3 principals to watch: They have high expectations for staff and students

The guiding philosophy at the Early College School @ Delaware State University is that students don't just attend the school, they belong to it.
By: | May 13, 2022
Principal Evelyn Edney photobombs each class at the beginning of the year at the Early College School @ Delaware State University.Principal Evelyn Edney photobombs each class at the beginning of the year at the Early College School @ Delaware State University.
Evelyn Edney

Evelyn Edney

‘It is not about one test’

Evelyn Edney, Early College School @ Delaware State University

The guiding philosophy at the Early College School@Delaware State University is that students don’t just attend the school, they belong to it. The school was carried through the pandemic by this sense of belonging, which also relies on clubs, organizations and sports to provide co-curricular experiences that complement classroom instruction, Principal Evelyn Edney says.

This mindset also drove administrators to transform school spirit days. “Wear School Colors Day,” for example, became “Create-the-Best-Virtual-Background Day” during remote instruction. “We needed to laugh and be with each other, even if it was in a bigger box,” says Edney, who was named Delaware’s 2021 principal of the year by the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “As long as students feel connected, they will help to shape the culture in a school in a good way.”

Edney’s efforts are an example of how principals were creating positive school climates prior to the pandemic, and how they continue to emphasize engagement and ownership in learning as they move forward with their staff and students.

Edney, who has worked in Delaware public education for more than 30 years, says her purpose in life is to get students to take ownership of their education, an effort that doubles in importance at an early college high school. “Students are on a college campus with college students, being taught college curriculum by a college professor,” she says. “They must be responsible and mature to handle that, so it is important that they own the work itself, the drive it takes to do the work, and their mistakes and successes.”

This development is driven by the school’s “College Readiness Rubric,” a scoring tool that’s used eight times a year to assess the “whole student” for college readiness. “It is not about one test,” Edney says.

The students are scored on grades, attendance, behavior, teacher recommendations, and assessments. Ninth graders must score college-ready five times during the year in order to take their first college course during the first semester of their sophomore year. Upperclass students must score college-ready three times in a semester to take college courses or remain in them.

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Edney is proud to share that the valedictorians of the classes of 2018 and 2020 were accepted to Stanford University on full scholarships. A student from the first graduating class (2018) graduated from Delaware State University in 2020 and will earn a master’s in chemistry in 2022. Overall, the school’s students have amassed over 11,000 college credits. “The beauty of the system is that the onus for doing well is solely on the shoulders of the students,” Edney says.

Edney and her team are in the process of adding seventh and eighth grades to the school to introduce younger students to a college-going culture. “It gives us time to help students soar sooner while being challenged and to help the students who struggle get support earlier,” Edney says.

Rethinking and rebooting

Melissa Barlow

Melissa Barlow

Melissa Barlow, Yukon High School

Yukon School District, Oklahoma

Yukon High School—one of Oklahoma’s largest high schools with 2,700 students—now has the feel of a much smaller community, Principal Melissa Barlow says. This was achieved by forming small groups of students who are directly supported by a team consisting of an assistant principal and a counselor. The pair, who stick with the same students during all four years, also provide families with a single connection to their school, says Barlow, Oklahoma’s 2021 NASSP principal of the year.

The team meets regularly to discuss each student’s needs for enrichment, intervention or other services. “It’s great for kids and families to have consistency over time,” Barlow says. “And it’s great for faculty and staff to reap the benefits of the hard work they’ve put in when they see these kids thrive and be successful as they graduate.”

Having these relationships in place helped students and families adjust and make more personalized decisions when COVID forced the school to go to remote and hybrid instruction. Some students, for instance, attended only their math classes in-person or transferred to an alternative school. Barlow also created the position of at-risk counselor to serve as a liaison between families and the school’s alternative, virtual and career-tech programs. It has sped up and streamlined a process that used to require multiple counselors and administrators to make multiple phone calls to steer a student to the right program. “Students can move into more supportive programs much faster than before,” she says. “We’re able to keep them hooked in so they don’t get lost.”

The “Rethink” program is another way educators are keeping students on track and helping to raise the high school’s graduation rate. Students can sign up for enrichment or intervention during two 30-minute periods each week. The sessions, which Barlow says can give students who’ve fallen behind renewed hope of success, have been instrumental in reducing Fs from nearly 4% of grades earned by students to under 2%. In the more intensive Reboot” program, the counselor-assistant principal teams help small groups of students identify the missed assignments they need to complete to get back on track. “Sometimes kids have dug themselves into such a deep hole, they have so many missing assignments, they don’t even know where to start,” Barlow says.

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Barlow’s goals for the coming school year are to continue to get students and families re-engaged after the disruptions of COVID. To achieve this, she has implemented student-led parent-teacher conferences and is partnering with Southwestern Oklahoma State University to offer dual-credit aeronautics, aviation and other career-oriented programs at a new facility on the high school’s campus.

Modeling student engagement

Cindy Webster

Cindy Webster

Cindy Webster, Weaver Elementary School

Springfield Public Schools, Missouri

Shortly after Cindy Webster became principal of Weaver Elementary School, she learned that it had been designated a Focus School by the state of Missouri. That meant, based on test scores, it was performing in the bottom 10% of Title I schools. But Webster, Missouri’s 2021 national distinguished principal, was undaunted. She and her team raised reading scores by 19% and math by 9%, hitting the turnaround targets within three years—the minimum amount of time it can take a school to exit the focus list.

How did Webster do it? She credits a combination of best leadership practices, high academic expectations, and a focus on social-emotional learning. A key here is modeling best practices for teachers and staff. “When I walked in a classroom and saw kids not engaged, we addressed that individually or with the whole class about what it means to be engaged,” she says. She trained teachers and students in the SLANT model—which stands for sit up, lean forward, ask questions, nod your head and track the speaker. “These kids can do hard things and we need to hold them to a high level of academic achievement,” she says. “We have to have conversations with students, parents and teachers about goal-setting and celebrate successes when the goals are met.”

Webster also added a new position, a school community liaison, to focus on discipline and attendance. This gave Webster more time for instructional leadership and to collaborate with teachers to create a viable scope and sequenced curriculum for ELA and math. They also improved testing practices to set goals for students based on data.

The community liaison, meanwhile, also trains parents and families to resolve disciplinary issues at home. When students exhibited disrespect, defiance or disruptive behavior, administrators also partnered with parents to resolve office discipline referrals, she says. Because high-poverty schools sometimes see less parent involvement, Webster and her team have worked with community partners to fill some important roles, such as reading buddies and student mentors for social-emotional development.

Next year, Webster will start a new role as one of the district’s executive directors of elementary education. One of her goals is to further refine and clarify the components of core instruction. “The challenge for many elementary schools is recovering from the learning loss of the pandemic,” she says. “A lot of people thought learning online would be OK, but what we’ve seen—especially for families facing poverty, and maybe for all children—is that it really affected learning to not be in school. That’s the biggest concern in education right now.”