Albuquerque High School Principal Tim McCorkle winds up a 39-year career as an educator, and trailblazer, this spring – including more than a decade running one of the state’s oldest public schools. He talked about challenges, successes and lessons learned as he prepares to address his teachers for the last time on Wednesday.
McCorkle is a modern-day educator who has seen the graduation rate at Albuquerque High School jump by almost 23 percentage points during his 11 years as principal.
But make no mistake. He’s “old school” in many ways. And proud of it.
“I’m still old fashioned when it comes to discipline,” says the former all-state baseball player, coach and classroom teacher who went on to become the first African American man to lead an APS high school.
“I believe kids need discipline. I believe that in a person’s life discipline is one of the top things you need. When it comes to students, if it’s something serious, you better believe it will be by the book,” he said.
Then he softens a little and adds that sometimes you go into a situation “hard core” but feel differently after talking to the student and parents and understanding the “whole story.”
McCorkle isn’t an ivory tower disciplinarian who sits in his office waiting to make those decisions. “I know these kids. I attend over 150 events a year. I get out at lunch time. I meet every kid who comes to my school. When you’re visible, the kids know you and the parents know you, and there are times when you might be able to say to a kid, ‘You might not want to do that.’ ”
It’s an approach that has worked for McCorkle in a challenging environment.
“It’s a different world,” he said, referencing things such as school shootings and social media “that didn’t exist when we were growing up.”
“There are different family structures. It’s fast-paced. When you look at students today … I don’t want to say they are more mature … but they know a lot of things – whether they are mature enough for them or not.”
“Being a principal now, you’ve got to be able to relate to the generation that’s here today. In the last few years, you could say I’m a little softer than I was, a little less hard core than when I was at West Mesa (1983-2004). Back then, you could get in a kid’s face – not cursing or touching but in their face – and have the parents’ support.
“Nowdays, you’ve got to be more careful. I don’t get into kids’ faces. What I’m doing more now is still explaining the rules and getting the point across, but maybe in a more tactful way.”
A graduate of Highland High School, where he was a good student and excelled as a catcher, McCorkle earned a journalism degree from the University of New Mexico before landing a job as head baseball coach at West Mesa High School in 1983.
During his years at West Mesa, he also taught English and journalism, supervised the school newspaper and eventually served as athletic director, dean of students and assistant principal.
He did a two-year stint as assistant principal at Sandia High School before being named principal at tradition-rich Albuquerque High School in 2007.
The graduation rate his first year at AHS was 47.3 percent. Last year, the most recent available, saw students graduate at a 70.1 percent clip.
The graduation rate for Hispanic students during his tenure has jumped nearly 29 percent, and the school has received two “A” grades from the state and been recognized as a top school by U.S. News & World Report.
The Spanish Embassy ranked the school’s bilingual program as best in the nation, and a number of graduates every year are admitted to some of the nation’s top universities.
McCorkle takes a lot of pride in these achievements, but is quick to credit his assistant principals and other administrators for being able to put great programs in place – and the many teachers he says are great role models and who can relate to kids.
Ever the sports guy, he describes himself as the team manager. He likens key administrators to offensive and defensive coordinators on a football team.
And he lauds teachers for having a “love of their craft and a love for the kids.”
“I believe that teachers nowadays have a lot on their plate,” he says. “I like to deal with teachers on an individual basis. I don’t like to dwell on the negative. I try to pull out the positives and more or less coach that teacher along.”
And what does the former coach think baseball teaches kids?
“It teaches you discipline. It teaches you teamwork. It teaches you hard work. It teaches you what life is all about.”
Cultures working together are ‘beautiful’
McCorkle’s pride shows through when he talks about Albuquerque High School and a storied history that, according to a school publication, traces its roots in some form back to 1879.
“This is a very mixed school, and if you’re not careful, it can be two schools,” he said. “I’m talking about the elite on one side, and the not so elite on the other. It’s a matter, over 11 years, of cultivating the fact to staff and students that we are all one. It’s not ‘those kids’ and ‘these kids.’ It’s all of us together. We are very diverse, and it’s a beautiful thing when you see all cultures working together.
“We’re proud that we have students from all over. I have a high transfer list. Kids come from private schools, from the West Side, from the East Side.
“When I sit down and talk to parents and ask why they want their child to come here … it’s not just academics or athletics. It’s that AHS represents what the real world looks like.”
Education wasn’t McCorkle’s first choice for a career path, but a couple of field trips while he was a journalism student at UNM changed his course.
“We went to the Journal, and they told us you got paid by the inch for copy (back in the days of ‘stringers’) and they kept saying you’re not going to make a bunch of money. I said, ‘Oops, that’s not for me.’
“Then, we go to Channel 7, and they tell us they don’t hire local talent, because they go for people with experience from other markets and, besides that, they only hired good-looking people. And I said, ‘That crosses me out.’
“But I always had the love of sports and love of kids and began coaching at age 18. And I said that’s what I want to do. I want to be a teacher and have an impact on young people.”
McCorkle cites former West Mesa principal Milton Baca and his Wilson Junior High School coach, Charles Tafoya, as role models he had growing up, along with journalism teacher Vicki Laws (now Vicki Scarsone.)
One thing they taught him was to look for ways things could be done better – rather than simply criticize what was done wrong.
But first and foremost in the role model category was his father, Clausell, a 25-year military veteran, who was stationed at several posts around the world. Tim was born on the way to the hospital in Omaha, Neb., when Clausell was stationed at Offut Air Force Base.
“He was the greatest mentor a son could have,” he said. “He taught me discipline. Whenever I left the house, he made sure I looked good. My shoes had to be polished. On the baseball field, my cleats had to be polished and clean. The little things. And my mother, Clara, taught me what hard work was all about – and used to lecture me that I needed to wear a necktie to work every day after I was first named assistant principal.”
McCorkle says he has found that many kids today desperately need role models.
“When I was at West Mesa, some of those kids, I was their father, their teacher, their coach and their counselor … all wrapped into one.
“Then I go to Sandia, and maybe the kids don’t need me as much as they did at West Mesa. It was a different environment and a different part of town.
“Then you come here, and it’s a little bit of both.”
In addition to being the first African American man to be an APS high school principal – the first African American high school principal in APS was Eartha Lynn, who retired from Highland High in 2002 – McCorkle says he was the first African American head baseball coach in the district and the first African American high school athletic director.
And he was one of the first African American baseball players at UNM.
“There were two or three of us that year, but it was a big issue, because they hadn’t had any black players. So I got a half-baseball and half-academic scholarship.”
A 155-pound catcher, McCorkle says he caught Tito Landrum – who went on to play for the Cardinals – at age 12 or 13 when no one else could catch him.
“I was quick and took pride in my defense. No passed balls. I took pride in how I handled the pitchers, and nobody stole bases on me,” he says, demonstrating his quick release.
But a nagging thumb injury sidelined him after his first year at UNM. He was in a cast for months but had no improvement and decided against surgery.
“I said, ‘You know what, I had a great career, but it’s time to give it up.’ ”
But the lure of the game remains strong.
He works Isotopes home games as the security man in the third base dugout. He’s the guy who comes out between innings in helmet, blue shirt and khaki pants and scans the crowd.
But when the teams are on the field, “You can sit there and observe and look at what it takes to be successful. The teamwork. The discipline. The love of the game. You see all that.”
‘A free agent’
McCorkle and his wife, Anndra, a special education teacher, have three grown children, including a daughter in Florida who has expressed an interest in following him as an educator.
Asked how long have he and Anndra have been married, McCorkle whipped out his phone and called her, saying, “I don’t want to get it wrong, and she’ll know to the day.”
“Please help me,” he said when Anndra picked up. “I’m being interviewed by the Journal. How many years have we been married?”
She chuckled and said, “Thirty-seven in November.”
Before hanging up, she cheerfully notes that she calls her husband “Timmy” or “Mr. McCorkle.”
McCorkle says he hasn’t decided what he wants to do after leaving in June, presumably after his portrait is put up in the administration office, along with those of other former AHS principals. He jokes that, since he’ll still be there when it comes in, he has picked out the primo spot.
(His good-natured staff laughs and reminds him it can be moved after he leaves.)
One thing’s for sure. McCorkle will be styling around in his 2019 Corvette, fresh off the line in Kentucky, where the sports car is made. It was delivered two weeks ago.
“That’s my gift to me for 39 years,” he said.
When he talks about the Corvette, he also talks about his father.
“We were talking one day 15 years ago, when he was sick with cancer, and I said, ‘You know what? Someday, I’m going to be a principal. And I’m going to get a Mercedes.’
“My dad just grinned. Kind of a smirk, really. Well, I did become a principal and got a Corvette instead. But if he was alive today, he’d be riding in that Corvette.”
That kind of car also impresses students.
“They say, ‘What a cool car.’ And I tell them that anything is possible, if you work hard and have a vision.”
Any real disappointments?
None comes to mind.
“I was a teacher. I was a coach. I was an AD, an assistant principal and a principal. I’ve had the opportunity to do all that. I have no disappointments. None.”
What comes next for Tim McCorkle?
“I couldn’t tell you what I’m going to do,” he says. “I’m a free agent.”
When asked about the strides AHS has made under his leadership, McCorkle cites a passage from a book called “Outliers: The story of success” by Malcolm Gladwell.
In fact, he keeps it in his phone for quick reference and reads it aloud: “Successful people are successful because they’re in the right place at the right time and they have the right people working around them.”
For McCorkle, the right people have been teachers, fellow administrators and family.
For many kids over the years, the right person was Tim McCorkle.