‘Heartbreaking loss’: Beloved Wilmington principal who cut kids’ hair killed in motorcycle wreck

Terrance Newton bonded with kids with his clippers, scissors, and compassionate words. Gov. Carney calls the principal’s death a “heartbreaking loss.”

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Terrance Newton cuts the hair of Warner student Elijah Jackson in March 2020, days before the pandemic shut down schools and his school barbershop. (Saquan Stimpson for WHYY)

Terrance Newton cuts the hair of Warner student Elijah Jackson in March 2020, days before the pandemic shut down schools and his school barbershop. (Saquan Stimpson for WHYY)

Terrance Newton, the beloved principal at Wilmington’s Warner Elementary School, had a simple philosophy in dealing with students.

Newton’s approach was illustrated in this exchange with one student during a 2020 visit by WHYY News.

“What I tell you every day?” Newton asked the student.

“Try your best,’’ the child replied.

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Newton calmly corrected him.

“There’s three words I tell kids every day. What do I say to you? I…”

“I love you,’’ the child said.

“Don’t I tell you all that every day? I tell my kids every day I love them. Every kid here.”

Newton had that chat while the student sat in a room at Warner that had been converted into the principal’s own private barbershop — a space where he could comfort, correct, and inspire students.

Installed in 2019 shortly after Newton took over Warner, the barbershop drew him local and national media attention and the adoration of students, parents, teachers, and politicians alike for his positive impact on the school.

Newton converted a Warner classroom into his barbershop. (Saquan Stimpson for WHYY))

Those same admirers of Newton are devastated today.

Newton, 47, was killed when his Harley Davidson motorcycle collided with a concrete barrier on Friday on Old Baltimore Pike near Bear. He was pronounced dead Monday, generating an outpouring of mourning and praise.

Warner students lined up in the hallways to deliver a chant in Newton’s honor.

“His name is Newt. His name is Newt,’’ the students shouted in the video, posted to YouTube. “I really want to tell you that his name is Newt.”

Delaware political and education leaders also offered their condolences.

“This is such a heart-wrenching loss for our community,’’ said Gov. John Carney, who worked with Newton as part of the governor’s Wilmington Learning Collaborative. “Dr. Newton was everything a school leader should be, and more. He was selfless, dedicated, enthusiastic, and cared so deeply about his students and staff. That was clear every time you walked in the front doors of Warner Elementary.”

“I saw his dedication on recent visits to his classrooms. I was inspired by him, and will continue to be, every time I see his students walking to and from school, just a few blocks from my house.”

Terrrance Newton grew up in a rough section of the city and was shot twice as a teenager. A gifted athlete, he made the most of a football scholarship at Delaware State University and became a teacher and then a school leader.

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He told WHYY News in March 2020 that he first got the idea to bond with students over a haircut early in his career, when he taught at William Penn High.

“I had one student who felt like other students were picking on him because he didn’t have a haircut,’’ Newton recalled. “And when kids don’t feel good or don’t look good, they start acting in certain ways. So when I was able to cut this kid’s hair years ago  I was able to build a relationship with him. His attitude changed and his grades got better and you just saw a different kid.”

He became principal at Warner Elementary in 2019 and soon converted a room into a barbershop.

“If there’s an issue going on I’ll bring them to the barbershop and we’ll talk about it,’’ Newton said, estimating that 100 of the boys at Warner had sat in his chair. He didn’t cut girls’ hair.

Teacher Melissa Morris popped into the barbershop that day and said students noticed when Newton cut a kid’s hair.

“The other students say, ‘Oh my goodness, where did you get your haircut? I like your haircut,” Morris said.

Newton bonded with teacher Melissa Morris and other Warner staffers. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Although the pandemic put the barbershop out of commission, teacher Harold Pritchett said Newton’s impact was much broader. One example, Pritchett said, was that Newton embraced his proposal, which earlier principals had rejected, to have a student-run news station.

“When Dr. Newton came, he got the discipline under control. He got the academic standards at the school under control,” Pritchett said. “He helped the children with their self-image. Many of them understood what they had to do to become a better student and to become a better citizen.”

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