University High School’s new principal has a vision to move the campus once swamped by academic scandal forward by bringing back a family atmosphere he knew at the school growing up. And he has a longtime childhood friend at his side to help him do it.
Principal Ricky Edison and new head football coach Rodney Smith are no strangers to University High, but they are new to the positions they have started in the past few weeks. They officially started in their new roles in mid-February and have been working closely with campus educators since, they said.
Edison’s hire came several months after an external investigation found University’s principal, dean of instruction and a counselor were involved in awarding course credit to some 2016 graduates who did not properly earn the credits. The district released a report based on the investigation in October shortly before all three administrators resigned.
The report was turned over to the Texas Education Agency for review, where it remains with no certain time frame of when the review will end, TEA spokesperson DeEtta Culbertson said.
Edison said he is familiar with the scandal but declined comment about the situation and didn’t offer many specifics about how he plans to move the campus forward, except to say he wants to build on successful programs already in place.
“I’m here now, and I’m just ready to move forward with what we have and how we can get past this and go forward with everything,” Edison said. “I think University’s got a bright future and I’m extremely excited about it. That’s my focus.”
Edison was hired in late January, and Smith moved from the head basketball coach position, where he served for six years and finished this season with a playoff run.
“Both of them mean we have two leaders on the campus who are both very proud to be Trojans,” Superintendent Bonny Cain said. “It’s the next level of leadership. Superintendents only want people who want to be on that campus.”
While both educators graduated from University High, Smith and Edison’s friendship dates to before their high school years, when Edison’s brother served as Smith’s middle school coach. The two then reunited when Smith joined the varsity basketball team Edison was already on, Smith said. Edison graduated in 1992, Smith graduated in 1994, and they played one full year together, they said. Smith said getting a chance to work with the friend he ran around with as a youngster has been a great opportunity so far.
“I know what kind of guy he is. I know his expectations. He loves University High School as I do, and we both love kids and seeing them grow,” Smith said. “That’s something we’re both going to work very hard toward.”
Edison went on to McLennan Community College for two years after high school, then graduated from Baylor University.
Smith earned a basketball and football scholarship to Baylor, he said. Smith then spent “a short stint” in the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts before returning home to University High in 2001.
Edison has 20 years of experience in education, starting his career teaching government and coaching at University, then serving as Bell’s Hill Elementary School assistant principal. He moved on to serve as principal at South Waco Elementary School for three years before heading to Abbott ISD, where he has been superintendent the past six years.
With coaches who would bring him to church, guide him through little things and teach him to make wise choices, Smith said he never forgot the impact and support he had growing up and returned to University High to make the same difference.
For Edison, his return is part of a lifelong dream to just be a strong role model for students and show students they’re capable of becoming whatever they want, he said.
“As I was able to see the whole landscape of education through different lenses, through different positions, basically, I started asking myself what I wanted to do,” Edison said. “There’s an old saying: The higher you get up into education, the further you are away from students. That was so important to me, so coming back to University and coming back to University as a principal to be able to work with the students and work closer to the students, I just could not pass that up. I’m just so excited to be here.”
As he and Smith take on their new roles, Edison said the transition has been welcoming and full of pride as he encounters more and more people who remember him, including former students. He has been working closely with interim Principal Bill Shepard to get the lay of the land, especially at a campus of about 1,700 students that’s close to six times the size of Abbott ISD’s 300 students, he said.
Shepard was the University High principal once before and has served as interim principal since October, when the previous principal resigned. Since Edison arrived, Shepard has taken on more of a policy and procedure role, handling attendance issues and course credits, which are the areas where academic wrongdoing was discovered.
Shepard said he knows the district hired the right person, especially when students who were once under Edison at the elementary level can still recall the impression he left years later in high school. This includes students who run up to Edison in the halls and remind him he once dressed as Elvis to make an impact. Shepard dubbed Edison “king of South Waco” the day Edison was hired.
“I think when you pick leaders of your campus that have grown up in the South Waco environment and are returning, I don’t know how you could pick anybody (else) to help with a transition from a year that was tough,” Shepard said. “I can’t help but believe these are the two perfect people to do it because they already know our kids. They are known people to both the kids and the teachers.”
Edison has already gone above and beyond what’s expected, Cain said. He attends district events outside University High, comes in early and stays late and isn’t afraid to bring up a problem and say, “Here’s what I suggest,” Cain said.
Edison also spends a lot of time walking the halls, eating in the cafeteria and just observing for now as he re-acclimates himself, he said. And that’s just a sign of things to come. He wants to keep more of an active, open-door policy, Edison said. Those actions are a 180-degree turn from the “closed atmosphere” created at the campus in the 2015-16 school year, which may have contributed to the academic scandal, school district officials have said.
As they look toward the end of the year, Shepard said he and Edison both are planning to be at the podium to hand out diplomas before he hands everything over to Edison.
“Rodney and I know this school and we want everybody to see that and just get that out there,” Edison said. “There are a lot of great things happening here at University High School, and there will continue to be great things happening here. We have a great opportunity before us.”