James Allrich, Never Give Up

It took James Allrich 15 attempts to be appointed a principal, but in the end, he was named Maryland’s Principal of the Year by the National Association of Secondary School Principals and a Washington Post Principal of the Year finalist.

His leadership skills long had been on display. Still, “it was hard to become a principal because of my looks,” he says, referring to his hair locs and his overall style.

In Irvington, New Jersey, where he was born and raised, his immigrant parents were adamant that all seven of their children would understand how to communicate in Haitian-Creole and go to college. His mother had a high school diploma, and his father hadn’t gotten past 8th grade. “All seven of us went to college,” he says. “As the fourth and middle child, I did a lot of negotiating. Now, as a principal, I’m a conciliator. It turns out to be my life’s work.”

With his negotiating skills and love of argument, he struck everyone as a born lawyer. But math and technology came easy, and he loved both. Leadership also attracted him early, thanks to a PE teacher, Shirley Waller, at Irvington High School who “actively taught us to become leaders,” emphasizing community building and restorative justice before it was popular in schools.  

The writing was on the wall at Rutgers University, where in addition to being a math major, he became leader of the Black Student Union. “I was tilling the soil,” he says. He read Stephen R. Covey’s "Seven Habits of Highly Successful People" more than once. Cornell West’s "Race Counts" was another influence, sparking debates among the students. “It made me look at race in a different way,” he says.

He launched his career by teaching math at Bloomfield High School in Bloomfield, New Jersey, and went on to teach pre-algebra through calculus at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, Maryland. Before long, he was appointed staff development teacher, math resource teacher and assistant school administrator. He became an assistant principal at White Oak Middle School and a principal intern at Sherwood High School. Then, a lucky turn as acting principal at Banneker Middle School shed a light on him and finally propelled him into the top post at Argyle Magnet Middle School, where his star has beamed brilliantly. All of those schools are in Montgomery County, Maryland.

At Argyle, the diverse magnet students are not selected by examination—and James makes sure everyone studies technology. “They weren’t all getting that full magnet experience when I arrived,” he says, referring particularly to English Language Learners and students with IEPs.  “But they’re getting it now. Technology access is critical for our students to be more than consumers, but creators. They invent the future with us.”

An example he gives of creating for the future: “They do complex passion projects, including how to prevent hunger.” 

Before the pandemic, Argyle MS was selected to be part of the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools program, which provides technology-based STEM curriculums in science, technology, engineering and math, and also gives each student and teacher a device and monthly data plan. 

“When COVID-19 struck and we shifted to distance learning, we didn’t miss a beat,” he says.

But the school was as vulnerable as any in terms of social/emotional challenges. “Even before the pandemic, we were doing a lot of restorative and community building work.” But since the pandemic, the school has had to redouble the efforts to connect them with teachers for social-emotional learning.

Nowadays, there is another big challenge for young people and it’s around choice. “It’s the amount of choice, the number of options involved in social media,” he says. “There’s a lack of management from adults...teaching them to be responsible users.” His technological expertise and passion keep him on top of these challenges and propel him ahead in addressing artificial intelligence (AI). “If we don’t get in front of AI, we’re going to be reacting to it,” he says.

He led an AI workshop for principals last summer, stressing that AI will support their work, not usurp it. “For instance, several K–12 tools are being created as student supports,” he says. “There will be a whole set of tools for students who are struggling with algebra in very different ways. So, the kids need different kinds of supports.”

Despite his demanding schedule, which includes leading the middle school chapter for the Montgomery County (Maryland) Association of Administrators and Principals, AFSA Local 146, and working with the Rites of Passage Program for Black boys, he focuses a lot of time on being a father and husband. With his wife Akua, a jazz singer, he shares a love of music that includes his obsession with hip-hop, which she taught him has its roots in jazz. In his rare free time, he is a DJ.  And chess is another love. He sometimes plays with his son, Agyei, who beats him and occasionally with his daughter, Soley, now away at college. 

Sometimes, Principal Allrich pulls out the chess board and plays with students at lunchtime. “A couple of years ago, a 6th grade girl told me if I made a certain move, she’d checkmate me in three moves. I didn’t see it and she beat me in three moves.” Today, she is in 8th grade, and they still play together. “Well, I play and she teaches,” he laughs.

James Allrich’s love of Argyle Magnet Middle School and its students is summed up when he says, “You know how most people try to get out of lunch duty? I love lunch duty. It connects me with kids.”