In Derrick Brown’s office at Amherst County High School a week before the first day of class, a chalkboard next to his desk outlines a list of tasks. Some have lines crossed through them and some still await action.
The personal chalking system is a way of ensuring accountability and productivity for the school’s first-year principal in getting important matters done.
“I’m a visual guy,” Brown said. “I like to plan and do things strategically. I like to map out the big picture stuff.”
For Brown, a 2004 graduate of ACHS and the class president that year, the big picture at first didn’t include a career in education and coming back to lead his alma mater. His dream was to be a dentist and he told himself there were two things he would never do: become a teacher and come back to Amherst to work.
After graduating from Virginia Tech as a science major, he sought entry into dental school but a fateful encounter with Brian Ratliff, a former Amherst County Public Schools superintendent, led to Brown entering the education field. Ratliff, who had served as Brown’s principal at Amherst Middle School, encouraged him to apply for a teaching position and Brown found it was a great fit.
“I had great teachers,” Brown, 32, recalled of his time as a student in Amherst schools. “You could tell they cared about your education. I just never had a desire to do it until Dr. Ratliff planted the seed in my head, ‘you’re going to be a great educator.’”
Those words proved prophetic and made a difference in Brown’s life after leaving college and finding a new career, he said. Brown started as a biology teacher at the high school and served four years as an assistant principal at Amherst Middle School. In 2016 he took the helm of Paul Laurence Dunbar Middle School for Innovation as its principal.
Coming back to Amherst County High School brings much pride and excitement.
“It feels familiar. It’s like riding a bike, you just get back on it,” Brown said. “When you come back home in a school where you taught … the learning curve is a lot shorter.”
During his high school years he was captain of the football team and the track team and played drums in the band program. A lot of good memories “from back in the day” have stayed with him and he walks those same halls now as principal.
The theme is similar for other educators, according to Brown. He said at his first faculty meeting, he talked about how special the Amherst community is and asked if other teachers went to ACHS. Many raised their hands.
“I don’t think you see that in a lot of other schools,” he said.
Having a clear vision is a major focus for the new school year. He thinks about school identity and what makes ACHS stand out from other area high schools. In meeting with teachers, he’s asked what is excellent about the school, what needs tweaking and what are the “pie in the sky” ideas for achieving greatness.
“The vision for our school is to be a model community school that produces engaged and thriving citizens who are prepared for the workforce,” Brown said. “We have a greater responsibility as a school to help change the community for the better by producing students who are amazing citizens.”
The school for the past two springs has engaged in a massive “Day of Giving” outreach by sending droves of students to various locations for community service. Brown said the school is looking to build on that platform.
His time in Lynchburg well prepared him for the post. Dunbar has every sport ACHS has, a robust theater program and time and visibility requirements similar to a high school, he said.
Brown also played a major role in influencing county youth for the better by founding IRON Lives, a nonprofit mentorship and character-building program, in 2009. He said he was influenced by a case that year involving Peter Rose, a quarterback who led the Lancers to two state titles in 2006 and 2007. Rose had been recruited to play cornerback at Virginia Tech. His scholarship was revoked after he was arrested and charged with selling drugs to an undercover Amherst County sheriff’s deputy. He was sentenced to a month behind bars in April 2009 on misdemeanor convictions.
Brown said his brother played with Rose and described him as a good kid who made a bad decision. He realized there were students in similar situations who can make a decision that negatively affect their futures. He wanted to help.
Ten years after its first meeting, IRON Lives has grown into a program in schools throughout Amherst and Lynchburg, according to its website.
Brown said he wants to help as many students as he can and empower teachers at ACHS. He said there’s a lot of excitement in the school and he has great respect for Amherst Schools Superintendent Rob Arnold and his vision for steering the division and to help students become successful. The high school’s themes this year are embracing change and pursuing intentional excellence.
“I don’t think you can become excellent on accident,” Brown said.
Brown credited his success to strong support from his parents, former Amherst Town Police chief and local pastor Kelvin Brown and his wife, Fran, who serves as Amherst County Registrar; his wife Samantha and his two daughters.
Arnold said Brown is deeply committed to Amherst County and the high school students.
“He wants to make the high school the focal point of our community and that is a great way to better engage the people of Amherst County,” Arnold said. “He also has high expectations for himself and an unwavering belief that all students will be exceptional.”
Brown said of his career in education: “I couldn’t shake it. I just felt like this is what I needed to do. And I love doing it … my favorite part of being an educator is seeing the light bulb go off with kids. I live for that moment.”
Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.