had my earpiece in, always wore suits. But I took the safety of the campus seriously.”

From gang problems, to fights, to new issues with social media use in schools, Mason saw plenty during his tenure as a dean.

“If you can imagine it, it happened,” he said with a smile.

August 8, 2011, will go down in history as a day that changed Mason’s professional life. After nearly five years at Bailey Middle School, Mason got the nod to become the head man in charge at Booker Elementary School. When coming into a school that’s already established, the ethos of try not to mess anything up largely applies. In the case of Booker, simply not messing it up is not an option as Mason arrived on the heels (no pun intended) of Dr. Beverly Mathis.

Under Mathis’ lengthy tenure, the culture of Booker changed dramatically from a failing school to one of the most exemplary in the district. The school garnered a four-star rating on the inaugural School Performance Framework.

“Mathis built community and took time to build teachers,” Mason said of his predecessor’s success. “A parent told me that Dr. Mathis ‘was like a god to us.’ I try to tease out the things that made her significant, use those things to my advantage while not losing my personality and move forward with the idea that both of us, together, can push this school and students to its greatest level.

Mason, a deeply religious man, calls the gains Mathis made his “cross to bear.” And considering the litany of behavioral and achievement issues that some deal with in the District, it’s a problem many would gladly sign up for.

Everything about Booker is a testament to its current success. Data charts tracking student progress line the hallways along with photos of smiling current and former students. The school’s lunchroom plays hosts to a copy of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. statue that rests in our nation’s capital. Above the one at Booker lies the task Mason has crystalized.

“I need to match and get some more banners here,” he said, pointing to the two high achieving banners Booker earned for the 2006-07 and 2009-10 school years. “I want us to be a five-star school. Even if we never make it to a five-star, if we can sustain that four-star standard, I’m happy.”

From night custodian to principal. When all is said and done, Mason may see nearly every area of public education employment.

“I’d love to go to a small town and be a superintendent. After I get finished being a principal I want to go teach at a university somewhere and get a home by some water. I’ve got a lot of stuff to make happen in the next nine or 10 years.”

Sounds like good fodder for a book.

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