By Erica Thomas, managing editor
CENTER POINT — A short ride on Eagle Drive in Center Point leads you to a peaceful, orderly building. Center Point High School is perched on a hill above the hustle and bustle of the city. For some, the school is a safe haven, away from the reality of a community that statistically gives them little chance of success. For the principal, the school stands as a beacon of hope for those who need it most.
Mr. Van Phillips has been at Center Point High School since its doors were opened in 2011. In fact, he helped with the design of the building. After 20 years of experience as a principal and previous experience as an assistant principal and coach, Phillips knew it was his calling to infuse his knowledge into the lives of the children in Center Point.
While some refer to him as “the man, the myth, the legend,” Mr. Phillips is very real. As he sits in his office, gospel music playing in the background, he is able to speak about his impact, throughout the past 28 years as a principal, as a carpenter speaks about his daily grind.
“It just is what it is,” said Phillips.
But that response begs the question: How did it get to be what it is?
Van Phillips was born into a Christian family. His father was a World War II veteran and a Pentecostal pastor. His mother had 15 children. At a very young age, Phillips said he learned from his parents.
“I think the lessons I learned from my mom and dad are lessons that I teach to my children at Center Point High School,” said Phillips. “Some of the words that my father and mother spoke to me, I speak those same words to my children here. One of those was: do right or I’m going to do you!”
That stern yet simple upbringing is how Phillips grew to develop his philosophy for education and for life.
“My mom taught us that the law is designed for folks who don’t show good character, good citizenship and don’t do the right thing,” said Phillips. “They would say, ‘If you do the right thing all the time, you keep God first in your life, you don’t have anything to worry about, the police or anything else.”
Student Council President Micah Carter said the student body recognizes Phillips’ dedication and tough-love approach.
“Mr. Phillips has zero-tolerance for non-sense,” said Carter. “If something is going on, Mr. Phillips will come on the intercom and give us a prayer or give us a motivational speech on what he’s looking for from the students here.”
Those motivational speeches are given from Mr. Phillip’s office. On his desk, Phillips keeps neatly stacked papers and binders. Among the memos and folders are a Bible and a brown leather Bible cover that reads: “Trust: Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord.”
Trust, Phillips said, is very important as he molds young minds and touches lives. The expectations are clear and never sugar-coated. Phillips is a truth-seeker and a truth-teller. While he likes to “call a thing a thing,” he still wants to investigate those “things” and create change.
“I’m a drum major for social justice change and educational and economic empowerment to communities that have not had a good lead up on life,” said Philips. “It’s been my gift from God to try to move communities that are not where they want to be.”
Phillips said some negative influences children have experienced in their formative years have often impacted their daily lives as they grow into adulthood. He wants them to realize their full potential.
“There are so many kids that don’t see themselves beyond where they are right now,” he said. “A lot of our kids need deliverance. They need it from themselves and their families.
“Just because you live in subsidized housing, just because you receive a free lunch, does not mean that you have to act a certain way. You can rise above any situation and any circumstance you are in. You have to begin to invest in yourself and believe that where you come from does not determine where you are going.”
Phillips has worked hard for progress at Center Point High School. He said the fact that 76% of his students are living in a fatherless home shows him there is a lot of work to be done. That’s why he hopes to serve as a role model for students.
“I think that’s been my calling,” Phillips said. “My coaches here also stand in as father figures for our students. That’s something we would rather not do, but it’s something we have to do. It’s something we embrace.”
That effort from the staff and faculty at Center Point High School has not gone unnoticed. Graduates of Center Point High School have become attorneys, engineers, doctors, educators and business leaders. That success is in spite of statistical data.
“According to the federal government, 89% of our kids are at risk of not receiving a high school diploma, but 84% of my kids receive a diploma,” said Phillips. “I’m proud that we have been able to defy a lot of odds. A lot of our children are rising above their circumstances and they’re doing well.”
Center Point High School became the first Title I high school in Jefferson County eight years ago, according to Phillips. The Title I program provides federal aid to schools with a high number of low-income families. Phillips said he hopes students are not discouraged by their disadvantages.
“We just embrace the fact that that’s who we are but we don’t have to behave in a manner that says we are in poverty,” he said. “We can rise above.”
Student Sydney Hardy serves on the student council and she is the Senior Class President. She said Mr. Phillips influences students to do better on a daily basis.
“He’s very inspirational,” said Hardy. “He’s always encouraging students to get to class on time, make good decisions and to always be respectful.”
The school system has seen the most success with students who begin their education in Center Point and have stayed in Center Point until their senior year, according to Phillips. In fact, 97% of those students graduate. The most difficult challenge concerning graduation is helping students who transfer to Center Point High School from other schools.
Another challenge Phillips has encountered is preparing students for high school. He said the earlier children are introduced to an educational-rich environment, the easier it is to push them through to receive their diploma.
There are several enrichment programs and after-school programs available for students who are struggling to make the grade. Phillips believes the creation of Jefferson County’s Pre-K program will help more children succeed.
“I believe that education is a womb to the tomb process,” said Phillips. “I believe we start learning when we are in the womb and we don’t stop learning until we are in our final resting place.”
Phillips takes his job seriously and he believes in transparency. His natural desire to help others and his Biblical knowledge as a pastor has given Phillips the ability to deal with unique situations in unique ways. Student Council Chaplain Ayanna King said Phillips is more than a principal.
“He preaches and teaches us. He leads us,” said King. “He speaks to us every morning and if something’s wrong, he plays us a song, ‘I need you, you need me, we’re all a part of God’s family.’ He also tells us the right thing to do. He’s a great leader and he’s made me a great leader.”
When asked how he became such a strong leader, Phillips’ answer was simple:
“I’m a truthful person and people know I’m going to tell the truth,” he said. “If it’s good, I’m going to say it’s good and if it’s bad, I’m going to say it’s bad. Then, we are going to try to make it good.”
That drive for truth is evidence that the lessons Phillips learned as a child are being passed on, generation after generation.
“If it comes up, it’s coming out! I’m going back to what my mom and dad taught me, which is to tell the truth,” said Phillips. “Because if it’s the truth and somebody brings it up again, I shouldn’t have a hard time remembering what I said because it was the truth. The truth just prevails!”
Phillips also wants his students to learn how to speak up for themselves and how to advocate for themselves.
“You’ve got to say when something is not right, but at the same time you’ve got to bring all of you to the table, too!” said Phillips.
George Bates, Center Point High School’s head football coach and athletic director, said it’s not just the students who have learned from the principal.
“I’ve always heard of the man, the myth, the legend, but when I see him with my own eyes, I see him as a father to the kids and the adults,” said Bates. “He influences me and encourages me with Christian-based words of wisdom. When he speaks, they listen.”
Among his many accolades, Principal Phillips has been named the 2017 Principal of the Year in Alabama, he was in Positive Maturity’s Top 50 over 50 in 2019 and he was honored by the AHSAA as Wrestling Official of the Year in 2016.
Assistant Principal Genise Reid said it comes as no surprise when Phillips is honored and she said she is honored to serve alongside him.
“He is a communicator … he can communicate quite well with almost anyone,” said Reid. “He is always there for the students and parents and you can see there is that level of trust.”
That trust is something Phillips hopes to gain from all of his students, but he refuses to take any credit for the differences he’s made in his 37 years as an educator.
“All the glory belongs to God because it is through Him that I am able to do what I do,” said Phillips.