(pictured above: Atkins Academic and Technology High School on Old Greensboro Road opened in 2005.)
Students, their parents and others came to Coach Eric Puryear’s defense when he was fired earlier this month. Their support is being credited with Puryear’s rehiring.
Puryear, the head football coach at Atkins Academic and Technology High School, said he was pulled away from varsity practice on Aug. 7 and abruptly fired by Principal Joe Childers.
Puryear said two issues were cited – his use of a text phone app to disparage another school that a prospective player was considering attending and improperly filling out a school fundraising form. Puryear said he’d owned up to both mistakes months ago and thought the issues were settled.
Puryear worried that the decision to fire him so close to the start of the school year and football season would have a negative impact on his players, many of whom he personally recruited. It was too late for players to transfer to another school, which Puryear said he felt was unfair.
“I put in a lot of time with these kids – me myself and my coaches. We’ve seen these kids grow, and the last thing you want to do is not to see your dream realized,” he said.
When Jamma “Mama J” Etter heard about Puryear’s ouster, she took action. She sent word out about the school’s decision via an email list used by Atkins Football parents. Soon, she had arranged a meeting with about 40 parents. The group committed to voicing their displeasure in emails to the Winston-Salem /Forsyth County Schools’ central office.
Etter said she could not just sit silently. Her connection to “Coach P” goes back years to when her son, James, attended Paisley IB Middle School, where Puryear teaches business. The coach saw potential in James and began taking him to Atkins practices. When it came time for high school, James chose Atkins and now plays on the varsity team.
“A lot of people don’t know (Puryear is) the one making the kids go to tutoring before they come to practice, making sure their homework is done; he’s the one making sure their report cards are what they’re supposed to be; that’s Coach P,” she said.
On Thursday, Aug. 14, Puryear was informed that he was reinstated. He drove to Atkins and had what he called “amicable discussions” with administrators. He then met with his staff, and, finally, told the players.
“They were ecstatic,” he said. “They yelled out, and they jumped on me and shook my hand – all those kinds of things.”
Etter said she got a call from her son screaming, “Mom, we got Coach P back!” When she came to watch that evening’s scrimmage and saw Puryear on the field, she yelled to him, “You look good there!” He responded with a smile and a thumbs-up.
“I felt like a wrong had been righted,” she said.
City Council Member James Taylor also put in a call to school system administrators. He said he supported Puryear and felt it was unfair that players couldn’t transfer.
“I believe in Mr. Puryear,” he said. “He may have made some mistakes, you’re going to get that with young coaches, but I think he’ll grow and develop into somebody who can not just coach football, but effect change in the lives of those students who he coaches.”
County Commissioner Walter Marshall broached the topic with Superintendent Beverly Emory. He said he admired the work Puryear was doing at Atkins and said that “a technicality is no reason to be dismissed.”
“We don’t have that many young black men that have something on the vine, you know?” he said. “You got some young people like him who want to make a difference.”
Marshall said his belief that black employees at Atkins and other schools are more likely to be fired or forced out also led him to speak out.
Bishop Todd Fulton said the Ministers Conference of Winston-Salem and Vicinity had met with Puryear and were planning to meet with Emory when they heard he was reinstated.
He said that when the organization began looking into the matter, members received calls of support for Puryear and calls from residents expressing concerns about other black employees being let go at Atkins – a matter he says the Ministers Conference will still address.
WS/FC Schools Marketing and Communications Director Theo Helm said Childers made the decision to reinstate Puryear. He said Superintendent Emory supported that decision after considering what was in the “best interest for the students and the school community.”
Childers said he couldn’t comment on the firing or reinstatement because they are personnel matters, but did say he would have no problem working with Puryear.
After Puryear’s dismissal, some had questioned the school’s racial climate. Atkins’ student population is no longer nearly all African American as it was when it opened in 2005. White students now make up of third of the population. The school’s math, science and engineering programs are among the highest-ranked in the county.
Critics say the school’s commitment to racial diversity is being sacrificed for the sake of academic progress.
Childers said his faculty and staff are racially diverse, with about equal numbers of black and white employees.
“I think it’s best for kids if they have adults who they look up to who may be like themselves, or may be not like themselves,” he said. “I think all the way around, trying to maintain a diverse school is important.”
He said Atkins’ hiring and termination policies were fair, and that the school’s turnover and dismissals are in-line with other schools. He cited the 2014 North Carolina Teacher Working Conditions survey, in which teachers gave high marks to Atkins’ leadership in relationship to issues like trust, mutual respect, support and objective assessment.
Puryear is Atkins’ third head coach since the football program started in 2006. He concedes the team has struggled to find its footing in a county dominated by well-established programs, but says the team has turned the corner. Last year, Puryear led the squad to its first playoff game in years.
Puryear has held coaching positions at colleges in Missouri and here in North Carolina. He interned with the Detroit Loins and was head coach at Red Springs (N.C.) High School. He said taking the job at Atkins in 2011 was his opportunity to “come home” to his native Winston-Salem, where he was a All-Northwest safety at Carver High School. His father is a former WS/FC schools principal and his mom is a retired teacher. He said local roots helped him get his job back; his reinstatement, he said, shows “how strong this community is.”