A scooter, a reflection journal, and no surprises: One Denver principal’s approach to leadership

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 and pieces in our sister series “How I Teach” here.

Scott Wolf, principal of Denver’s North High School, expected pushback when he discussed a teacher’s poor showing on an evaluation. Instead, the teacher readily acknowledged the problems and vowed to do better.

The episode was an example of Wolf’s belief in a “no-surprises” approach to staff feedback.

Wolf talked to Chalkbeat about how that teacher later went on to excel, why North emphasizes restorative justice, and who he looks forward to chatting with in the hall each day.

In January, Wolf was honored by the Colorado Music Educators Association for encouraging arts programming at North High.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?
While studying learning and organizational change at Northwestern University, I worked at the central office of the Chicago Public Schools. During my time there, I saw just how complex and challenging it was to improve educational outcomes, and felt called to this work. I saw education as the highest leverage opportunity to improve life outcomes for all people and wanted to do what I can to make a positive difference. My work at the central office inspired me to volunteer at a local elementary school where I worked with students on their reading skills and saw light bulbs go on every day. I knew that my career would focus on education from this point forward.

Fill in the blank. My day at school isn’t complete unless I __________. Why?
My day at school isn’t complete unless I have the opportunity to talk to Diego in the hallway and encourage him to get to class. Almost every day Diego struggles to get to class, but there is something about our conversations that makes me think he looks forward to our conversations just as much as I do.
How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?
I love getting to know students. I would spend my entire day with students if I could. I get to know students by sharing my whole self and trying to embody the value of fun. I ride my Razor scooter around the hallways, I ask students about their lives, and I try to be present during lunch and after school activities to connect with kids. In addition, I have feedback groups so I can hear student voices and learn student stories.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?
Thankfully, most of my teacher evaluations have gone great because I have had ongoing conversations with teachers, so there were no surprises. There was one time years ago where I thought there would be lots of pushback from a teacher on the scores because they were not very good. The teacher did not push back at all though and instead said to me, “You have been telling me this all along, and now it is in my face. This is the motivation that I needed.” This teacher became one of the best teachers I have ever supported. I have found that evaluations are about honesty and humanity, and it has been great to work with so many people who just want to be the best they can for students.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?
I am proud that North High School has increased its enrollment from 769 students when I started at North five years ago to a projected 1,216 students this coming school year. I have spent significant time creating a great school culture where we are a model restorative practice site for the nation, improving our academic performance so we reached a “meets expectations” status last school year, and building relationships with our community as we value diversity.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?
As a restorative practice school, it is all about working to build skills with students so that everyone involved makes different choices in the future. I don’t really believe in students getting in trouble, but see opportunities for students to learn. Restorative practice focuses on what happened, who is affected, what’s the ownership, and what needs to be resolved.

We work to bring individuals together to dialogue with each other, understand different perspectives, and work to improve the next time. We have even started a restorative practice class this year where students facilitate the restorative process for other students and staff members.

What is the hardest part of your job?
The hardest part of my job is keeping an even temperament regardless of the situation. My days are filled with extreme highs and extreme lows, and I have to go from one situation to the next. I might arrive at school to receive great achievement results back, only to find out that we did not get a grant we were hoping for, to going into a classroom where there is amazing instruction taking place, to find out that two students tried to resolve their issues by confronting each other. The days ebb and flow, and it is hard to stay calm and collected in all situations.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I love talking with families! My favorite place to have conversations is on a home visit where families can share with me their special place. On a home visit three years ago, a family shared with me that while they were not always able to attend every event, they wanted to be in the loop and asked to join things. This has helped me to make sure that everything is transparent and that we create a welcoming environment.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?
The biggest education policy having an impact is school funding. My school leader friends in New York get over twice as much money per student as we do in Colorado, where we are funded close to last in the country. To address it, I am trying to work with community organizations and businesses to provide additional resources at North since we cannot simply rely on state funding. I think we have to work on mutual partnerships so that the school can give back to the community and businesses can give back to schools.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
The best advice I have ever received is from my first principal who told me to slow down and reflect. He told me that I was really good at my job as a teacher, but I needed to reflect more. As a gift, he gave me a mirror to remind me to reflect, and for the last ten years I have religiously journaled to help me reflect intentionally.