Why one principal says, “We’re at a good place. We want to take it up a notch.”

"Level up on Learning: Game on Hornets" is Flour Bluff Primary & Elementary Schools theme for 2023-24, Principal Nikol Youngberg declares proudly.

Principal Nikol Youngberg says establishing a welcoming and nurturing climate for students is not a cliché—it’s her “why” for being an educator and for leading Flour Bluff Primary & Elementary Schools on Texas’ Gulf Coast.

“I feel like when you develop a culture where your people want to be—where your kids want to be, where your staff wants to come to work—that’s going to breed success,” says Youngberg, whose school is part of Flour Bluff ISD near Corpus Christi. “Why do I do what I do? I love kids and I want them to be happy where they are. I love the relationships I have with them and with their teachers and families.”

Culture-building for each school year begins long before the first bell rings on classes. During the summer, Youngberg and her team established a theme. For 2023-24, it’s gaming-inspired: “Level up on Learning: Game on Hornets.” “We’re at a good place and we want to take it up a notch,” explains Youngberg, who was recently named a National Distinguished Principal by the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

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Flour Bluff’s professional learning communities, for example, are using the term “Beekeepers” to embrace this year’s theme to level up their efforts to “be present” and “be mindful.” “My why is being part of something bigger than myself,” says Youngberg, who is in her 13th year as principal. “I have a huge job but I have the most amazing team. Definitely surround yourself with the best.”

How Flour Bluff projects positivity

If leading a building wasn’t time-consuming enough, Youngberg is also Flour Bluff ISD’s curriculum and instruction director for preK–4th grade. The role grew out of her mentorship of her fellow principals and a desire to align the elementary and primary curriculums to better set students up for success on state assessments.

She and her team are also laser-focused on their whole child initiative, which includes caring for mental health by developing students’ resilience and problem-solving skills. As part of Flour Bluff’s “Positivity Project,” teachers each week cover key personality traits such as perspective—”How it’s important to see things in different ways and it’s OK if people see things differently than you,” Youngberg explains.

Flour Bluff also offers the Watch D.O.G.S. program, which stands for “dads of great students” and brings a male role model into the school for a day to work with students. The mentor also does lunch and after-school duty and security sweeps. And the schools’ clubs cover everything from storytelling to STEM to project-based art. The school’s Ocean Club explores the wetlands owned by the district.

“They call [Flour Bluff] the ‘birdiest’ city—people come here to bird. So we have a birding club,” she says.

‘Opportunities to get better’

The politicization now swirling around education is the biggest concern keeping Youngberg up at night. The voucher program that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has been pushing to create would undoubtedly siphon funding from the public K12. “We don’t want to threaten what we have already developed and built in public school,” she says.

What hasn’t changed are some of the main roles of a principal—those include establishing relationships, keeping track of the big picture and putting all the pieces in place to operate a “great school.” “What has changed, through the COVID time, is we do see a lot more mental health issues with kids, younger and younger,” she points out. “We’re having to spend a lot more dealing with behaviors that are different.”

Youngberg loves her job and says she doesn’t plan to do anything else but be a principal. She doesn’t aspire to become a superintendent, for example. “I feel like we’re never perfect,” she concludes “We always need to learn and grow—mistakes are opportunities to get better.”

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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