Joaquin Richards sees his promotion from assistant principal to principal at Smiths Station High School as a blessing personally as well as professionally.
That's because Richards, a 1984 graduate of Smiths, is a lifelong resident of Lee County. He has worked his entire 25-year career as an educator in his home system, where his wife, Carol, is assistant principal at Wacoochee Elementary and their children, rising ninth-grader Catherine and rising seventh-grader Eli, attend there as well.
"Naturally, I'm overexcited," Richards said. "If I didn't like it here, I would have left long ago. It's a good place to raise children. We have great leadership above us, and I'm very fortunate they feel I can lead this school. Quite honestly, I know I can."
But he also is realistic about the tough expectations, especially following his predecessor, Jason Yohn, who was hired last month to become operations director of Pelham City Schools. Yohn led Smiths for six years, and Richards has been assistant principal since 2005, except for one year as interim principal at Wacoochee Junior High.
"Jason established a good foundation here," Richards said. "But me being part of that, I learned a bunch of stuff from him. My goal is to continue that wheel in the right direction. When it's rolling, it's rolling, but some things can be better."
Asked what can be better, Richards said, "We've got a good, tight community here, and I want to be sure we still have a good, tight community that can lean on each other and make sure these kids have a good high school experience. It's a journey. It's not all about graduation. It's about friendships and relationships."
So he wants to focus on fostering a positive learning environment.
"Celebrate the victories, whether they be large or little," he said, "because that confidence will get them further, and some of them aren't getting that at home. If a kid knows you care about him, you got that kid, and they can do wonders."
Richards' college degrees are a bachelor's in physical education from Auburn University in 1989 and a master's in educational leadership from Troy University in 2006.
Lee County superintendent James McCoy said he recommended Richards among more than 40 applicants and after eight candidates were interviewed.
"He's the best person for the job," McCoy said. "Looking to replace Dr. Yohn, we wanted someone who knows the community, and Joaquin knows the community as well as anybody. With his experience and passion for the community, he was the man, without a doubt."
Well, some doubt: The Lee County Board of Education approved McCoy's recommendation last week by a 6-1 vote.
Richards' other positions in Lee County have included high school science teacher, elementary school physical education teacher, head coach of junior high football, tennis and girls basketball, head coach of ninth-grade baseball and assistant coach of high school football and softball.
"He has served in every role we were looking for," McCoy said. "We felt like it's his time to take the reins and move the school forward."
Although his new role officially starts July 1, Richards said he and assistant principals Mary Holloway and Todd Wilson already have been preparing for next school year.
"I'm going to lead by example," Richards said. "I'm not going to ask anyone to do anything I wouldn't do. My biggest fear is disappointing people. I want everybody to feel good about the decision that was made. But I'm intrinsically motivated. I don't need pats on the back. I'm just going to keep chopping wood."
Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow Mark on Twitter@MarkRiceLE.