Akil Ross came to Duke in 1998 with dreams of playing in the National Football League. Although he never made it pro, he recently rose to the top ranking in his current career field when he was named National Principal of the Year. 

Ross, Trinity '02, received the honor last month from the National Association of Secondary School Principals for his leadership of Chapin High School in Chapin, S.C. He learned of this news at an assembly held by his school, which involved a celebration with his family, other principals from the district and even the governor. 

“It was really, really amazing,” he said. “To think of the elaborate programming that they set up was just overwhelming. Everybody knew except for me.”  

Since Ross became principal of Chapin in 2010, the school’s graduation rate has risen from 82 to 96 percent. Under his leadership, Chapin has received numerous awards such as being named one of Palmetto’s Finest Schools—an annual selection of the best schools in South Carolina—in 2015, Athletic Program of the Year by The State Media Company and Most Outstanding Student Section in the nation from Varsity Brands.

He noted that Chapin’s success comes from how the town and school are linked together, fostering top-tier student organizations such as band, dance and sports teams. Since he became principal, the school has not gone a year without a state championship in arts or athletics. Friday night football games are especially important to them. 

“It’s an opportunity where the community comes together, and we tell our story,” he said. 

Part of that is surely due to Ross’ influence, as he’s created the kind of environment that promotes student growth on both a personal and academic level. 

At Chapin, he began having school assemblies in which students gather on the floor of the arena and hug each other, joining arm in arm and singing the alma mater. Then, they make the sound of one heartbeat by clapping in sync, which Ross said sounds like a building coming alive. 

“They all come together as one, and it just reaffirms that we have an environment where excellence is sustained,” he said. 

In addition, Ross believes the school’s increased graduation rate is a byproduct of an evening acceleration program in which students receive individual tutoring on subjects they need additional help with. 

Although he acknowledged the importance of graduation rates, he said he’s much more concerned with how well students are prepared for life after high school. He’s very proud of the fact that 90 percent of students who graduated last year went on to a two- or four-year college. 

“I believe that we are here to educate kids in mind, body and spirit,” he said. “It’s about making sure that we’ve created a well-rounded child who can solve problems and be leaders of change.”

Ross noted that the process for achieving the ranking of National Principal of the Year was a long one. At the recommendation of his superintendent, his name was submitted to the South Carolina Association of School Principals, which selected him as state principal of the year out of 84 school districts.

He then went through rounds of online questions from the national organization, and they chose three national finalists. These individuals were interviewed locally by staff, students, teachers and community members before giving a presentation in front of nine judges from the NASSP in Washington. Afterwards, the finalists were sent home and told there would be a surprise announcement at the winner’s school.

That day came Oct. 20 when Ross was called into an assembly under the guise that the school was receiving a small award. The superintendent began to give a speech and then revealed the truth—they were there because Ross was National Principal of the Year. As confetti cannons went off and the pep band and cheerleaders led the celebration, Ross said his first thought was how they managed to pull of the surprise without him noticing.

“I realized a lot can go on in my school that I have no clue is going on,” he said. 

This is not Ross’ first accolade. He was chosen as one of the state high school principals of the year in 2016 and as a member of the Columbia, S.C., newspaper The State's 20 Under 40 class for 2017. He was also the leader of the Chapin Rotary Club.

Ross’ interest in teaching began when he took an introduction to education class at Duke, where he realized that he shouldn’t bank his future on football. He was mostly interested in coaching a school’s football team after graduation, until a professor took him under her wing and showed him the importance of making an impact in the classroom. 

He had the opportunity to work at a mentoring program in a local high school where he assisted in coaching the football team but also tutored players who were struggling in their studies. He conducted a project to see if he could improve the athletes’ grades so they would be eligible to play. Ross later won a fellowship from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which accelerated his postgraduate studies. 

The support of the Duke family has been critical to Ross’ success, he said, noting that he still uses the lessons he learned in "student teaching and mentoring" in his daily work. 

“I am very fortunate that I was part of Duke's program in education,” he said. “I wouldn’t be here where I am now if I did not have that program.”

Ross is attempting to give students the same opportunities he had. At least every other year, he brings students to Duke to tour the campus and attend a football game. The day after he was named National Principal of the Year, he was on campus with a group of kids. 

Brad Berndt, senior associate director of athletics and student services, noted that Ross came up with the idea for the trips on his own and has been committed to them for the past 10 years.  

“The football game is part of it, but the bigger part is to expose them to a college campus and get them excited about education beyond high school,” he said. 

Berndt has known Ross since Ross was a first-year at Duke and served as his academic counselor when he was playing football. He noted that he thinks Ross’ work ethic and strong morality has led to his success. 

“He was always a student and player who was of the highest integrity and character,” Berndt said. “He’s got leadership qualities that showcase that.”

In addition, he said Ross has tremendous empathy for his students since he once struggled academically. 

“He is a tireless worker when it comes to supporting the teachers that work for him and the students,” Berndt said. “What he’s doing will have residual effects for years and years to come.” 

For Ross, the joy in his job comes from being around the kids. Sometimes, he even moves his desk into the hallway so he can be around the students and hear what they have to say. 

However, the best part for Ross is watching his students graduate, prepared to take on life after high school. 

“When they’re going across that stage and you know they’re ready for the world, that’s when it all comes together,” he said.