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Principal Unites School Around Student Strengths


When changes hit Khowhemun Elementary School in British Columbia, staff members and the community initially found it hard to adjust. Principal Charlie Coleman, who received ASCD's Outstanding Young Educator award, helped give the school focus and unified the staff. Included: Strategies for revitalizing a struggling school.

When Charles Coleman took over as principal of Khowhemun Elementary School in Duncan, British Columbia, Canada, in 2002, the school, as he put it, "had just gone through some tough times."

A long-time principal had to leave to deal with cancer, Coleman said. The school population and grade structure had shifted from a small primary school in a professional neighborhood to a large K-6 school in a diverse community, where families faced more challenges. The new students included more urban and First Nations' (also known as aboriginal) students.

ASCD's 2005 Outstanding Young Educator, principal Charlie Coleman, with two of his students at Khowhemun Elementary School.
(Photo by Fuzzy)

"The combination of growth and change had taken their toll on the staff and parents," Coleman told Education World.

Yet despite all that turmoil, after just four years as principal, Coleman saw scores on the British Columbia Performance Standards increase from 66 percent of students meeting or exceeding expectations in reading and 65 percent meeting or exceeding expectations in mathematics to 83 percent in reading and 88 percent in math.

Fourth graders also showed gains on the Foundation Skills Assessment, a provincial test, improving from 67 percent meeting expectations in reading and 66 percent in math, to 72 percent in reading and 73 percent in math in 2005.

Those accomplishments, plus high praise from colleagues, helped to earn Coleman the Association for School Curriculum Development (ASCD) Outstanding Young Educator Award.

Coleman's success at Khowhemun was due in part to retooling strategies to meet the needs of more students, building on student strengths, and assembling a strong team of educators in the school. Among Khowhemun offerings are early literacy intervention, gifted and fine arts, and First Nations culture and language programs.

For the past nine years, he also has worked with more than 3,000 educators from across Canada, in the areas of effective behavior support and positive school climate. Coleman also is part of a long-term, multi-school consulting position with school districts in Manitoba and Nova Scotia.

"I love it when students come into my office and read to me at a level at which they had never read before."

Coleman talked with Education World about his strategies and approaches at Khowhemun, and his goals as an educator.

Education World: Why did you want to be principal of the Khowhemun School?

Charlie Coleman: I believed I could make more of a difference for more kids in that role than I did as a classroom teacher. Fortunately, the folks at the school board office matched me up with Khowhemun. As it turned out, it was a perfect fit: my strengths with the school's challenges.

My focus is on relationships. As a Servant Leader, I look for ways to help others and to find solutions to problems. I think a strength of mine is to make people feel good about who they are and what they do. This school needed that focus. In addition, we made curriculum and results-based improvement our focus. This took the attention away from all the old problems and excuses. It gave everyone something positive to work on together.

We've built a strong team.

EW: What are your goals as an educator?

Coleman: My mission is clear: to help others make school a safe, positive place to work and learn. I do that through Servant Leadership. It is my goal to serve the needs of the school community so that we are making a measurable difference for kids.

EW: How do you employ Servant Leadership?

Coleman: For me, Servant Leadership means finding ways to serve the needs of the school community. It's about me serving them, rather than them serve me. It's about creating a climate that reflects the moral purpose of a public school where each child, regardless of background, is entitled to a quality education in a respectful environment.

EW: What are some of the unique challenges of overseeing a school with a large First Nations' enrollment?

Coleman: If you walk into our school you would not notice the large groups of First Nations' students (one-third of the population) or inner-city kids (also one-third of the population), because we work hard to make the school feel friendly and welcoming. Having said that, there are definitely some challenges and some unique opportunities that come with having a large aboriginal student population.

Many of those kids come from homes that have low incomes and low education levels. In addition, the First Nations' community still struggles with the aftermath of the Residential Schools Experience, when whole generations of children were taken away from their homes and their culture [to live in boarding schools, where they were taught English and pressured to give up their native culture.] The result of the hurt from that period is a cycle of fear, mistrust, and substance abuse. That's not the case in all families, but it is reality for many.

For the aboriginal students, our focus on multiple intelligences has helped us to honor musical, kinesthetic, oral, and visual abilities. Our First Nations have a rich cultural history that is not always obvious with "paper and pencil" learning.

EW: What were some of the key strategies you used to improve student performance at Khowhemun?

"The most challenging thing is to keep the momentum and positive focus going when outside pressures come at us."

Coleman: We changed our focus from a needs-based approach to a strengths-based approach. At every staff meeting we start with the agenda item "Kids First." I use that time to tell good news about individual students or accomplishments of a whole class. This positive energy is contagious, and now staff members are eager to share their own good news at the start every staff meeting. In addition, whenever we meet as a school-based team or to do an IEP for an individual student, we start with the students' strengths. Then we look for strategies to help the student use these strengths to solve some of the problems he or she faces.

[Before], we focused on results, not intentions. Four years ago, we took a close look at the current reality and asked if it was good enough. The school had been at the "70-percent mark" for many years. By that I mean that, regardless of the year, the cohort, or the funding levels, there were consistently 70 percent of kids meeting expectations year-over-year. We had to ask ourselves, "Is it okay to consistently have 30 percent of kids below expectations?" The answer was clearly "No!" Then we had to do something about it.

We had a focus on some clear academic targets and we changed our teaching practice to reach more kids, and targeted services to those who we were not yet reaching the targets.

Many of the strategies we borrowed from folks like Rick DuFour, Dr. Michael Schmoker, Robert Marzano, and Michael Fullan. We became a truly collaborative learning community.

We made structural and instructional changes. The structural changes included

  • switching lunch so the kids now play first and then eat. They burn off energy, and then eat more while calming down before afternoon classes.
  • moving recess to the afternoon, so that the whole morning was dedicated to uninterrupted academic time.
  • changing our learning assistance from a one-on-one pull-out model for special needs children only, to a much more coordinated schedule where every student gets small-group, intensive, reading instruction four days per week all year. We also advocated for extra staffing to support this model.
  • revamping our behavior and discipline programs to a pro-active, prevention model where we "catch kids being good" more and issue consequences or punishment less.

The instructional changes included

  • teaching social skills as part of our pro-active behavior and discipline model.
  • increasing our use of BC Performance Standards to inform our teaching and assessment.
  • increasing collaboration time where staff could work together on in-service and staff development, especially in learning new strategies for teaching reading and math.
  • integrating First Nations' language and culture into more of our curriculum.

EW: What do you find most rewarding about your job? Most challenging?

Coleman: It's a little bit of a cliche, but the most rewarding thing is to see that we make a difference for kids. I love it when students come into my office and read to me at a level at which they had never read before. I also love to see the excitement when staff members share success stories about kids learning. The most challenging thing is to keep the momentum and positive focus going when outside pressures come at us. Usually that comes in the form of political and financial pressures, over which we have little direct control.

EW: What makes a good day for you?

Coleman: Hugs and high fives from happy kids tops the list. A very close second is a happy, professionally satisfied staff who know that their hard work is making a difference. A good day for me is being able to drive home to my family knowing that I what I did mattered to kids and teachers.

This e-interview with Charles Coleman is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
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