How I Lead

This rural Colorado principal discovered that the ‘principal’s office’ can be an intimidating place. So she adapted.

Lana Gardner, principal of Las Animas Elementary School, with two students.

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Lana Gardner, principal of Las Animas Elementary School in southeastern Colorado, noticed something fishy when she arrived for a scheduled teacher observation early in her career. The teacher had dressed up, the classroom was more organized than usual and the students’ answers sounded rehearsed.

The experience helped Gardner evolve into a different kind of boss — one who favored informal observations and casual conversations with her teachers.

Gardner is one of five principals and assistant principals who participated in the 2016-17 Colorado Educator Voice Fellowship, an initiative of the national nonprofit America Achieves. The program aims to get educators involved in policy conversations and decisions.

Gardner talked to Chalkbeat about how she uses photography to connect with families, why she helps out in the lunchroom and how she realized the main office isn’t always the best place for parent meetings. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?
My first education job was as a student math tutor in the Math Lab at University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. As a naturally strong math student, I enjoyed helping friends and not only complete problems and assignments, but truly understand the beauty behind mathematics!

Fill in the blank. My day at school isn’t complete unless I _________. Why?
Take pictures. Capturing life through photos is very important to me. Many of my students rarely have photos taken by their family or friends with a real camera. I take pictures of students and teachers working, playing and learning. I share these photos with our community via our local paper, Facebook and hard copies mailed to the students’ and staff’s homes with a personal note.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?
As a principal in my small, rural hometown, I have the incredible advantage of knowing many of my students and their families both in and out of the school setting. That said, I employ many tactics at school to get to know students. When a student is referred to the office for an undesirable behavior, I utilize our “Positive Behavior Intervention and Support” matrix and strategies to re-teach appropriate behavior and try to determine the motivating factors.

I spend time with students taking a walk around the block, working on a puzzle or coloring motivational pictures when they need a little positive adult interaction. Our entire school staff sends postcards to individual students on at least a monthly basis. Additionally, as part of my weekly classroom observations, I talk with at least one student per classroom about their learning objective and how it pertains to their life or might be important to them.

I participate in a least half of all meetings to discuss individualized education programs, advanced learning plans or 504 plans (an educational plan that gives students with disabilities individualized help), and make positive and challenging phone calls home with students. Several times per week, I support staff and students by playing and supervising at recess and in the lunchroom for breakfast or lunch. All of these strategies allow me to discover students’ likes and dislikes, and make personal connections to build upon.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse.
Early in my career as a principal, I visited a classroom for a planned formal observation. Everything seemed very rehearsed, from the prepped sticky notes and pencils to the students’ answers to questions. The teacher was dressed more neatly than typical and the classroom was certainly more organized. This experience was certainly part of my evolution and growth in my evaluation process to much more frequent, informal observations and reflection conversations.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?

Several years ago, I was introduced to the organization Destination Imagination (a program that teaches 21st century skills and STEM principles). For the past three years, our school has sponsored teams and each year the number of students and sponsors has increased! Destination Imagination gives our students an opportunity to collaborate, problem-solve, create and perform with only their own imaginations as limits.

In addition, for several years I have struggled to implement a system to encourage teachers to participate in peer observations and reflections. This school year, I began inviting two teachers at a time to participate in classroom observation “data walks.” These observations have been incredibly well-received by staff and the feedback has been invaluable to me and other teachers.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?
Our school believes strongly in the philosophy of PBIS – Positive Behavior Intervention and Support. I handle discipline by trying to determine the root cause of the behavior. We re-teach desired behaviors, encourage our apology process, deliver an appropriate consequence depending on the kid and the infraction and finish every interaction on a positive note. When appropriate, I connect with the student’s parent.

What is the hardest part of your job?
Time management! All too often, I get to the end of the day and know that I have been busy all day, but wonder what I have accomplished. Recently, I have started keeping a daily journal/log to reflect on how I spent my time. This strategy encourages me to be more mindful and purposeful.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
One day, I was taking a walk around the block with a student as I waited for a different student’s grandparents to arrive to discuss their dissatisfaction with my handling of an issue with their grandson (of whom they have custody). The grandparents arrived early, so I sent the walker back in and I stayed outside visiting with the grandparents outside so their younger children could play in the lawn. The grandparents were much calmer and less hostile that I anticipated. This interaction made me realize that no matter how much I try to make the school office a non-threatening and welcoming environment, some people will still feel that the “office” is a negative place to be. Since then, I make an effort to consider the environment when meeting with people.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
My favorite advice came in an excerpt from Mother Teresa’s “Do Good Anyway”: “Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.” Some days, it feels as though the odds are stacked against so many of my students and our school will never be able to provide everything our community needs. I strive to remember that many days I will fall short; but in the final analysis on my life, I will reflect back and take comfort in know that I gave my best every day.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?
The negative factor (the amount of money withheld from Colorado schools to help balance the state budget) continues to have a major impact on our school district. This ongoing decrease in funding has greatly limited our ability to provide kids with developmental opportunities that they deserve such as exposure to the arts and music. Currently, I am trying to develop a schedule with community members to provide “specials” on a rotating, limited basis. Additionally, I strive to be creative with incentives for staff members that go above and beyond the school district’s expectations.

How I Lead

This Memphis principal says supporting teachers and parents helped pull her school out of the bottom 10 percent

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Principal Yolanda Dandridge has led Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary for the last two years, and was previously the academic dean.

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Principal Yolanda Dandridge walks almost 14,000 steps a day — double the national average.

It takes a lot of walking to manage two schools. Dandridge has led Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary for the last two years and was previously the academic dean. She temporarily took over Frayser Achievement Elementary when the schools had to share space this year because of maintenance issues at Georgian Hill’s original building.

“I am constantly on the move,” Dandridge said. “How else can you keep up with elementary students?”

Both schools are part of the Achievement School District, which is charged with turning around the state’s lowest-performing schools but has struggled to accomplish the task.

This year, Georgian Hills not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom 10 percent. In 2016, before Dandridge took charge, Georgian Hills was in the worst 2 percent of schools.

Dandridge was honored by the achievement district for her work.

“She is a real standout among our principals of someone who understands what it takes to turn things around,” said interim achievement district leader Kathleen Airhart.

Dandridge talked to Chalkbeat about how she gets to know her students, her efforts to motivate teachers, and why school buildings are important.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Dandridge walks almost 14,000 steps a day — double the national average.

I tell my teachers to always stay focused on the “why” behind their careers. For me, my “why” was the fact that my little brother got all the way through elementary school without learning to read. He wasn’t able to read until the fifth grade. He came from a family of educators, and he still slipped through the cracks. If that could happen to him, it could happen to so many kids.

I started teaching in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, and I taught in that state for more than a decade. I came to Memphis as a teacher, I was asked later to consider taking on the principal role at Georgian Hills. I said, “You want me to do what?” Now, I’m grateful for all those years in the classroom and as an academic dean to prepare me for this role.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?

Any chance to get into the classroom, I will. If a substitute teacher doesn’t come, which does happen sometimes, I will teach the students in that classroom for a day. I love getting to know students by helping out in the classroom.

I am also constantly walking the hallways of both schools. That’s how I start the morning — I greet students and their parents by name when they walk into the school. I walk students to their classrooms. I’m constantly monitoring the hallways.

When a new student registers for classes, the first thing the office staff knows to do is call me down so I can meet them.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?

I really prefer to always consider the experiences that a child may have had prior to entering our building.  When you approach discipline with a keen awareness of the types of situations a child might have or experience, it really makes you a better educator.  And you understand that the best thing for us to do is to ensure that students know and understand that we have their best interests in mind. When children connect with you and other teachers in this way, discipline is less challenging.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?

I’m very proud of what we’ve done at Georgian Hills and now at Frayser to really focus on our teachers.

Every Wednesday after school, we’ll have a period of professional development. I try to be attentive to what my teachers tell me they want to learn more about. There is a lot of coordination on lesson plans in particular. Teachers work together on their lesson planning, and I also will personally give feedback on a teahers’ lesson plans. My biggest, driving question is “What do my teachers need most?” They don’t need to be spending hours everyday lesson planning when they can collaborate. We can help there.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?

Evaluating teachers has always provided me with the opportunity to hear and see the creativity and passion that our teachers bring to the classroom.  My thought on evaluations is to take the anxiety out of it and ensure that teachers are comfortable and understand that the overall process is about improving their skills and enhancing the tools in their toolbox.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
This year, Georgian Hills not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom 10 percent of schools in Tennessee.

When I was early in my teaching career in Mississippi, I had a student with a single mom. Her mom was an amazing support system for me and my classroom. She was always wanting to volunteer at the school. But she struggled to provide basic needs for her daughter — she was struggling to get a job. But she was trying so hard. There’s a stigma of parents, especially in low-income communities, not participating or caring about their child’s education. This mom was giving her all, and it changed my view of parental support. The school needed to find ways to also support her.

And so as a principal, I’m always thinking about how I can support my parents and invite them into the school. So that they feel welcome and wanted, and also so they are encouraged in their own role in their child’s education. We hold math and science nights, where parents learn how to do math games or science experiments at home with their kids. We provide them with materials and knowledge so that they can provide enrichment in their own home.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?

We, like many schools in Memphis, don’t have the facilities we need for our students. Georgian Hills had to vacate our school building due to an issue with the roof. That created a hard environment for this school year — moving to a new building where we share space, and then me taking on that school as its school leader when the principal left. Honestly, I thought this year could break me as a school leader. But it didn’t, and it didn’t break our school either. We had a culture in place where our teachers felt supported among the chaos of the start of the year. After a year of repairs, we’re planning on moving back to our original building this fall.

But the issue here is that we don’t have the school buildings we need. Schools should be palaces in a community.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

You have to mobilize people’s efforts to “win.” The first secret to this is to love your people. They are here for a purpose and you have to help them understand the higher purpose that they are here to serve.  You have to have the right people in place, be responsible for developing them, and have the courage to let them go when student’s needs aren’t being met. Finally, transparency rules.

How I Lead

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

PHOTO: Hill Street Studios | Getty Images
Happy birthday sign and balloons on school locker

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Can you imagine marking the birthdays of more than 2,000 people?

Probably not, but Sharee Blunt, the principal of Northglenn High School, can. With the help of a massive spreadsheet and a talented office manager, she hand-delivers a birthday card to every student and staff member in her suburban Denver school.

Blunt talked to Chalkbeat about how recognizing birthdays helps her get to know students, what a mother’s emotional reaction made her realize, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry.

Blunt was recently named the 2018 High School Principal of the Year for Colorado by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?

My first job was at Shaw Heights Middle School in Westminster teaching physical education and health. I have always had a strong desire to work with young adults and inspire them to reach goals through education. My parents always stressed the importance of a good education and how that can positively impact a person’s life, and I wanted to share that same philosophy with others.

Fill in the blank. My day at school isn’t complete unless I __________. Why?

My day at school is not complete unless I get the opportunity to connect with at least one student, one teacher, and one parent. I believe it is our social responsibility to help positively impact at least one person’s life each day.

PHOTO: courtesy of Sharee Blunt
Principal Sharee Blunt, with students at Northglenn High School.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?

I get to know students by showing them that I genuinely care about them. Every morning I try to start my day by being out in the hallways and telling them good morning and to have a great day. I make every attempt to support our students at extracurricular activities such as concerts, sporting events, and banquets. I look for opportunities to bring the student voice into building decisions through the principal’s advisory committee that I established when I became principal.

I also love celebrating birthdays so I hand-deliver a birthday card to each of our students and staff members on their birthdays. I have a lot of help organizing this with my office manager, of course.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?

Recently I was in a teacher’s classroom for a formal observation on a Friday afternoon right before spring break. I had thought about postponing the observation because I anticipated the students would be restless, but I also wanted to honor the teacher’s intentional and thoughtful planning for the evaluation. The lesson did not go as the teacher had planned and I felt her stress and frustration quickly. I reassured her that we all have those kind of days where even our best laid plans do not go as expected and it was OK. She is a great educator and I hope that she felt supported – I look forward to being in her classroom again in the next week.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?

A couple of years ago I wanted to start up a system of “giving back” and “paying it forward,” so I created a campaign called Norse Cares, after the school’s nickname. I am proud to say that climate and culture we have inside our building is built on treating others with kindness and we look for a variety of different ways to help our Norse families and community members.

During winter break we provided gifts and food to 120 students. We provided three books to each kindergarten students at North Mor Elementary School. In October we raised money to put together 60 bags for cancer patients enduring chemotherapy at the Rocky Mountain Cancer Center in Thornton.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?

Student discipline is one of the toughest parts of being an administrator. Great people make poor decisions from time to time and I believe it is really important to discipline the behavior and not the person. What I mean by that is that you can have a hard conversation with someone without making it personal. I always try and handle discipline situations with dignity and kindness so that the student knows that I care about them through those tough times.

What is the hardest part of your job?

The hardest part of my job has been handling the death of a student or staff member. We are blessed with the opportunity to work with over 2,000 students every year and you make every effort to get to know them. When something happens to one of them, it is like losing a family member.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

Four years ago I was working with the family of an incoming ninth grader who did not live within our school boundaries. Their son Frank had applied to our STEM biomedical and engineering pathway, a four-year program that allows students to earn college credit and work closely with industry partners. The family knew that we had a waiting list to get into the program and waited anxiously to find out if Frank was accepted.

At our spring STEM celebration that year the family learned that Frank had been accepted and Frank’s mom came over to me with tears streaming down her cheeks. I will never forget her words as she told me how we were going to change her son’s life forever. Frank is a senior at our school and will be graduating in May. Not only has Northglenn High School and our STEM education changed Frank’s life and his future, he has changed our lives too – Frank and his family inspire me every day. They are a great reminder of the true value of education and the work we do every day.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?

The issue having a big impact on our school and every other school would probably be school funding. Financial resources are low, deferred building maintenance is high, and other financial responsibilities have a negative impact on daily operations. As a school, we are addressing the issue by seeking grants and other resources to provide the best quality education for our students.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

The best advice I have received is to end each day on a positive note and wake up every morning with a grateful heart. “Not every day is a good day but there is good in every day.”