Local principal overcomes childhood poverty and helps students to do the same
ABC News. Keitha Nelson-Williams. August 12, 2018.

Andrew Jackson High School has seen its fair share of challenges and gains. Once graded the lowest "F" in the state, it's now just four percentage points away from being an "A" ranked magnet school.

Sitting at the helm of the Tigers is a principal who can relate to her students in many ways, including knowing all too well about the struggles of growing up in poverty. About 52 miles north of AJHS sits a plot of land with scattered trailers and a feeling that transports you back in time. In some of the homes there's no hot water and crows and chickens are kept in pens.

Tracolya Clinch grew up in Tarboro, Georgia. It’s a stark contrast to city life between Main and Pearl Streets in Jacksonville where she now serves as principal.

"Poverty is the same no matter what,” said Clinch. “Whether or not you have a meal, whether or not you have shelter, whether or not you have support, whether or not you feel as if you need to survive rather than pursue your dreams definitely it's still the same."

Tarboro hasn’t seen much growth since Clinch left the area behind in 1998.

"A lot of people have died or families have moved out just to be closer to the more developed areas," said Clinch. "As much as we loved being here everyone’s goal was to do better."

Trailers, make shift homes, dirt roads and fond childhood memories can be seen through her eyes, as she reminisces on living off the land, "We didn't have central air or heat. We didn't have hot water. It was interesting, it was very rural, very country living. We pumped water from a well when we wanted fresh water to drink."

The nearest store was a two and a half mile walk away from her home. The Tarboro Mercantile is now boarded up yet littered with pride. American flags and bows adorn its walls.

Clinch recalls stringing extension cords from one trailer to the next, providing electricity to those who couldn't afford it and sharing food to cut back on hungry nights.

"I'm literally raking out of the ditch crawfish to eat, plucking chickens, that's just a different level of poverty a different type of living but these kids fear, they fear losing their lives,” said Clinch who has walked away from life in Tarboro and now spends most of her days between Main and Pearl Streets in Jacksonville.

"You have the gang life that's heavy in the area where the school is located. I never faced that level of fear. I wasn't afraid out here. I just wanted different. I wanted more."

That desire that once pushed her to grab a hold of more for herself now moves an entire student body and staff.

"When I was an instructional specialist with the state, one of the schools we served was Andrew Jackson and it was the lowest "F" in the state of Florida,” said Clinch. “That was significant because at the time Jackson along with some other schools were facing closure."

By 2016 she became the assistant principal and was soon promoted to lead the Tigers. Now in her second year as principal, AJHS is the highest “B” ranked high school in the district and its graduation rate sits at 95 percent which is the highest in the school's history.

"We have a lot of things going on in high school; being a high school principal is insane,” exclaimed Clinch. “Our one goal is to get them across that stage. So many prayers, so much work, so much time at the school, it’s a huge investment. You watch the kids grow you watch them stumble you watch them make mistakes. And then you see some that they didn't even think they were going to make it- walk across that stage. And you're looking out at everyone and for the first time. You get to see your impact. I planted these flowers, I planted these seeds and you see them blossoming."

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