3 principals to watch: Reshaping learning landscapes through creative solutions

3 leaders are taking bottom-up approaches to attendance, literacy and teacher shortages.

James Allrich is one of three principals to watch who is reshaping learning landscapes—in his case, for his STEM students at Argyle Magnet Middle School of Digital Design and Development outside Washington, D.C.

James Allrich

When Allrich became the principal of the school, which is part of Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, he discovered that not all of the students were getting the full magnet experience. English learners and students with IEPs, in particular, didn’t have sufficient access to the tech classes that anchor the curriculum.

“You do not test to come here, you choose to come here,” says Allrich, a former math teacher of Haitian heritage who said he applied to 15 schools and interviewed 10 times before he was hired as a principal. “If you’re here at Argyle, every year you’re here, you’re talking a tech class.”

How these principals solve problems

Allrich took a bottom-up approach to solving another problem he encountered when taking the helm at the middle school. Kids were regularly late to class, and one reason was that not enough educators were monitoring the halls, says Allrich, who was named Maryland’s 2022 principal of the year by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Instead of mandating a new administrative policy, he formed a staff committee that decided, after talking with students, that more teachers and administrators were needed at classroom doors and in the hallways to build better relationships with students. A separate committee was formed to look into the high number of students being referred for disciplinary issues. The solution was daily advisory sessions, instituted shortly before COVID, that connect students with teachers at least once a week for social-emotional learning and to address other concerns.

“The idea is that when a problem exists, it doesn’t require the principal to come in and say, ‘This is the answer,'” Allrich explains. “It requires the principal to provide space to make sure the right voices are at the table so we can come together and decide what solution makes the most sense.”

3 principals to watch
Principal James Allrich and his team at Argyle Middle School have prioritized spending time in the hallways to build relationships with students.

In his spare time, Allrich hones his DJing skills, a pursuit he picked up in the early days of the COVID lockdown. Currently, his musical aspirations focus mainly on providing music for family gatherings. He also began raising chickens during the pandemic.

“The thing I love about them is I can’t tweet or text to communicate or care for them—I have to go into the yard to clean the coop. I can’t tech that away,” Allrich concludes. “It makes me think of what our children need. We have to reach them in a way that is separate from all of the tech and devices that we think we need in order to connect with them.”

When kids feel confident

For Principal Nicole Ey, reshaping the learning landscape at Ellenville Elementary School in New York is all about addressing more intensively the issues that were already of growing concern prior to the pandemic. First comes academics, and that means bridging learning gaps in math and reading, in particular.

Principal Nicole Ey says she works to building a at Ellenville Elementary School culture that is organized, systematic and fun.
Principal Nicole Ey says she works to build at Ellenville Elementary School a culture that is organized, systematic and fun.

“Literacy and math have been a priority since the day I arrived, but after the pandemic, they have become even more of a focus,” says Ey, who is New York’s 2022 National Distinguished Principal, a National Association of Elementary School Principals recognition program. “Kids are successful and feel confident about school when they can read—we’re putting all our eggs in that basket.”

The school educators are delivering targeted instruction in small groups, strong intervention and enrichment, and high-dosage tutoring before and after school. On the social-emotional learning front, counselors and social workers are visiting classrooms weekly to deliver SEL lessons on executive functioning, self-care, coping skills and other themes. Disciplinary issues have increased because many students missed out on the development of these skills when they were on remote learning, says Ey, who has taught kindergarten and sixth and eighth grade.

Post-pandemic positivity: Student self-reliance and teacher appreciation are up

“Attendance was a struggle before COVID and it’s even more of a struggle after COVID,” says Ey, whose school is part of the Ellenville Central School District. “Parents assume they can put on Google classroom if their student is out but there’s so much more to school socialization, especially for K-6 learning.”

When it comes to her teaching team, Ey says realized they have been stretched thin by the turbulence of the last few years. She is supporting them by, in part, pulling back on management. “I send one email out a week,” Ey explains. “I send one newsletter with everything teachers need to know for the week. Why? It’s something small but email has become overwhelming for everybody.”

She also makes a point of celebrating teachers’ successes and sharing the achievements throughout her school. Empowerment and empathy are also keys to her leadership philosophy. “I strive to be a leader who is honest, kind, patient, and willing to develop a collaborative, transparent, and open culture,” she continues. “Faculty and students benefit from the encouragement of a principal to be engaged in decision-making, problem-solving, and collaborative processes.”

Raising letter grades

Stephanie Silman, principal of Sahuarita Middle School near Tucson, Arizona, says being a servant leader means giving her team everything they need to succeed. “A large part of my job is to try to remove barriers and provide support to help others do their jobs to the best of their ability,” says Silman, who has led the school since 2009 and is now the National Association of Secondary School Principals 2022 principal of the year for Arizona.

Raising the middle school’s letter grade and incorporating social-emotional learning throughout the school day are among her biggest achievements. She and her team are also confident that they are providing students with a rich curriculum of core, advanced, and elective courses to prepare them for high school and life after graduation, says Silman, who began her K12 career as a high school Spanish teacher.

Her top priorities are now working collaboratively with the middle school’s staff to meet the academic and social-emotional needs of our students. “We are strategically providing personalized academic interventions during the school day and after school as well as implementing school-wide weekly social-emotional learning lessons embedded in the school day,” she notes.

One of the biggest challenges that her district, Sahuarita USD, faces is the ongoing teacher shortage. Her school and district are growing their own teachers from within the support staff and encouraging substitute teachers to become fully certified. Administrators have also partnered with the University of Arizona to develop undergraduate and graduate education students through field experiences and student teaching opportunities.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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