After 43 years, Philoron Wright retires from school system
Published: Thursday, March 27, 2014 at 6:41 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 27, 2014 at 6:41 p.m.
Philoron Wright didn't set out to be an educator.
He waited tables for senators in Washington, D.C., after graduating from Gainesville's Lincoln High, then he let his sister persuade him into getting a degree from Tennessee State University and took jobs at a hospital and a prison before returning home to Gainesville, at a loss for what to do next.
His mother, a teacher, told him he might be good as a teacher.
"That was the best decision I ever made," Wright said of applying to work in Alachua County Public Schools.
Wright is retiring on Monday after 43 years and several jobs with the district.
"It's been an adventure," he said.
Wright grew up in St. Augustine, Boynton Beach and Gainesville, the son of North Florida civil rights pioneer the Rev. Thomas A. Wright Sr.
Threats against the family for its involvement in the civil rights movement came to a head in 1962, when Ku Klux Klan members burned crosses in front of the Wrights' St. Augustine home and fired shots at the house, Phil Wright said. The family fled to Gainesville.
"We were literally run out of St. Augustine in the middle of the night," he said.
Throughout their childhood, Wright, his brother and two sisters were sometimes moved to safer houses in Boynton Beach to dodge more threats.
Wright was in 10th grade when he came to Gainesville. He and his sister enrolled at Lincoln High, the former black high school that later closed and reopened as Lincoln Middle.
His sister transferred to Gainesville High for her senior year and became the first black woman to graduate from the school.
After Phil Wright graduated in 1965, he went to Washington, D.C., where he spent a year working in a restaurant frequented by congressmen, including Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy.
Eventually, Wright said, his sister talked him into going to college, and he worked at Vanderbilt University's hospital while earning a degree in sociology at Tennessee State.
His first job out of college was at a prison. "The worst job ever," he said.
Miserable, he called home a few months later, and his mother, Affie Wright, encouraged him to try teaching.
Wright started as a substitute teacher at Gainesville High, then he taught social studies for 11 years at Mountaintop School, Lincoln Vocational School and Mebane Middle.
By that time, Wright had earned a master's in education from the University of Florida and began pursuing a doctorate. He received a fellowship to study at the University of Baroda in India for four months in 1976.
He traveled all over Iindia, he said, "All the way from Kashmir to Cochin."
Wright said he's an avid traveler to this day, and in retirement he hopes to visit Africa with his wife, Cottie, and see the Badlands of Montana by train.
Keith Birkett, who retired last June after spending 42 years with Alachua County Public Schools, said he first met Wright when he was an assistant principal at Westwood Middle, where Birkett's son was enrolled.
"His concentration was on helping students and helping families," Birkett said of Wright. "Working with them was his love, I think … He's probably one of the most distinguished and most credible people I've worked with."
Birkett, as head of the district's budget department, said he and Wright worked together on several projects over the years, including Alachua County Public Schools' response following the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings. Wright said that was one of his favorite projects.
"He is highly respected by the people he works with," Birkett said. "I hold him in high regard, and personally, by knowing him, I'm a better person."
After several years as an assistant principal at Howard Bishop Middle, Westwood Middle, Eastside High and then as principal of Oakview Middle, Wright graduated to the district office. He's held his current position, assistant to the superintendent, for the last 10 years.
"Putting out fires, basically," he said. Wright guided principals through decisions, oversaw hiring, assisted with safety and security planning, handled zoning issues and dealt with families' miscellaneous queries.
"It's a full-time job, and that's putting it very mildly," he said.
Wright also has been a regular contributor to The Gainesville Sun for nearly a decade.
Eight or nine years ago, he said, he wrote a column for the paper addressing parents. An editor encouraged him to keep writing.
So once a month, Wright pens a column updating parents on educational trends and other information to help students be successful.
His last column on the theme will appear in April.
"It's going to be different to me to have this extra time in my day," he said.
But Wright won't be idle in retirement. He's running for the School Board's District 3 seat this fall.
Wright said he's been considering a bid for years, and now seems to be the right time.
He said his platform focuses on meeting families' needs so students can be successful.
Seventeen million children are living in poverty, he said. "These are the same kids that are falling through the cracks."
Wright said he hopes to help those students and families, and having been a parent, grandparent, teacher and administrator, he thinks he can see all the angles.
"Every day has been a learning experience for me," he said.
Contact Erin Jester at 338-3166 or email@example.com.