“My school is one of the coziest places in Virginia Beach,” is how Principal Sham Bevel describes Bayside Sixth Grade Campus. And that’s not just an accident of interior design and comfortable seating—it’s a mindset shared by all of the educators and employees in the building, which serves about 315 students and is led by the state’s 2023 principal of the year.
“Because we only have them one year, we spent a lot of time building relationships with students,” explains Bevel, whose campus is part of Virginia Beach City Public Schools. “We’ve figured out that sense of belonging is key for our kids—everything we do goes around that.”
That sense of belonging is grounded in a house system that fosters a range of competitions in which students earn points for academics, behavior, character development and participation, among other K12 benchmarks. Everyone from students and teachers to bus drivers and custodians belong to one of the school’s four houses. Students also participate in Amazing Shake competitions that stress eye contact, listening and, of course, shaking hands, among other soft skills.
Because not all students are top athletes or high academic achievers, educators also reward students for making progress. All of these engagement approaches are paying off—Bayside is now tops among Virginia Beach’s middle schools for attendance, having climbed from the bottom of the list in recent years.
Bevel also encourages all of her staff—including cafeteria workers and security guards—to speak to children regularly. “Everybody has a role in being part of our kids’ lives here while they’re in the school,” she notes. “[Kids] want to be here. They know we care.”
Engagement equals achievement
The intense focus on creating a sense of belonging is having an impact on achievement. In the 2021-22 school year, less than a third of students met grade-level expectations for reading. By the end of the year, almost 90% of students passed the same reading test.
Embedding tutoring into the school day is one new approach that is driving achievement—because it ensures students will get individualized support, Bevel explains. She and her team have also created space for peer-to-peer student tutoring by expanding the cafeteria into a learning center.
“Most kids don’t want to stay after school, especially for tutoring,” she adds. “When you add it to the instructional programs, it winds up being a mandatory piece.”
Importance of teaching abroad
As unique as her school is Bevel’s pathway to the principal’s post. After teaching science in another Virginia district, she taught the same subject in Abu Dhabi, where she eventually became a middle school math and science department chair. One reason she chose Abu Dhabi was that it followed Virginia’s curriculum. The bigger reasons were to expand her horizons as a teacher and learn more about inclusivity and cultural competence, she says.
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Someone who considers themselves a good teacher should be able to teach any children, anywhere, she asserts. The experience abroad also showed her how to integrate what she learned about the students’ backgrounds and cultures into science instruction.
“As a leader, it’s helping me do the same thing—being able to support all cultures, all types of diversity, and adapt to different children,” she concludes. “And just being able to speak to that when I talk to teachers about diversity—teaching is not just about talking, talking, talking. You have to be able to absorb and learn and respect.”