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The Best Thing About This Year


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So what was the best thing to happen in your school this past school year? Our Principal Files principals shared how working together really works; how the arts can make a huge impact on a school; how individual students can serve as powerful reminders of why we teach; and much more.

As a new school year is about to begin, we decided to give our Principal Files team one last opportunity to reflect on the school year behind them. What was the best thing that happened in your school last year? is the question we posed. Was the highlight of the year a special event? a new program? a school-wide effort that paid off? a special recognition for a staff member or the school? a kid who made great strides?

For members of our Principal Files team, it was all those things -- and more.

WORKING TOGETHER TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE

Many principals felt that the most special thing about the year past was the way people came together to accomplish a goal.

Thats what stands out in principal Layne Hunts mind. As a team, we began to recognize that we are going to have to do things differently if we want to improve, said Hunt, who is principal at Ypsilanti (Michigan) High School. While we all recognized that data is the driving force for identifying where the strengths, weaknesses, and gaps exist, we also know that the essential element for change is the implementation of the plan conceived by using that data.

That clarity -- that collective realization that we cannot do things the way we have always done them -- was the one of the highlights of the year for Hunt. Even more important than the way the team used the data to plan strategies for success for all students, Hunt praised his staff for their courageous implementation of the plan.

Working Together
To Improve Test Scores

After six years at the helm of Jackson (Georgia) High School, principal Duane Kline saw things come together this past year in a big way. Seeing the school make AYP was a huge deal for my staff and me, said Kline. The staff also helped make school history by leading students to the best testing performance on our state graduation tests. And we had the biggest and most complete graduating class in our school history too.

To reward the students for their hard work, the school rented three charter busses to take students who passed all parts of the graduation test to a theme park about 3 hours away. What a great time we had! added Kline.

At S&S Middle School in Sadler, Texas, the team that principal Lee Yeager leads made good progress by working together to accomplish campus goals. The result was a significant increase on our state accountability tests, said Yeager with pride.

I know that much of the country is fed up the accountability aspects of NCLB, added Yeager, but here in Texas we have dealt with this for over 20 years. It is just the way it is.

And, as the results show, that emphasis on setting and achieving school-wide goals continues to improve student achievement.
 

For Ernest Elliott, principal at Mountain Home (Idaho) Junior High School, the highlight of the past school year was a professional development day held at the end of the year. The goal of that meeting was to look ahead and plan for a much better year in the coming year. And Elliott is very pleased with the way his staff unified with an eye toward improving the school. He was impressed by their willingness to examine and reflect on some of the low points from the past year and use them to construct a plan that will address those issues and make the school a better place to work and learn.

At that end-of-year meeting, each staff member assigned him/herself to one of a number of committees. Committees included School Pride; Professional Development; Quiet Room; Dress Code/School Uniforms; Sunshine; Building Safety; Student Discipline; AYP Progress; and The First Ten Days of School.

Each committee worked very hard throughout the day to brainstorm and make group decisions that would become staff recommendations for how we would start and then sustain a new yearlong effort, explained Elliott.

Last year was a frustrating one for many of the veteran educators on the Mountain Home staff, and much of the discussion that day centered around expected outcomes and consequences for students. As the staff worked together, many of the committees began to see the value of rewards and incentives for students who were not the frequent fliers [discipline problems] in our building, said Elliott. The resulting plan is much more focused on positive reinforcement than on negative consequences, and the hope is that the focus on the positive will serve as a model and motivation for all students.

Elliott was especially pleased with the work that came out of The First Ten Days of School committee. They recognized that we have to capture the attention of students at the start of the year. They understood the importance of teaching students what we expect of them during those first ten days -- and then re-teaching, re-teaching, re-teaching. They recognized that all of us need to preach the same ideals and then support the rules in the same manner.

Now that the staff is all on the same page when it comes to turning things around, we are all looking forward to how this will change much of what goes on in school, said Elliott.

End-of-the-school-year events were also the high point of the year for principal Vickie Luchuck. Those events were the three grade-level awards assemblies at her school, South Harrison Middle School in Lost Creek, West Virginia.

Our seventh-grade class is the largest ever in the school, and it has been a very trying year for the teachers. Classes of 35 or more students and issues of student apathy, behavior, and attitude had made the year a rough one, explained Luchuck.

When plans were finalized for the assemblies just a couple of weeks before they would take place, one seventh-grade teacher approached Luchuck to tell her the team members had decided they didn't have enough time or energy to do an assembly it was just too much to ask them to do.

I certainly understood the concern about time, and I could easily see the fatigue and end-of-the-year exhaustion of my teachers, Luchuck told EducationWorld. I hated asking them to do one more thing, but I told them we needed to have an assembly to recognize students for their accomplishments and it would be fine if it was a simple event.

And, as they always do, the teachers came through -- and they went way above and beyond my expectations.

On the day of the assembly, each seventh grade teacher wore school colors, complete with brand new polo shirts, said Luchuck. They prepared a beautiful full-color program for students and parents, and they had some very special, very thoughtful awards to present.

It was quite evident that the teachers put a lot of thought and time into their choices.

And the students rose to the occasion too.

I was amazed at the students demeanor as they arrived. They seemed to have matured overnight, said Luchuck. As I approached the podium to give a little talk, the room became so quiet you could hear the noise my papers made as I placed them on the podium. I pitched out my little prepared speech and instead told the kids how very impressed I was with them at that moment, and that they amazed me with their manners and maturity.

At the end of the assembly, the teachers presented a photo slideshow of all the students involved in activities throughout the year. Of course many of those photos included the teachers and every time one of those teacher photos popped up the kids clapped and cheered like crazy.

The idea of the program itself may not have been super-extraordinary, but it certainly was a capstone for this particular group of students and these hard-working teachers, added Luchuck. It made my day but, much more importantly, it made the kids' day and the teacher's day... perhaps their year!

A Year of
High Points

Marguerite McNeely, principal at Hayden Lawrence Middle School in Deville, Louisiana, found it difficult to pick out one best event in a year that included highlights such as

A very challenging student accomplished many mile markers this year. He has had his share of discipline problems in the past, but this year I did not see him in the office except to brag on his accomplishments in the classroom and his ability to get along with his peers. He has been faced with many difficulties, and this year he has gotten his priorities in the correct order.

Our secretary was named Outstanding Support Employee for our school district, which is a true honor in a district with 52 schools. She is such an asset. She always has a smile and kind word for each child, parent, and coworker. She is a sincere advocate for our school.

We completed a walking trail at our school that will help improve the physical fitness of our students and others in the community. It was a joint effort among many businesses and our school system.

Ninety-six percent of our students passed to the next grade level.

But the best thing was the day a young lady hugged me and told me how much she loved our school. It was her first year in our school and she had difficulty adjusting at the start, but in the end she was part of the family. She shared that no other school she had attended ever took such an interest in her and her education. Because we cared and pushed her to succeed, she had accomplished many goals.
 

For Brian Hazeltine, the past year brought mixed emotions. It was the 20th anniversary year of his school, Airdrie Koinonia Christian School in Airdrie, Alberta (Canada). It also happened to be his 20th -- and last -- year as its principal. So the schools big 20th Anniversary Celebration had the added dimension of being a farewell to the principal who had led it for that entire time.

It was wonderful to hear all the stories of people who have been positively impacted by the school over the years, Hazeltine reflected. Former and current students, parents, teachers, and board members shared great memories and words of appreciation in person or by video.

The event was a reminder to Hazeltine that educators do make a difference and schools can have a profound impact on young people and their families. Every now and then it's good to stop and celebrate that, added Hazeltine.

THE ARTS MAKE A DIFFERENCE TOO

All educators know in their hearts how vitally important the arts are to students and the curriculum. The arts can be used to reinforce basic skills as they help develop skills of discipline and focus. And the arts can often motivate otherwise unmotivated students as they help build a school culture that is vibrant, interesting, and motivating.

So it is not surprising that a few of EducationWorlds P-Files team members saw arts-related events as the highlights of the school year.

ONeill Ankle is principal at Green Park Primary and Junior High School in Clarendon, Jamaica (West Indies). This year was an especially exciting one there because the Green Park Steppers marching band made its debut.

The concept for the band was born out of a need to attract our boys who were performing academically below standard, Ankle explained. We started planning for the band more than a year in advance. It finally became a reality in October of the past school year, and the students have taken on the challenge with tenacity of purpose.

Funds to get the band off the ground were provided by a ROSE 2 (Reform of Secondary Education) grant from the Ministry of Education. The band comprises more than 30 students drawn mostly from seventh graders in the grade 1-9 school. The plan is to grow the number of band members in the years ahead.

Even though many of these boys are struggling academically, they are able to read musical notes well and can play a piece of music that will give you goose bumps, said Ankle. Now that we have gotten our marching band off the ground, students are playing sweet music all over the school and the community.

LaKeldra N. Pride, principal at Green Hill Elementary School in Sardis, Mississippi, is another firm believer in the value of the arts. A play performed the day before school let out was the first thing to pop into her mind when asked to come up with a highlight of the year.

Our school counselor, Victor Henson, writes and directs plays at a local playhouse and directs our Drama Club, which was just organized this past year, Pride told EducationWorld. Henson led the Drama Club in two performances of Cinderella, and it was absolutely wonderful! We saw talent unveiled beyond belief. Students poured their hearts into the performance, which was enjoyed by teachers, students, and parents. Our secretary created colorful invitations, which brought out a school board member, our assistant superintendent -- who was in tears, and others.

What really stands out, though, is that we could actually see and feel the boost in our students self-esteem. We are a rural school in a low-income area, and this play served as a powerful reminder to us to never underestimate our childrens potential.

Good Citizenship
Is Rewarded

For Marcia Wright, principal at Clinton (Michigan) Elementary School, the best thing that happened this past school year was a character education program. It has really made a difference in student behavior overall, said Wright.

The starting point for the program were the resources of Project Wisdom. A Project Wisdom binder holds a script that is read during the schools morning announcements. Many teachers use the scripts as prompts for journaling or writing, explained Wright. We also identified one attribute per month to be our focus. [The monthly attributes were responsibility, self-discipline, compassion, trustworthiness, integrity, honesty, fairness, citizenship, respect, and perseverance.] At the end of the month, teachers nominated one child who demonstrated that trait. The 18 students in grades 1 to 5 -- and their parents and our local newspaper -- were present at the award presentations. The school counselor and I shared the text the teacher wrote while the student stood in front of the audience.

Other recognitions for the monthly honorees included gift certificates to a local restaurant and posting of their pictures by our character tree.

Over the course of the year, about 35 percent of our students earned this award, added Wright. We believe it is important to focus on the good things we see in students, not just the easy to criticize issues.
 

At Parham School in Cincinnati, assistant principal Bonita Henderson points with pride to a special after-school program at the school that instructs students in ballet, ballroom, and African dancing.

The program comes to the school through FamiliesForward, a United Way organization. FamiliesForward enlisted special instructors to work with K-8 students in the program.

Its a treat to see students dancing their chosen dances, especially the samba, mambo, or cha-cha, said Henderson. The kids want to be in these courses after school, and they love to dress up and show what they know.

In addition, students took their performances to a local nursing home, where they danced with the homes residents -- even the residents in wheelchairs.

The students are so proficient that they often perform for the public, added Henderson. And those performances are awesome!

SPECIAL RECOGNITIONS CAN MAKE THE YEAR

Sometimes, it is the unexpected honors that can make the year. While those honors might come out of the blue, they are almost always the result of hard work on the part of many people.

For Lolli Haws, principal at Oakridge Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia, being named a Distinguished Title I School by the state was a huge honor. The title is bestowed for three years of excellent achievement and making AYP. We were surprised and proud, said Haws of the recognition.

Silver Sands Middle School in Port Orange, Florida, was selected as one of three schools in the state to attend to an innovation conference in Orlando. Our innovation was our school reform process, explained principal Les Potter. We use a collaborative model that involves all staff and parents. By using this collaborative model and getting input from all concerned, we have been able to reduce discipline referrals by half in a two-year period, and we have made academic improvements as well.

We were the only middle school to be selected as a model to help a middle school in another district. That school received $40,000 from the state to implement the program and we were awarded $10,000 to help with that task.

For Jack Noles, principal at Shallowater (Texas) Intermediate School, the high point of the year came in the last week of the school year. In our first year of having a Community Problem Solving team (part of the Future Problem Solving Program International competition), we not only garnered first place in our division and second overall in the state, we were invited to the International conference and competition in Fort Collins, Colorado, to see how we could do against the rest of the U.S. and world.

While it was the first trip of this sort for Shallowaters 4th and 5th graders, and no one really knew what to expect, the schools team, under the guidance of coach Stephanie Keeney, enjoyed an exciting few days that culminated in being named to another divisional first place and as runner-up to the International Grand Champion from New Zealand.

As a bonus, Noles said, our team beat the team that beat us in the state competition.

Not only did the team make a good showing, they gained great experience and proved what Noles has always believed: Our kids are among the best in the world.

My staff continues to prove that mine is the easiest job in the building, added Noles. All I have to do is ask that they excel in everything they do, and they consistently come through.

MAKING A DIFFERENCE ONE STUDENT AT A TIME

Sometimes its the big events that make headlines. Sometimes it's the huge honors that stand out. Other times, its the stories that dont get headlines or awards that will live in our memories and serve as constant reminders of why we do what we do.

That is the case with a handful of our principals recollections of the year just passed. Each of them recalls a child who touched them in a powerful way.

Teachers as Heroes

When Lolli Haws was asked to consider a highlight from the past year, she thought of a little girl from a limited-income home. The girl never spoke in school during pre-school, kindergarten, or the start of first grade. But, said Haws, thanks to some remarkable teachers who were persistent, made numerous home visits, and spent hours of their own time contacting agencies in search of resources, the girl was able to get in-home counseling for selective mutism.

She is now talking in school to teachers and classmates, she is reading, and she is receiving all the important support she needs, added Haws. This little girl found those special teachers who would champion her cause and help her get on the road to promise and happiness both in school and at home.

The teachers who would not give up and would not be deterred by the dozens of roadblocks put in their way are my heroes, added Haws.
 

Kathy Crowley found it difficult to choose from among many highlights of the past year at Ponderosa Elementary School in Meridian, Idaho. Finally, she settled on the monthly Spirit Assemblies held at her school. At those assemblies many students are recognized for academic achievements as well as their exceptionally fast speed jumping, artistic talents, miles walked or run on our the track, citizenship, birthdays, and much more.

Each of those assemblies includes wonderful moments, recalled Crowley. Perhaps one of the most special moments happened at an assembly where a second-grade girl sat on stage in front the student body as her long hair was cut for the charity Locks of Love.

The other students were in awe and remained completely and spontaneously silent as her hair was braided and cut by a stylist, Crowley said.

That little girl set a wonderful example, added Crowley. Other students have since told me that they too will give their hair to Locks for Love.

David Smith is principal at McMillan Elementary School in Murray, Utah. He recalled working with his special education team to develop a plan for one particular student who was having a lot of difficulty reading.

As we talked with the parents, it quickly became apparent that a significant part of the difficulty was motivation, Smith recalled. This boy was just not motivated to read in class or fulfill reading assignments out of class.

In that meeting, Smith asked some questions about the boys interests. The parents got pretty animated about all the things he got excited about. Anything to do with science, in particular, really turned him on.

I talked with the parents about letting him read what he wanted to, Smith continued. We talked about letting him read non-fiction, comic books, whatever, as long as he made the choice and he was excited about it. I told the parents that they might even look into science fiction. I talked about my favorite sci-fi series, Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game and its sequels, and they said they'd give it a try.

Then Smith didn't hear anything more from either the boy or his parents until the last day of school when the boy walked into his office, handed him a little gift, and said, Thanks for telling me about Ender's Game. It is my favorite book. Now I'm ready to read all the others in the series.

This young man had previously been reading about 1- grade levels low, and now he was reading and loving Ender's Game, which is written well above his grade level.

After he left I got a little lump in my throat. I felt grateful for parents who listened and for how the advice given had worked. That felt great!

For principal Addie Gaines, the idea of making a difference is her daily motivation. It is what makes my job worthwhile, Gaines told Education World. It is that motivation that makes Gaines a regular presence in the classrooms of Kirbyville (Missouri) Elementary School. And it is there, in one of those classrooms, that Gaines heard a little girl with an expressive voice reading Froggy's First Kiss to no one in particular.

When she noticed I was listening, she stopped, but I said, "Oh, keep reading! I want to listen to you. That is why I sat here." And the little, expressive voice continued reading, occasionally slowing to figure out a word but reading mostly with confidence and enjoyment. When she finished, I told her that I was so impressed about how much she had grown as a reader. I recalled when she used to barely be able to read little three-letter words, and now she could read a whole story with such expression that it was fun to listen to her. She beamed and appeared to feel really good about herself as a reader.

If the story ended there, it would be a pretty good story, but, as Gaines tells it, the story gets better.

Several days later, the little, expressive voice was translated into written communication in the form of a valentine card -- first-grade spelling and all -- that thanked me for listening to her read and for saying that she reads better.

That child probably doesn't even realize the value of the gift she gave back to me that day. Educators don't often get the opportunity to really see the impact of some of the little things we do. Moments like that remind us of our significance and provide encouragement to keep doing those little things -- both intentionally and serendipitously -- because they do matter, even when we don't see their effect.

Principal Contributors to This Article

The following members of Education Worlds Principal Files team shared their thoughts about the best thing that happened to them in the school year just passed.
  • O'Neil Ankle, principal, Green Park Primary and Junior High School, Clarendon, Jamaica, West Indies
  • Kathy Crowley, principal, Ponderosa Elementary School, Merdian, Idaho
  • Ernest Elliott, principal, Mountain Home (Idaho) Junior High School
  • Addie Gaines, principal, Kirbyville (Missouri) Elementary School
  • Dr. Lolli Haws, principal, Oakridge Elementary School, Arlington, Virginia
  • Brian Hazeltine, principal, Airdrie Koinonia Christian School, Airdrie, Alberta (Canada)
  • Bonita Henderson, assistant principal, Parham School, Cincinnati, Ohio
  • Dr. Layne B Hunt, principal, Ypsilanti (Michigan) High School
  • Duane A. Kline, principal, Jackson (Georgia) High School
  • Vickie Luchuck, assistant principal, South Harrison Middle School, Lost Creek, West Virginia
  • Marguerite McNeely, principal, Hayden R. Lawrence Middle School, Deville, Louisiana
  • Jack Noles, principal, Shallowater (Texas) Intermediate School
  • Dr. Les Potter, principal, Silver Sands Middle School, Port Orange, Florida
  • La'Keldra N. Pride, principal, Green Hill Elementary School, Sardis, Mississippi
  • David A. Smith, principal, McMillan Elementary School, Murray, Utah
  • Marcia Wright, principal, Clinton (Michigan) Elementary School
  • Dr. Lee Yeager, principal, S & S Middle School, Sadler, Texas


To explore other practical articles from the Principal Files series, go to our Principal Files Archive.
Click here to learn how you might contribute to a future "Principal Files" article.
 

 

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