NEW BEDFORD — Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational Technical High School senior Tyrese Moniz has a passion for music, but, as he readied to take the stage at the 2022 Mr. Voc-Tech competition last month to perform some of it, he was nervous.
Luckily, a warm and familiar presence dropped in on the boys backstage just in time to turn Moniz's butterflies into sparks. "He told us: when you get on that stage and you look at that crowd, just know everyone in those seats came to see you guys. That stage is your home," Moniz said, speaking about his school principal, Warley Williams. "He definitely made me more comfortable and more reassured that I was going to do amazing."
Moniz says his story stands as one among many of Williams showing support to his students when they needed it most throughout the current school year — the first in his position at GNB Voc-Tech.
A principalship over 20 years in the making
But before returning to the high school as principal, Williams had been its vice principal, head of security and a coach; before that, a student athlete and graduate; and, preceding any of his re-entries to GNB Voc-Tech, Williams was a Keith Junior High student taking part in a summer shop exploratory camp being offered there.
"As a 12-year-old in between seventh and eighth grade stepping into this school, I was totally mesmerized by everything I saw," Williams said. "I'll always remember the projects we did — I took home a birdfeeder from carpentry, and in electrical we made these optical illusory boxes. ... I just knew I had to come here."
Admitting that he wasn't exactly studious as a seventh-grader, Williams said his summer experience that year was the motivation he needed to step up his academic efforts in eighth-grade as he strove to increase his chances of admission to GNB Voc-Tech. Once there, he became part of the high school's since-dissolved property management shop before graduating in 2002 and starting at UMass Dartmouth as a computer science major. However, life had other plans when Caroline, Williams' wife of 20 years, became pregnant with their first child during his first semester. Suddenly, his shop background came in handy.
"So it was evident to me that I needed to find gainful employment to start my family and that's when I dropped out of college and started working at a lumber yard," Williams said.
After the birth of their second child, Williams was in the same line of work as well as doing other odd-jobs in construction and landscaping when he came to a realization that prompted a return to college in 2007: "The cold winters and hot summers on a fork lift — it just wasn't for me," he said. So by 2009 when he got laid off due to economic downturn, Williams was well on his way as a history major, giving him a new direction in his job search this time around.
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"I wanted to give back to the community ... so when I got laid off, I went downtown to the (New Bedford) school department building and applied to be a substitute teacher. Then when I got the call from dispatch saying I could teach at Keith Middle School, I was so excited," Williams said. "I can remember that day because kids were feeling me out like 'who is this guy?' but I was ... able to captivate them through conversation — just talking about different things that they were experiencing on the street with gangs and things like that.
"I was hooked. I could tell it was going to be difficult work, but I was hooked."
Eventually Williams began substituting at Whaling City Junior/Senior High — New Bedford's alternative high school — before becoming principal there three years later. After another three years, Williams took the opportunity in 2014 to apply for an opening to be principal of GNB Voc-Tech, resulting in him being picked as assistant principal instead — a role that spun off into several others such as National Honor Society co-advisor, track coach and security director.
"It took me a long time to stop pinching myself to see if it was real," he said of his first return to his alma mater.
But, with his appetite for leading a school as principal already whet, Williams would find himself back at Keith Middle School once a chance to be principal there arose. "I really did not want to leave, but I was itching to lead a school," he said of the 2019 career move. From there, just in time for the current school year, Williams applied for a superintendent's opening at GNB Voc-Tech, landing him his principal role.
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'Like no other principal I've had'
When reflecting on his first year as principal, Williams sees the quality of his relationship with his students as one of the main gauges of success.
"I'm very thankful for the way I've been received by students. I receive emails from them, I get stopped in the hallways, they ask me about starting committees, they ask for certain activities, and what I'm so happy about is that they see me as a source of support," he said. "I can't say I expected that so soon."
"This man truly cares about his students like no other principal I've had has," said graduating senior Erica Lugo, 18. Back in March, Lugo approached Williams with her idea of starting a Miss Voc-Tech competition for senior girls in addition to the long-running, all-boy Mr. Voc-Tech competition, resulting in the first reincarnation of the event in 20 years. "He has given not only me, but a fair number of students a second chance at bettering themselves because he sees nothing but potential in every last one of us."
"It's cool how he's always participated in our years, especially our last year — he wants to be a part of our last memories in the building as much as he can," Moniz said, "like at the Mardi Gras dance when we got him to dance with us — we put him in the middle of the circle and we all just went crazy."
Williams also feels fortunate to be in a position to, as a school leader, represent progress in the larger community.
"When you walk into Voc-Tech you see that there's a wall with portraits of all the past principals .... I really don't want to make it about race but I recognize I am a Black man, and when I look at that wall I see some great people there ... but none of them look like me," he said, mentioning also having been the first Black principal at Keith Middle School, as well as the fact New Bedford Public Schools has a Black superintendent. "So I'm just proud of the fact that I am a person of color that our kids can look up to. Seeing someone that looks like me in a leadership position I think is very impactful, not just for kids who look like me, but for all kids."
Capping off a special year
As the year winds down, it is now Williams' favorite part of the school year for all the excitement that comes with it. It's also an emotional time, especially this year in particular. "The seniors who are graduating were freshmen when I was assistant principal, so I'm especially grateful to get to see them graduate. It means so much to me and they know that — I tell them that all the time," he said.
Not to mention, Williams' oldest son, Dante, 18, is part of the graduating class as well. "To be able to say that in my first year as principal, I'll be able to hand my son a diploma, that's just amazing to me. I feel so fortunate and so proud," Williams said, noting his daughter Kianna, 16, will be a junior at the school next year, while his youngest daughter Trynaty, 14, will be starting at New Bedford High School.
On the topic of key components of success at GNB Voc-Tech, Williams goes back to why the end of spring is his favorite part of the school calendar, bringing up occasions like junior banquet, prom and senior picnic.
"I could talk about academics, MCAS, what we're doing to impact instruction in our tech programs, but to me those things thrive when the culture and climate of our building are at their best," he said. "It's always my hope that kids are going to leave here with experiences that they're happy to talk about, experiences that they're proud of. That's what you take with you."
For Moniz, his night of performing in front of the school appears to fit that bill.
"It'll definitely be one of my best memories from high school," he said. "If I ever have another gig, I'll always remember the words Mr. Williams told me."
This article originally appeared on Standard-Times: Warly Williams, GNB Voc-Tech's principal, on his return to alma mater