When Principal Will Campbell walks into a classroom — any classroom — at Fair Street International Academy in Gainesville, he is greeted not so much with a hero’s welcome as a superhero’s landing.
“Mr. Campbell!” the elementary students exclaimed one day last week as the school year was winding down.
As they rose from their seats and shuffled toward the front of class to embrace their principal in a group hug, Campbell began calling on each student by name.
“I’ve taught all of his brothers,” he said, pointing to one young boy in third grade.
“I had your sister,” he said, pointing out another student.
“And I had your brother, too,” he said to still another.
When Campbell learns this last student’s older brother has now graduated high school, the memories flood his heart.
“It brought some tears to my eyes because I have been their only principal,” he said.
After 10 years leading the school, Campbell is relocating to Rush City, Minn., where he has accepted the job of superintendent of the local school district.
Campbell’s wife, Bernadette, grew up in Rush City, and the move presents an opportunity for Campbell to take what he has learned in Gainesville and apply it in a role with greater responsibility.
Campbell said he knows change is hard, but he feels it will present a great opportunity for his three children as well.
The hiring process, which included multiple rounds of interviews with student councils, parent groups and administrators, gave Campbell the confidence that he is wanted and will be supported from the start.
“I’m ready to move forward ... but it’s a little emotional,” Campbell said.
Gwenell Brown, who has served as assistant principal at New Holland Knowledge Academy for the past 10 years and attended Fair Street as a child, will take over for Campbell.
“I think she is a great fit for right now,” Campbell said of Brown, adding that she has strong ties to the tight-knit community that supports Fair Street. Campbell said he’s eager for Brown to have the opportunity to implement some programs from New Holland at Fair Street.
“I feel very comfortable handing it over now,” he added.
During his final days at Fair Street last week, Campbell was showered with love, respect and gratitude.
A celebration and farewell party with former students, current teachers and administrators, local elected officials and community leaders sent Campbell off in style last week.
There were slideshow presentations of his many accomplishments and recognitions as principal, while former students spoke of the positive impact Campbell has had on their lives.
“It was great to see the lives he has impacted and the stories from former students and colleagues,” Gainesville Schools Superintendent Jeremy Williams said. “His leadership at Fair Street over the last decade has impacted numerous students, their families and their futures.”
But the outpouring of support felt a little surreal, Campbell admitted, even for someone accustomed to accolades.
“It’s very humbling,” Campbell said.
“It’s almost like witnessing your own funeral,” he added. Or like receiving a posthumous lifetime achievement award.
Still, Campbell said he couldn’t be more thankful for the relationships he’s developed and the students he has served.
Fair Street is uniquely bonded with the Gainesville neighborhood where it is located. Serving a predominantly minority student population, the school is interwoven with the Newtown community, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Lanier and the Fair Street-Butler High Alumni Association.
It is also supported by local businesses, which help finance field trips and other school-related events.
Campbell said this built-in network will continue to sustain Fair Street and help its students prosper long after he’s gone.
“This community has been like family,” he said.