Portrait: Andrew Wells, Incoming Principal of East Lansing High School

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Tuesday, July 25, 2017, 8:02 am
Ann Kammerer

Above: Andrew Wells, a 1976 graduate and newly appointed principal of East Lansing High School.

Andrew Wells knows what it means to come full circle.

From student to star athlete, from lunch monitor to paraprofessional, and from athletic director to principal of two elementary schools, Wells is uniquely poised for his most recent post with East Lansing Public Schools: Principal of East Lansing High School.

Immediately after being appointed by the East Lansing School Board in June 2017, Wells immersed himself in his alma mater and prepared to take the lead August 1. His goal, he says, is to set the tone and lead the school's collective vision for the nearly 1,100 teens walking through the doors Sept. 5 for the 2017-18 academic year.

"I think we all have a plan that's carved for us before we even see it come to fruition," says Wells. "When we cross the paths or paths of other people, they sometimes help guide you in the direction that you should go based on that plan. Mine led to education. And to here."

From Detroit to the Flowerpot

Wells' path to the principal's office started in the East Lansing Flowerpot neighborhood. His mother and step-dad moved the family of five children from inner city Detroit in 1968 following the Detroit Riots in 1967. Martha and Jim Bibbs still live in the same East Lansing home today.

Well's life in East Lansing was drastically different than his experience in Detroit's Cortland neighborhood. At the time, his mother was a single parent, working to make ends meet. Extremely poor, the family of six resided in one of the city's most impoverished areas near 12th Street and Woodrow Wilson. When the riots erupted in July 1967 and 12th Street became a flashpoint, the 9-year-old Wells and his siblings hid or slept beneath their beds to stay out of the range of snipers and random gunfire, or to block the thunder of helicopters hovering overhead.

"It's was a really scary time in Detroit," Wells says. "When we came here to East Lansing, it was so quiet that I had trouble sleeping."

The young Wells learned to navigate life in a different way. His parents were role models who helped him adjust to being one of the few African-American students at Hannah Middle School. His stepdad Jim Bibbs was making his mark as an assistant coach with the MSU track and field program, and later became the university's first African-American head track and field coach. Martha, his mother, followed-up her education at Wayne State University with a master's at Michigan State. Securing a job in state government, she worked her way up from a secretary to become the first African-American and first female Personnel Director for the State of Michigan.

"My parents played a significant role in the lives of all us children," says Wells as he speaks of his siblings—all graduates of East Lansing High School. "My dad taught me that character counts, and that how people view me will determine my outcome in life. He taught me there is no substitution for hard work. My mom said too, that no matter what job you have, you make sure you do it to the best of your ability. You don't slack."

Wells never did. He says he didn't expect his hard work to be noticed, and was surprised when his sixth grade physical education teacher and mentor Fred Waters did. Wells says that Waters became his second strongest influence alongside his parents, and helped set him on the course of becoming a star athlete who excelled in track and field and basketball.

"Fred Waters was the first person who really took me under his wing," says Wells. "He told me I was a leader, and that he wanted me to start thinking of myself as a leader. It was the first time that any teacher had made me feel good about myself in that way."

By the time he graduated high school in 1976, Wells had led teams, earned state honors, and broken records for track and field—one of which still stands today. He made dream teams, and played alongside notables in Greater Lansing like Ervin "Magic" Johnson and Jay Vincent. His collegiate career was equally strong at Eastern Michigan and Michigan State University, where he was co-caption of the MSU Track Team his senior year.

"All my East Lansing coaches—from Fred Waters to Jeff Smith to Phil Winston—they were all instrumental in guiding me through school," says Wells. "They nurtured and gave me the confidence to continue to pursue my goals."

From high school to college and back again

Wells' plaque in the East Lansing High School Athletic Hall of Fame highlights his achievements, and commemorates a 6-foot plus teen who came of age and went on to be a leader and community volunteer in Greater Lansing.

After earning his bachelor's from MSU, Wells returned to East Lansing Public Schools to worked various posts from 1981-97, including lunch monitor, coach and community liaison. In the late '80s, he took a job at MSU as the Assistant Director of Intramural Sports while pursuing his master's in education.

It wasn't long before Wells got a call from an old friend. It was Fred Waters, his mentor from Hannah Middle School, who was then the interim principal at East Lansing High. Waters wanted Wells to consider being his athletic director. Wells took a moment and said yes.

"When he called me, it just confirmed what he had said to me in sixth grade," Wells says. "It's amazing how cyclical life is and that he always remembered me. It meant so much to me to be asked, and it caught me by surprise."

Wells returned to his high school alma mater in 1994 to work alongside his former coaches. He later served as associate principal at the high school for eight years, as principal of Glencairn Elementary, and most recently as principal of Whitehillls Elementary where he has been since 2006.

Returning to the high school epitomizes Wells' commitment to education and community. He's says its part of a drive instilled early on from his parents to make a positive difference in people's lives, and to excel in whatever you do.

Wells says he is motivated to lead, and to help the school continue on a successful path. He's proud to be involved with a school with a rich legacy of academic and extracurricular excellence—one that ranks #18 in the state and as a silver medalist in U.S. News and World Report Best High School Rankings.

"In my mind, there's no reason we can't be in the Top 5 in the state," says Wells. "I know that takes time and it doesn't happen overnight. But I think collectively if we continue to work hard and have high expectations, all things are possible."

Wells and his wife Daphne have three children—all students or graduates of East Lansing Public Schools.




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