Carnell Edwards, the founding principal of Elsie Allen High School in Santa Rosa, died Saturday at his home in Conway, N.C. of an apparent heart attack. He was 58.
Born on April 19, 1953 in Jackson, N.C., Edwards was one of seven children born to Mary Lou and James Edwards.
He was a scholar from the start, said his older brother Roy Edwards of Queens, New York.
"School was one of his things," he said. "He was always into the books."
Edwards earned a bachelor of arts degree in history and then a masters degree in special education from the University of North Carolina Central University in Durham.
He spent years as a teacher, coach and administrator at a number of schools throughout California before being hired in 1994 to open Elsie Allen — the first new high school in Santa Rosa in nearly three decades.
He put a premium on hiring quality teachers, said Pam Devlin a longtime Santa Rosa City Schools teacher and administrator who served as Elsie Allen's first vice principal with Edwards.
"He said, &‘You can have this new school with new buildings and new technology and brand new equipment but if you don't choose the right staff, it means nothing,'" she said.
Edwards worked 12 hour days for Elsie — developing the school but also becoming an enthusiastic cheerleader for the campus's role in the larger community, Devlin said.
"He was advocating for the school and the students. He was very instrumental in saying &‘This school should be a beacon for this community,'" she said. "I think that he strongly believed in that community and the potential of all students and he was just unwavering in that."
A fierce advocate for students, Edwards also had a wicked laugh and easy sense of humor, colleagues said.
At the very first Elsie Allen graduation assembly, Edwards teamed up with campus supervisor Fannie "Mama Lobo" Reece-Richardson to lip sync "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" by Marvin Gaye and Tammy Terrell.
"He set a happy family tone. His whole purpose was for the betterment of those kids. He loved those kids," Reece-Richardson said.
But he meant business, too, she said.
"He was a stern disciplinarian when he needed to be, but in the meantime when he's getting on a kid, he's also letting the kid know he was there for them," she said.
When 17-year-old Elsie Allen student Patrick Scott was struck and killed walking home from school in 1998, the principal who stood more than six-and-a-half-feet tall stood behind hundreds of students who rallied and worked for improved sidewalks and access to their school.
"Patrick's death will help Southwest Santa Rosa with its quest for equality and equal consideration in this town," Edwards said at the time.
In 1999, Edwards was named high school principal of the year by the Sonoma County Association of School Administrators. In 2001, Edwards left the school he helped develop to become the director of curriculum for Lompoc schools in Santa Barbara County.
In 2005 he was named Associate Superintendent of New Haven Unified School District in Union City. In 2008, he dialed back his professional work to become a part time consultant and moved to his home state of North Carolina, according to his brother.