Changing Roles from Actor to Educator

It was a turn of events that could have been borrowed for the plot of "High School Musical" — top jock gets drafted for his high school play and gets hooked on theater. From that opening scene, Darrell Echols’ own storyline brought his adult self right back to high school, this time as the very cool principal. I mean, how many principals have searchable YouTube clips from their youthful acting days?

"They can find that stuff now! I’d say two to three times a year, someone will get their Chromebook out and show a clip to me. ‘You had hair back then!’ We have a little laugh about it," says Echols. 

But back to the beginning. Echols is from Roosevelt, NY, where his high school sports were football, basketball and track. That play he was drafted for? It was "Dracula" and, yes, he was cast as the star. 

Echols attended Ohio Wesleyan University to "get out of New York," play Division III football  — safety and cornerback until an injury sidelined him — and, as a theater arts major, learn from Wesleyan’s well-regarded theater department. One summer, Echols was offered an internship with a new TV show shooting in New York. It was called "The Cosby Show." 

"The pilot was just picked up, but no one knew if the show would make it," he says. After a fall 1985 work/study internship, he returned to school in January 1986 for his last semester, knowing he had an after-graduation job."I was a hard worker — I got there early, stayed late. I tell kids all the time, those are the qualities that work at any job you tackle." A production assistant on "The Cosby Show" for three years, Echols also appeared twice in small roles. "Kids find those things all the time on YouTube. That’s way before they were born so for them, it’s like history."

During days-long breaks from Cosby’s shooting schedule, Echols volunteered at a Brooklyn school where a friend worked.

"I’d get postcards with autographs from the cast and give them out to the class, go on field trips — it kind of put my foot in the door of education because I found out it was a lot of fun working with kids."

On one break in 1988, he was an extra for "Saturday Night Live." 

"I got a couple of speaking lines in a sketch with Jon Lovitz," he says. It spoofed the Willie Horton ad run during the 1988 presidential campaign."I auditioned on a Friday, went back to rehearse Friday night, worked all day Saturday, and called my friends to say ‘I’m going to be on live TV tonight!’"

Marriage to a Chicago native brought Echols to the Midwest, where he substitute taught in between acting jobs. He was a store clerk in a made-for-TV movie with Isiah Thomas, "A Mother’s Courage." Meanwhile, Echols had been offered a few full-time teaching positions, so he earned his teaching certificate at Northeastern University in 1991. 

Echols’ first jobs were teaching fifth graders in Bellwood and Lincolnwood, a very long drive from the home he and his wife bought in Carol Stream. Then a friend who taught at Naperville’s Crone Middle School circulated Echols’ resume in Indian Prairie School District 204. That landed him in the district where he has spent the last 21 years — minus a short two-year diversion —  as a Hill Middle School 7th grade English teacher, a Waubonsie Valley High School dean, principal of Hill and, in 2014, the second-ever principal of Metea Valley High School. 

Did the young Echols ever imagine he’d be a principal? "Never!" "You didn’t want to see the principal when I was in high school! I didn’t wave, I didn’t want him to see me. It’s changed. Now kids come in and ask the secretary if they can talk to me. If I’m free, I say, send them in," says Echols, 54, an Aurora resident since 2001.

Last year, Echols was awarded the city’s African-American Heritage Advisory Board’s African-American Leader of the Year award. At the time, Mayor Richard Irvin noted, "Dr. Echols has helped create an environment of excellence at Metea … that culture has permeated throughout  Aurora. We are a better community because of his leadership."

A lesson the former English teacher often espouses comes from his own celluloid past: "Someone’s always watching … If you don’t want mom and dad to find out about it, don’t do it."

Or, as Shakespeare put it: "All the world’s a stage."