West St. John High principal keeps it all in perspective

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 4, 2012

By David Vitrano


EDGARD – Over the past several years, West St. John High School has quietly been building a reputation as one of the best schools in the region, and a big part of the school’s recent success can be attributed to its principal, Erica Merrick.

And now Merrick is finally getting some of the recognition she deserves as, after being selected the high school principal of the year for the district, she was chosen regional principal of the year for the area encompassing Terrebone, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. James, Assumption, Ascension and St. John the Baptist parishes.

“I was really surprised because when you’re doing this job, you’re not thinking about that,” said Merrick. “When you’re a principal, you just try to stay focused on the job at hand.”

Part of that focus was on the school’s performance score, based on its standardized test scores and other factors such as graduation rate. During the last school year, West St. John High’s SPS increased by almost 15 points to 100.3. It’s the second highest score in the district after John L. Ory Communications and Magnet School.

Still, she knows the school can do better.

“You can’t spend too much time patting yourself on the back,” she said. “Each year it’s something different.”

Merrick said whether it is dealing with new regulations, students or teachers, her position requires a certain amount of flexibility to roll with whatever the school year brings. It is a balancing act, however, as being at the top requires a degree of rigidity, as well.

“It can be a lonely job,” she said. “You can’t make everybody happy. Every decision I make has to be in the best interest of all the students.”

Still, she has learned to rely on others when she can.

“(Superintendent Courtney) Millet works hard for every school to do the same thing. That’s why you see our district moving. That makes it easier,” she said. “I think the principals work well together. We’re like a family. I never felt like no one’s there.”

But she does recognize that being somewhat isolated in a small school in the most rural section of the parish poses its own unique problems.

“We have to wear so many hats here,” she said. “Right now I have a business teacher that’s learning how to edit movies. Everybody has their strengths.”

The school’s position in the parish also offers some advantages, however.

“With the community support, it almost has a private school feel,” she said. “They love their school.”

And lately, West St. John High has given them much to love. Not only is the school excelling academically, but its football team was the state runner-up, and the girls basketball team was a state semifinalist. And it is these things and not the school’s geographic location that Merrick thinks is keeping parents in the community from sending their children to one of the area’s private schools.

“I think it does help that the parents believe in the school. Every parent wants their child to go to the best school,” she said. “We have a lot of pockets of success that help out with the big picture.”

The school’s location has also forced her to be a little more self-reliant than some of her peers.

“As a principal, your job is to make it better. If you look at it half empty, it just drains you,” she said. “Life happens. It took me a while to get to that point.”

Inspiration for her can come from just about anywhere.

“I do a lot of reading. I pray. I talk to my sisters. But for the most part, I just give myself a talk,” she said.

One constant source of inspiration for Merrick, however is her family, especially her son, who is currently a junior at West St. John.

“Sometimes they have to sacrifice a hot meal during the week. If I didn’t have a supportive family, I don’t think I could do this job.”

For Merrick, the competitive part of the principal of the year contest is behind her. She submitted an in-depth portfolio and gave an interview, and the results will be announced at a symposium later in the year, and for a brief minute she allowed herself to imagine what it would be like to claim the honor.

“I would be speechless,” she said. “I am my own hardest critic, so I’d feel like I must be doing something right.”

But these momentary daydreams do not distract Merrick from her true goals.

“I still have a lot to grow. I really feel like there are so many things I could do better,” she said. “You’re just always reaching for perfection. I think I have improved. But have I achieved everything I want to achieve? No.”