Drew Cook: Garner Magnet High School

Another five minutes would have changed the life story of Drew Cook, and those of students at Garner Magnet High School.

Literally on his way to accept his first teaching job, a middle school position, Cook received an offer from then-GMHS principal John Williams.

“My wife Becky and I married in 1997, right after college, and we had a deal that whoever got the first job, that’s where we would go,” Cook said. Williams’ offer of a social studies teaching spot and junior varsity basketball coach at Cook’s alma mater was a dream come true.

“As a teacher, I loved history, politics and government and looked forward to conversations and debates with the students, and to the challenge of helping them see history as relevant,” Cook said.

“Satire, sarcasm and even comedy address assumed knowledge, and you need that knowledge to be a critical thinker and informed citizen,” he said. “And quite honestly, I wanted to coach — I’ve seen life skills, social skills and collaboration learned and reinforced on ball fields.”   

But along the way, Cook’s career took a turn toward school administration. He jokes that’s due to his DNA.

“My dad spent his career in law enforcement and government, and currently works as sergeant-at-arms for the North Carolina House, and my mom is a retired teacher; I’m genetically predisposed to becoming a high school principal!” he said.

As his own family grew to include daughters Leah, 12, and Madelyn, 9, Cook pursued a graduate degree in school administration from N.C. State University, and became assistant principal at Garner High.

“I was fortunate to have encouragement and support from (former GMHS principal) Cathy Johnson; she saw potential in me,” Cook said. “But yes, I miss the classroom. There’s no greater impact than that of a classroom teacher.”

Or parent: Outside of school, the Cooks have twice-weekly family dates featuring trips to the gym, and play church league softball, where Madelyn and Leah serve as ball girls. They also enjoy day trips to Wrightsville Beach (Cook graduated from UNC-Wilmington) and weekends in the mountains.

And Then There Was Scotty
In 2009, in the midst of the recession, Cook took on the role of head principal at GMHS.
“My first assignment was ‘cut staff and no textbooks,’” he said. “When finances and resources are razor thin, you have to have courage. The students come first, and our faculty is a family that epitomizes that idea.”

GMHS, home to an International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, has since been recognized as a state School of Distinction, and in 2012 and 2013 received Bronze Medal recognition in US News & World Report’s annual rankings of the nation’s best high schools.
In 2012, 85 percent of Garner High students met proficiencies in End of Course testing, and the school exceeded high growth parameters.

“That gives us something to build on,” Cook said. “We are thrilled with the progress and growth of students, but none of us is satisfied. Eighty-five percent means that 15 percent, about 350 students, are not at grade level. That’s our motivation, to sustain the gains made and continue the trajectory.”

In 2011, Cook found his school in the national spotlight, as GMHS student Scotty McCreery was crowned TV’s American Idol.

“There’s no college class for that!” he said. “It was all-new territory, with (celebrity gossip shows) TMZ and Access Hollywood calling me. But the McCreerys were wonderful and deferential on behalf of the other students.

“Scotty’s management team was concerned about him coming back to school. After his Idol tour, I made one brief announcement asking the kids to be respectful, and after the first day everything was back to normal.

“It’s a tribute to the kids and this community, how they created a cocoon for Scotty. And his character, his values and demeanor, offer a positive legacy for our school.”  

Also in 2011, Cook was named Principal of the Year for Wake County, and in 2012 he was the National Association of Secondary School Principals’ State High School Principal of the Year.
“More than anything, it’s humbling,” said Cook. “I know the kind of people my peers are, and it motivates me to do even better. I can’t even express how inspiring it is to work with people who work so hard.”

Today, Cook is ready for 2,500 students heading his way for the new school year, and a mid-year transition for freshmen to a new ninth-grade center created from a former movie theater adjacent to the GMHS campus.

Change is constant, Cook notes.
“But at the core, we want to provide a safe, focused learning environment, a place students enjoy being and a place for them to be successful.

“You don’t get an immediate payback in this profession. But as my mom says, ‘Never discount the power one person can have.’”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *