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Meet Tabari Wallace, The Principal Who Guided Students Through Hurricanes, Floods & A Pandemic

North Carolina Public Schools
Tabari Wallace (center) was named 2018 North Carolina Principal of the Year.

In the 1990s, Tabari Wallace aspired to a career in the NFL. But during high school, he became a teen father and also found himself overlooked for college recruitment.  With his long-held dream and the future of his young family at stake, Wallace paid a visit to East Carolina University, where he introduced himself to the head football coach and gave him his athletic reel. 

He was offered a walk-on spot on the team at ECU, where he eventually earned a full scholarship and a bachelor’s and master’s in rehabilitation. Wallace’s football career continued after college, but it competed with a new passion: teaching. Wallace rose quickly through the ranks of public school to be promoted to his first assistant principalship in 2003. By 2018, he was named North Carolina’s Principal of the Year.

Host Frank Stasio talks to Tabari Wallace about growing up in Craven County, sports and education, and what it was like to go viral earlier this year forvisiting each of the 220 seniors at West Craven High School to deliver yard signs and personal accolades during the pandemic.

Four Times Tabari Wallace Took The Road Less Traveled

When He Rose To ECU Football Stardom As A Walk-On

Wallace was one of several football leaders at New Bern High School, and because of 
the glut of talent on the team, he wasn’t first in line to be recruited for college. When he was passed over for an athletic scholarship before graduation, he paid a visit to East Carolina University, where he presented to the head coach with his reel, unsolicited. The coach, Steve Logan, offered him a walk-on spot, and within two years he had a full athletic scholarship. “I took the road less traveled to get to where I was,” he quips.

When He Juggled Arena Football, High School Football Coaching And Teaching

For a time following college graduation, Wallace juggled coaching high school football, teaching math, and playing arena football out-of-state. But when he was offered an assistant principalship, he received an ultimatum. “I had to make the decision in my fourth year of teaching. I was teaching all math courses at that time. I had to grow up. My principal told me: Either you're going to choose the dream — because I was leaving to go play football mid-year — or you're going to choose the career. If we make you assistant principal, you can't be leaving. You affected 70 kids leaving at the mid-year. This time, you're gonna affect the whole school if you leave as assistant principal. So right then, I had to make the choice. And I chose the career, and I'm so glad, because look where we are today.”

When He Rallied A Middle School So Hard That People Thought It Was A High School

During his seven years at H.J. MacDonald Middle School, Wallace built a strong sense of community for students during a time of redistricting. After redistricting, the student population suddenly consisted of children from four area housing projects, while another area middle school now served middle-class families. “When I got H.J. MacDonald, I was from where they were from. I knew the parents. I knew the grandparents. So I wasn't intimidated by it being four projects or four low-socioeconomic neighborhoods,” says Wallace. “So when we got in there, we developed the [mantra]: One Vision, One School, One Squad. You had to make it hip, something a child would get behind. Something that they could be proud of. We printed shirts. We did banners. [The motto]  was everywhere. You would have thought we were the high school when you first got to New Bern, we made so much noise. I did that to give those babies an identity. They had been thrown into one school all together and were asked to make it work.”

When He Served Breakfast…From Kiosks...After First Period

Serving breakfast to kids who need it is a practice many public schools have adopted, but Wallace noticed that the location and time of the school day when breakfast was served wasn’t convenient for students. So he implemented a new program: Second Chance Breakfast.

“When we first got here, we only had 40 people eating. We start school at 7:30, so common sense [would] tell you something's wrong with that timetable... So what we did was we simply moved breakfast from in the morning to after first period,” says Wallace. “Now we have created a breakfast break. Have you ever seen “Saved By The Bell?” That's what our school looks like during … a breakfast break. You got kids like Zack; they'll just walk around everywhere. You never saw the turkeys go to class. They was always in the hallway! And that's pretty much what we are. That's what it looks like. But we do that for the socioemotional piece of our culture. There’s a reason why there's tables in restaurants — because that's when we have the best conversations. That's when we really talk a lot. We use that to allow our kids to have that time.”

Wallace says West Craven High School now serves breakfast to over 600 kids. “617, to be exact.” 

Stacia L. Brown is a writer and audio storyteller who has worked in public media since 2016, when she partnered with the Association of Independents in Radio and Baltimore's WEAA 88.9 to create The Rise of Charm City, a narrative podcast that centered community oral histories. She has worked for WAMU’s daily news radio program, 1A, as well as WUNC’s The State of Things. Stacia was a producer for WUNC's award-winning series, Great Grief with Nnenna Freelon and a co-creator of the station's first children's literacy podcast, The Story Stables. She served as a senior producer for two Ten Percent Happier podcasts, Childproof and More Than a Feeling. In early 2023, she was interim executive producer for WNYC’s The Takeaway.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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