Alexander Herring Sr. will be bringing life lessons when he becomes the new leader of Pittsburgh Westinghouse 6-12 in Homewood next month.
"I grew up in a small town in eastern North Carolina," Mr. Herring, 40, said in an interview Friday. "You had the drugs that ran rampant and the drug dealers."
He described a community with too many dropouts and a high rate of teen pregnancy. Mr. Herring, who is black, said his class was among the first to be bused a half-hour to attend what had been a white school.
How did Mr. Herring avoid falling to the hazards?
A key question was, he said, "Do you permanently want to be in poverty? My mother really stressed that not happening to me. I also had others around -- my grandparents, aunts, uncles, people who really tried to make sure I steered clear of all of those things that could trap you permanently into doing that.
"So education was pushed beyond measure in my household. You had to get it done, period. There were no excuses."
He said that and lots of extracurricular activities -- playing on basketball, soccer, football and track and field teams and playing trumpet in the band -- helped keep him clear of the negative influences.
"You literally did not have time to go home and do anything else," he said.
He said he hopes students at Westinghouse, which is 97 percent black, will see that if he could do it, they can do it.
The board of Pittsburgh Public Schools hired Mr. Herring last week to a three-year contract, effective June 17, as assistant to the superintendent for school transformation, Pittsburgh Westinghouse 6-12.
He will be paid $115,910 a year, with the potential for an annual performance increment of up to $2,000 and an annual achievement bonus of up to $10,000. He will report directly to the superintendent.
Superintendent Linda Lane said his duties will include that of a principal of the school as well as working on transformation plans that could be useful for other district schools, including Pittsburgh Milliones 6-12, also known as University Prep, and Pittsburgh Perry High School.
The district advertised for principal vacancies in general in March, sending to 32 places, including Education Week, various universities and job websites.
In April, the district updated its posting to add Westinghouse.
District spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said the district received 58 applications, about 10 of which came in after Westinghouse was named.
Before Mr. Herring applied, Ms. Pugh said, "We had heard about him through networks that we have and talked to him to see if he was interested in learning about the opportunity. He was."
The job title Mr. Herring received was not advertised.
"Given his background and experience and the need we have for school transformation in the district, it did transform the position in terms of how we were going to use his expertise," Ms. Pugh said.
The current Westinghouse principal, Shemeca Crenshaw, will become principal of the Pittsburgh Online Academy, the district's cyberschool.
In an effort to turn around the long-troubled school, the district expanded Westinghouse from a high school to a 6-12 school in fall 2011 and offered short-lived single-gender classes.
Ms. Crenshaw was brought in to replace the two co-principals who opened the new school after its start was so rough that the superintendent and school board apologized.
Westinghouse has been one of the lowest-performing schools in the district. On state tests given in spring 2012, 26.4 percent of Westinghouse students were proficient or advanced in reading and 28.4 percent in math. The 2013 test results are not yet available.
At the school board meeting last week, board members Mark Brentley Sr. and Regina Holley said the community should have been involved in the selection, given the upheaval that already has taken place at the school.
Mr. Herring graduated from Jacksonville High School in North Carolina in 1990, initially went to Appalachian State University and then joined the Army, the first of two stints in the Army.
He earned an associate degree in military science from New Mexico Military Institute in 1996.
He went to Edinboro University of Pennsylvania -- he had family in the area and wanted to finish school so he could teach -- where he earned a bachelor's degree in elementary education in 2000.
He earned a master's in school administration from North Carolina Central University in 2007.
He was a fifth-grade teacher at two elementary schools in North Carolina and an assistant principal at a middle and a high school in North Carolina, after which he became principal of Strong Vincent High School in Erie from 2009 to 2012.
He also has coached middle school soccer as well as track and field.
His current position, which he has held since August, is student discipline officer and interim director school/community relations for the Orange County School District in Hillsborough, N.C.
Erie superintendent Jay Badams said Mr. Herring "was great with the community. He was very active in trying to gain community support."
He praised Mr. Herring for starting a principal's advisory council made up of a diverse group of students.
He said Mr. Herring also was instrumental in winning a federal $3 million School Improvement Grant for Strong Vincent.
Mr. Badams described academic achievement as "rather stagnant" during the three years Mr. Herring was principal.
According to the state website, 60.5 percent of Strong Vincent students scored proficient or advanced in reading while 35.4 percent did so in math in spring 2012, the last year Mr. Herring was at the school. The reading score was an increase of 6.9 percentage points while the math score was a decline of 4.2 percentage points over the previous year.
The website also showed a one-year increase in the graduation rate, from 82.16 percent to 86.78 percent.
Mr. Herring said he believes Strong Vincent helped to prepare him for Westinghouse, saying it had some similar challenges such as achieving equity and working to make it a school students want to go to.
Mr. Herring noted the improved graduation rate and said, "Reading and math scores don't always tell the story of what a school is doing. You don't get to see how many students organizations were created, how our students took leadership and ownership of our school."
As for the community, Mr. Herring said he wants to get to know what the Westinghouse community is like.
"I think things will be kind of sitting and listening first, gathering information from them and trying to bring them in on the process on how we can come to some agreements in terms of helping our students," he said.
He said not everyone agreed with him all the time in Erie.
"Just like with a family, you have disagreements on certain things, but our common thread was what we wanted to do for the students," he said.
Trying to turn a school around can be exhausting work.
Mr. Herring said his work ethic keeps him going.
"I saw my mom work two and three jobs every day and never complained to me. That's just what she did. I certainly can't say and look at her with a straight face, 'Oh I'm tired.' "education - neigh_city
Education writer Eleanor Chute: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1955 or on Twitter @Eleanor_Chute.