Soon-to-depart St. Augustine High leader confident school’s progress will continue

As he enters his final five months on the job, St. Augustine High School’s president has a message for the school’s supporters.

“We, together, have created this foundation that we are going to build on,” Oyd Craddock said. “We are not going backwards.”

It’s a message that Craddock, leader for the past three years of the 7th Ward Catholic school for African-American boys, hopes will resonate with a school community that has just begun to distance itself from past controversies, and with those who see his impending departure as a potential threat to that advancement.

Craddock, a former business executive and 1976 St. Aug alumnus, will leave July 31 to rejoin his family in Atlanta.

The school is seeking a search firm to help find its next leader, expected to be in place by August.

Whoever is chosen will be the school’s fourth president in a decade, but only the sixth in its 65-year history — just one sign of the struggles the institution has endured recently. The separate job of school principal has been held by three men in four years, while a board chairman publicly resigned in 2014.

The leadership shakeups occurred amid the school’s cancellation of sixth and seventh grades — a change mandated by the Archdiocese of New Orleans — and its widely debated end to corporal punishment, or paddling, urged by Archbishop Gregory Aymond and the school’s founding religious order, the Baltimore-based Josephites.

Craddock’s tenure was the fruit of the new governance structure that emerged from the corporal punishment dispute, under the terms of a 2011 settlement between the school and its order. That settlement authorized a non-Josephite to take the school’s helm, among other changes. Craddock is the second layperson to do so; the first was his predecessor, Karen Smith Collins, who lasted eight months.

Given the changes, there were bound to be some challenges, Craddock said: “Our governance needed to mature, and grow. And it is growing.”

The former IBM sales executive came to St. Augustine in 2013, two years after the paddling spat and months after the mandate to drop two grades in line with an archdiocese-wide change in Catholic schools’ grade structure.

He came, he said, to give back, but also because he saw himself in many young boys who walk St. Aug’s halls.

Case in point: “I didn’t grow up with my father. I didn’t know my father,” he said.

He never saw the military officer until he was in the ninth grade, when he viewed his father’s casket after the man died in a car wreck.

Before his death, Craddock said, he struggled with feelings of abandonment. “You feel like: Why aren’t you loved enough to have that opportunity to interact? And you wish your parents would work things out,” he said.

When he shares that story with students, they empathize, he said, “because they too have to deal with things in their home life that they can’t control.”

Another push to lead his alma mater came a month after his retirement from IBM: His 99-year-old grandfather, Leon “Smokey” Brier, a well-known figure in his Gentilly Boulevard neighborhood, was found strangled in his home. No one has been arrested.

A nephew, Casey Craddock, was killed two years later, after Oyd Craddock had taken the job at St. Augustine. “I’m willing to bet in both cases that the persons who did it were undereducated and underemployed, with some moral problems,” Craddock said.

Education, discipline and morality are what St. Augustine prides itself on. Going back to the school was another way to ensure that what happened to his relatives wouldn’t happen to someone else’s, he said.

Craddock arrived to find a full plate of challenges, and not just because of the paddling and grade structure controversies. St. Augustine was more than $160,000 in the red, its A.P. Tureaud Boulevard facility needed more than a few upgrades, and it struggled with keeping its community, alumni and donor base aware of what was happening at the school.

So Craddock and the school’s board began publicizing its annual audits, budget and student accomplishments, to keep supporters aware of the bigger picture.

As awareness spread, supporters sprang into action. In 2015, St. Aug’s annual giving campaign netted nearly $1 million — a record. Most of the donors were alumni.

The students saw the fruit of those investments, Craddock said, in the new Chromebook laptops every child received, in the new gymnasium floor and in upgraded restrooms.

Further, the school ended that year with an $84,000 surplus, the first such positive balance in several years.

Craddock also has gained the respect of the school’s parents, said Marc Barnes, who serves on the school’s board and is the father of a ninth-grader.

“He’s highly respected,” Barnes said. In town hall meetings with parents, he added, Craddock was honest about the school’s challenges.

At least one donor, 1985 graduate Ryan Singleton, has noticed some of the differences. Communications have gotten better during Craddock’s tenure, he said. Singleton and his family live in New Jersey.

But the leadership instability is a problem, Singleton said.

“Now you are going to have somebody else in there, and they are going to have the school in their image — what they want it to be,” he said. A less-than-smooth transition could harm St. Augustine in the future, he said.

However, Craddock, Barnes and the school’s board chairman, Justin Augustine, pledge that the transition will be smooth.

The policies Craddock and the board have set up transcend any one leader, Barnes said. “As long as we hire a good, qualified person, they can step into the institution now” and keep things going, he added.

Further, Craddock said, he will help select his successor and guide that individual through the transition.

“What I’ve done here is created a new standard,” he said. “And from now on, the bar is only going to be raised.”

Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA.

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