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The Greatest Thing About My School Is

Image Do you have a sense that the media too often focuses on the negative news about our schools? With that in mind, all principals should be prepared to spread the good news about their schools. And we asked our Principal Files" principals to do just that. Included: What is the greatest thing about your school?

So often -- too often, as a matter of fact -- the media seems to focus on the negative news about our schools. School leaders are frequently put in the position of defending what their schools are doing. To that end, one of Education Worlds Administrators Desk columnists, George Pawlas, suggests that every principal should carry in his or her wallet, pocket, or purse, a card that lists six great things about my school."

Read the article by George Pawlas, Share the Pride: Six Statements of Pride Get Year Off to a Great Start.
Even better, Pawlas suggests that school administrators should commit their lists to memory. With that list of six great things always in mind, when the talk turns negative or the questions turn difficult, a principal will have ready access to a list of great things about my school." Even if the positive news does not make its way into the media this time, that principal has taken advantage of an opportunity and planted a seed that might lead to another news story with a more upbeat spin.

With those lists of great things about my school" in mind, Education World asked members of our Principal Files" principals team to share what the Number One item on the card in their wallets might say. If there was one thing about their school that they most wanted the world -- and members of their community -- to know, what would that be?

ITS OUR KIDS!

Great schools cannot exist without great groups of kids, and the diversity of those kids is what many principals say makes their schools so great.

Lolli Haws is principal at Oakridge Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia. Diversity is a given in a school whose location is so close to Washington, D.C. Seventy percent of Oakridges 460 students are from countries other than the United States, and 90 percent were born outside Virginia. We have the most beautiful, interesting, interested, and talented children from all over the world," Haws told Education World. They are truly here to learn, grow, and experience life in the Washington D.C., United States of America."

Every adult and child is enriched by just being part of our school," added Haws. Every child and every teacher has the special privilege of meeting, talking to, learning with, and playing with children and families from places in the world most only see in an atlas or hear on the news.

We are an international school that lives and learns together in our own world of Oakridge like the rest of the world should live -- with joy, understanding, and delight in what each of us offers each other."

Principal Karen Mink expresses similar sentiments about the students of the Allen School in Aurora, Illinois. The schools demographic is 59 percent Hispanic, 22 percent Black, 16 percent White, and smaller percentages of Asians and Eastern Europeans.

Our school is a perfect example of how different people can live together, work together, and learn together," said Mink. The Allen School community respects each other, supports each other, and helps each other to succeed."

A VERY SPECIAL CLIMATE

The climate of a school includes its kids and its diversity, but it includes much more than that. According to Carol Robertson, a positive and nurturing climate is the greatest thing about her school, Lewis Vincent Elementary School in Denham, Louisiana.

Creating a Sense
Of Community
Every Day

Principal Nita High told Education World about some things that members of her staff do to create a special climate at O.P. Earle Elementary School in Landrum, South Carolina.

Classrooms are bright, colorful, busy places where school desks are a thing of the past. Instead, classrooms are furnished with tables and chairs that provide children with a variety of opportunities to learn to work together as a team -- a community in which each has responsibilities.

Workshops" rather than lessons are conducted by teachers.

Children are referred to as readers" or writers" or scientists" rather than students.

At the end of the day, children celebrate by spending quality time reflecting with their teacher on what they have learned about a topic or what they have learned about themselves as readers or writers.

Often classes of students loop together with their teacher from one grade to the next, continuing that sense of community that teachers work so hard to foster.

Teachers Teas have become a popular and welcomed after-school respite for staff members who seize the opportunity to get together to review books that have recently arrived in the media center.

Parents and grandparents feel" our community environment and are comfortable visiting our school to have lunch with their child, volunteer in a classroom, or attend a special school event.

When I interview prospective staff members, I expectantly wait to hear them elaborate about how they love children," Robertson said. Our mission is Learning Together for a Very Bright Future Every Single Day, and we all enthusiastically work together to create a productive, positive, and rewarding atmosphere in which our students will learn and grow. We work hard to create lasting memories through quality learning experiences and special events."

At O.P. Earle Elementary School in Landrum, South Carolina, principal Nita High says that visitors who enter her building always make the same comment. They say There is such a great atmosphere here." That doesnt happen by accident. Our students and staff are a community of learners, and community is the heart of what we each strive to establish," High told Education World.

Developing that sense of community begins each morning as children enter the building, High added. They are greeted by staff members who are truly glad to see them -- and tell them so."

The staff at O.P. Earle Elementary has adopted the FISH philosophy. High says they make an effort each day to make each others day." The philosophy has also made its way into classrooms, where High reports children being rewarded with FISH Notes for their random acts of kindness, good attitudes, and positive work ethics.

Learn more about the FISH philosophy in these Education World articles:
  • Principals Caught Up in FISH! Philosophy
  • Something FISH-y at Providence Day School
  • Our state has some of the most rigorous instructional standards in the nation," High noted. We are all under pressure to improve student performance. That task is a daunting one, and sometimes a discouraging one, but our schools supportive, nurturing community environment undergirds all we do to promote student learning and provide a positive work place for everyone."

    A quote by E.B. White is one that High often refers to and reflects on. He once said A person must have something to cling to. Without that, we are as a pea vine sprawling in search of a trellis.

    Our schools community environment is a trellis that gives staff and students support and direction," added High.

    IT TAKES A GREAT STAFF
    TO MAKE A GREAT SCHOOL

    Principal Les Potter is always pleased when he asks students if they like school and they say yes. Rarely does a student ever respond no to that question, and I believe our students positive response is because our staff is so committed and caring," said Potter.

    At Potters school, Silver Sands Middle School in Port Orange, Florida, that commitment and care is reflected in the schools status as at A+ School, which signifies high academic achievement, and its Five Star status, which reflects the staffs commitment to building connections with parents and the larger community.

    Rose Vetere, principal of Abbot Elementary School in Westford, Massachusetts, also feels her school is a great place for kids because of its dedicated teachers. They are kind and respectful to children. In that way, they are wonderful role models for our students," said Vetere. They keep lines of communication open with families through newsletters, telephone calls, or emails -- whatever works for families. They keep their expectations high for all students. They continuously look for opportunities for their own professional growth, and they support that in their colleagues"

    Vetere told Education World, Our teachers work hard when the public is watching and harder after their official day is over; and harder still into the private hours when they are at home with their families."

    Staff Flexibility,
    Adaptability Is Key

    Principal Joseph DAmato at Depew (New York) Middle School considers himself very fortunate to work with a staff that is able to adapt to change. Last fall, my assistant principal and I were both new to DMS," DAmato told Education World. We identified some issues and began changing a number of practices and procedures -- and the staff has embraced those changes without hesitation. They embrace our professional development too, and work hard to bring it into the classroom."

    DAmato said his custodial staff is second to none; they take pride in their work and make the old building shine. I have never needed to write a work order because our custodial staff is so proactive. If something needs to be done, all anyone has to do is mention it and it is done."

    In addition, the entire staff truly enjoys each others company, and they always pull together in times of need. Whether its a natural disaster, like hurricane Katrina, or the loss of a loved one among our faculty, the staff is right there to help. There is always an extra hand -- someone to cover classes, take up a collection, or provide a kind word."

    Like a family, we might not always agree but we are there for each other."

    Bonita Henderson echoes the sentiment that the staff at her school is the glue that holds it together. From the classroom teachers to our plant operator and instructor assistants, we all take responsibility for the education of our students. Everyone helps to steer our students on the path to responsibility."

    That sense of responsibility permeates Parham School in Cincinnati, where Henderson is an assistant principal. It permeates the classrooms and all other areas of the school too. In the cafeteria, for example, our plant operator does not hesitate to correct students, and some of our teachers eat with students and lend a hand to maintaining decorum."

    I could never see our school without the wonderful staff members we have."

    STRONG PROGRAMS, CURRICULUM MAKE STRONG SCHOOLS

    Special programs, whether school-wide or targeted at specific student populations, create learning opportunities for students and make great bragging points for many principals. Take, for example, the reading program at Oakleaf K-8 School in Middleburg, Florida. Our reading program is the best tool we have for building achievement," principal Larry Davis told Education World. Students accumulate points and earn rewards for their hard work as they use the Accelerated Reader (AR) program. School-wide use of AR and other computer programs, a book-of-the-month club, and other special opportunities linked to reading help ensure students skill growth.

    We have a reading coach, and a reading team that meets regularly to go over data and assist teachers," added Davis.

    In Manitoba (Canada), principal Phil Shaman credits his schools staffs for its commitment to the special programs at Neepawa Area Collegiate Institute. They are committed to the schools educational programs for students of all abilities -- from Advanced Placement to Life Skills and other support programs, and to its extra-curricular programs.

    We are the only school in the region to offer this array of programming," said Shaman.

    Shaman points with pride to the fact that of the 27 staff members, only four are not directly involved in some after-school activity and [the after-school efforts are] all voluntary. In some cases, staff members put in more than 100 hours of involvement after school."

    Those programs are responsible, in good part, for the schools high graduation rate and for the percent of students who move on to post-secondary education at a community college or university, added Shaman.

    At Jefferson Davis High School in Montgomery, Alabama, principal Marie Kostick credits the schools success on the best group of students and teachers in the area." Beyond that, the schools programs have received much glory. Davis High has been recognized for achievements in state sports championships and the Battle of the Bands competition. ROTC cadets at the school raised a chunk of money for the Toys for Teens campaign for needy teenagers. The school was selected to house the areas pilot Blue Cross/Blue Shield Blue Sky Program aimed at teaching professional ethics and preparing students for the business world. And students in the schools Portfolio Club, which is supported by a local businessman, contribute 10 percent of their profits to local charities.

    Teen Parent Program
    Keeps Teens in School

    In Houston, Texas, assistant principal Jesus Acosta credits the schools childcare (daycare and pre-K) facility for keeping kids from becoming dropout statistics. The facility was created when the community saw a need; many kids were dropping out because they could not afford the costs of daycare.

    While some critics might say that we are contributing to the teen pregnancy rate and taking away the teens responsibility by taking care of their kids for free, I can confidently tell them that many of our teen parents are really taking advantage of this opportunity to further their education and become productive members of society," Acosta, of Houstons George I. Sanchez Charter School, told Education World.

    The teen parents are not totally relieved of their responsibilities, he added. While the rest of the student body enjoys a lunch time free of any responsibilities, our teen parents must spend that time feeding and taking care of their children," he said.

    I believe having these teen parents on our campus is more of a deterrent to teen pregnancy because our other students get to see firsthand how those students have to struggle to take care of their children and get their education."

    It is a privilege for me to be a part of the Jefferson Davis High School community," Kostick told Education World. Our variety of academic and extra-curricular programs has helped us to increase enrollment quite a bit these last two years -- to the point where we had to hire additional teachers."

    The students and staff are helping to improve the public perception of the school, added Kostick. With recent demographic changes, misconceptions of our school arose, but I am now hearing more and more positive comments. I am hearing about parents who want to send their children to our school. We are making great strides in all areas of school life, including programs, and our community is taking note of our accomplishments."

    SO MANY THINGS THAT MAKE SCHOOLS GREAT

    All principals recognize that great schools comprise great kids and teachers, great climates, and great programs. But those things are not all it takes.

    In Kirbyville, Missouri, principal Addie Gaines could never see her school -- Kirbyville Elementary -- without its emphasis on technology integration. Every classroom in our building is fortunate to have a SMART Board and projector, a digital camera, and a scanner," said Gaines. In grades K-2, classrooms have computer mini-labs for student use. In third grade, we have a cart of laptop computers in each room -- one computer for every two students."

    Not only do we have this great equipment," added Gaines, its use is supported through ongoing teacher in-service that enables teachers to use the technology to enhance the instructional process and encourage inquiry-based learning."

    In addition to technology, many schools that focus on data analysis are seeing great benefits. Constant data analysis" is one of the things that make the Chicago International School so great, said Charlemeine Zemelko, the schools principal. As part of our data analysis, I speak to each student about his or her grades. Together we talk about where they need to make improvements and how they can get that done."

    This one really works," added Zemelko. Students know that I care, and it lets them take ownership of their learning."

    Hoover High School in North Canton, Ohio, has been around for a long time. Its AAA -- Academics, Athletics, and the Arts -- emphasis has helped the school garner a positive reputation in the community. Programs that reach all levels of students, and free tutoring and academic assistance for all, help enhance that reputation. Then there is the fact that the school has been around for such a long time: that means there are lots of great traditions at the school that help make it a special place to learn and work.

    Witness one tradition that took place recently: We had more than 150 World War II and Korean War vets in our building the day before Veterans Day," said Principal Tony Pallija. We had a program that included student speakers, and the vets received awards, ribbons, and certificates. Our 1,800 students watched live history right before their eyes."

    One vet said it was the first medal he had been given in 50 years," added Pallija.

    GREATNESS BEGINS WITH YOU!

    Those are just a handful of the comments that members of our Principal Files" team shared with us. What is it that makes your school great? Take time right now to share something great about your school. Click here to join the conversation!


    Principal" Contributors to This Article

    The following members of Education Worlds "Principal Files" team shared their thoughts for this article.
  • Jesus Acosta, assistant principal, George I. Sanchez Charter School, Houston, Texas
  • Joseph D'Amato, principal, Depew (New York) Middle School
  • Larry Davis, principal, OakLeaf K-8 School, Middleburg, Florida
  • Addie Gaines, principal, Kirbyville (Missouri) Elementary School
  • Dr. Lolli Haws, principal, Oakridge Elementary School, Arlington, Virginia
  • Bonita Henderson, assistant principal, Parham School, Cincinnati, Ohio
  • Nita H. High, principal, O.P. Earle Elementary School, Landrum, South Carolina
  • Marie Kostick, principal, Jefferson Davis High School, Montgomery, Alabama
  • Karen Mink, principal, O.C. Allen School, Aurora, Illinois
  • Tony Pallija, principal, North Canton Hoover High School, North Canton, Ohio
  • Dr. Les Potter, principal, Silver Sands Middle School, Port Orange, Florida
  • Carol Robertson, principal, Lewis Vincent Elementary School, Denham Springs, Louisiana
  • Phil Shaman, principal, Neepawa Area Collegiate Institute, Neepawa, Manitoba (Canada)
  • Rose Vetere, principal, Abbot Elementary School, Westford, Massachusetts
  • Charlemeine Zemelko, principal, Chicago (Illinois) International Charter School

    To explore other practical articles from the Principal Files series, go to our Principal Files archive.

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