How I Lead

What one principal learned from daily classroom visits, brain science and a paperwork mistake

PHOTO: James Chamberlin
James Chamberlin, principal of Fraser Valley Elementary School in the East Grand school district, with students.

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.

As principal of Fraser Valley Elementary School in the East Grand School District, James Chamberlin stops by classrooms every single day. At first, the teachers were nervous, wondering why he was coming by so often.

But soon they learned that was just his style. Chamberlin learned something, too: Focus more on the results teachers are getting and less on the way they get them.

He likes to say, “I don’t care as much about how you organize your kitchen. I care more about the quality of the meal.”

Chamberlin won the 2015 Administrator of the Year Award from SHAPE Colorado, a professional group of health and physical education teachers. Under his leadership, Fraser Valley Elementary has also won several awards for excellence.
We asked Chamberlin how he thinks about leadership, what brain science has taught him and how lagging school funding affects his staff. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?

My first formal paid education job was as a high school teacher in Craig, Colorado. I taught social studies and Spanish. Ironically, I didn’t have a Spanish endorsement but had put on the top of my resume that I had a “strong desire to work with Spanish-speaking students.” Back then social studies teachers were plentiful and jobs scarce.

Fortunately, I was able to attend night classes at Colorado Mountain College in Steamboat Springs to get Spanish credit hours and lesson ideas to use that first year of teaching. Over the summer I was able to complete and add a Spanish endorsement and enjoyed a second year of teaching and coaching varsity soccer, and I did get to work with some Spanish-speaking students.

My interest in education was sparked by positive relationships with my teachers and coaches at Bear Creek High School in Jefferson County. The idea of teaching was always ingrained in my family tree. One of my grandfathers was a principal at Thomas Jefferson High School and the other was a music teacher in Denver Public Schools. My grandmother was a second-grade teacher in DPS. My father is a retired administrator from Cherry Creek School District and my mother is a retired physical education teacher from Cherry Creek.

My interest in the field of education was solidified at the University of Northern Colorado, where I became involved in student government and was elected Vice President of Faculty Affairs. This opportunity provided me a unique education around the policy and politics of public education and teacher training.

Fill in the blank. My day at school isn’t complete unless I____________ . Why?
Visit each classroom. The opportunity to be present in the classrooms every day gives me insight into the student and teacher dynamics that drive the school climate and culture. I also observe the components of individual student learning and engagement. At first, the teachers were really uncomfortable with the frequency of my visits, but over time they realized that it’s my “style” to gain a better understanding of what is going on with students and staff.

As a new principal, I spent too much time focusing on teacher behaviors in the classroom. What I have come to understand is that the student behaviors and outcomes — as a result of the teacher’s decision-making and ability to unpack the learning target — are equally important.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?
I try to learn all the students’ names and associate an interest or activity with them so when we visit I can ask about their particular interest.

As an elementary principal, I spend hours in the lunchroom and the playground engaging with students and observing how they are interacting with each other and the adults around them. I am also fortunate to have school-age children of my own who participate in numerous activities where I can engage in some positive sideline support.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?
About two months ago, I set up a time to conduct a mid-year review with a teacher. At about the same time, the district sent out the “intent to return forms.” I had looked over the form and the teacher indicated she wanted to transfer to another building and wanted to retire in the next three years. So I carefully set up ample time to visit with the teacher thinking we had some differences to discuss and the teacher had some concerns about her satisfaction in the building and profession.

Halfway into the conference I wasn’t getting any indication of her dissatisfaction so I asked for a moment, went to the front office to get a copy of her intent to return form, set it in front of her and asked her to help me understand the form. She immediately burst out laughing and apologized for filling the form out wrong. Lesson learned: Don’t believe everything that you initially think. You have to investigate further, confirm and then collaborate.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?
I came into a school that had had numerous transitions in leadership and was struggling with day-to-day nuts and bolts operational issues. For the first year, I was also assigned this position as a job share, with a veteran elementary principal serving as principal two days a week and myself serving two days a week. (We were on a four-day week, and my other two days were as a central office administrator.) While this was one of the most challenging school and job assignments I have had, it turned out to be one of the most rewarding. We were able to set up a coordinating council that served as a collaborative decision-making team.

This process helped improve the day-to-day operations and the ability for staff to problem-solve school issues. Having systems, structures and processes to handle the operational nuts and bolts of the school allows the teachers to focus on the teaching and learning. Through this focus on teaching and learning we are proud to have received the Governor’s Distinguished Improvement Award four years in a row and the John Irwin School of Excellence award. The district has been recognized with an English Language Proficiency Act Excellence award, as well as being named an outlier district that outperforms other districts with similar demographics by A Plus Colorado.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?
Discipline is about changing behavior and improving relationships. If you don’t fully understand and address the root causes that are driving the behaviors, then changing the pattern of behavior becomes more difficult. While high expectations for behavior are important, differentiating the approach to get the end result is equally important.

What is the hardest part of your job?
The hardest part of my job currently is learning the unique dynamics of an elementary school. I served 17 years of my career as a middle school principal, high school principal/administrator and central office administrator. I have come to learn that an elementary school is really three schools in one. The preschool — 3- and 4-year-olds — the K-2 level and the 3-5 level. Each of these levels have distinct developmental and pedagogical differences.

While trying to learn about the unique dynamics of elementary education, I have also had the recent opportunity to teach for a graduate school master’s degree program, instructing classes in assessment, curriculum and instruction as well as the psychology of learning. This experience has helped me realize the educational importance of birth to age 5 on the brain and learning.

Recent research in neuroscience has shown that a student’s learning trajectory starts very early and is significantly impacted by trauma and toxic stress. I see evidence of this daily in our preschool and kindergarten students and the amount of intervention necessary to overcome the barriers to learning. But I also see hope and resilience when students learn to persevere, grow their minds, and believe they can learn to read, believe they are good at math and can communicate well in writing.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
One day we were hosting a “Mother Read/Father Read” workshop for our preschool parents and as a courtesy we allowed younger siblings to join the school’s preschoolers while the parents were in our library learning about the program. About halfway into the program, our preschool teacher came running into the nurse’s office carrying a 3-year-old visitor sibling who was struggling to breathe and whose lips were blue. Another student had indicated the child had put something in their mouth, so we began first aid by trying to clear the airways and called 911.

What we came to find out was that this was one of the first times the child had been away from his parents and had become so upset, he was crying hysterically and was struggling to get air. We also learned that he had been playing with a blue marker and had gotten some on his lips. While this was an incredibly intense emergency situation and had a positive ending, it was good to see how quickly paramedics responded — and the parents were appreciative and supportive of how we handled the situation.

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 issue impacting our school is the lack of adequate funding. The Colorado paradox is that we have a highly educated population with subpar funding for our public schools. While many argue, including me, that schools need to improve, grow and change to meet 21st century thinking and learning standards, our teachers and principals need time, professional development and feedback to continue to grow and learn. Some larger systems can afford these supports for educators, but most cannot.

Our district has made some tough choices and we are addressing the lack of funding by grant-writing, collaborating with the BOCES to provide staff development and paying teachers to attend training on their own time. We also chose to provide daily planning and collaboration time, free full-day kindergarten for all students, full-day preschool for qualifying students and manageable class sizes. We do these things because they are important, but they come at a cost: lower salaries for staff compared to our cost of living and cost of medical insurance.

What are you reading for enjoyment? Chalkbeat, of course!

What’s the best advice you ever received?
“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Q and A

Former Success Academy lawyer hoping to start own charter network wants to ‘take it to the next level’

As the former top lawyer for Success Academy, Emily Kim had a hand in almost every aspect of New York City’s largest and most controversial charter-school network — from negotiating lunch times for schools in shared buildings to defending Success in court.

After spending six years with Success, Kim is setting off to launch her own charter network with locations in Manhattan’s District 6, which includes Inwood and Washington Heights, and the Bronx’s District 12, which includes the south and central Bronx. Called Zeta Charter Schools, she hopes to open in 2018.

PHOTO: Photo courtesy of Emily Kim
Emily Kim

Kim is still a big believer in Success — two of her children go there, and she praised its lightening-rod leader, Eva Moskowitz, as “brilliant” — but she thinks she has something different to offer.

“I chose the best schools possible for my own children,” she said during a recent interview with Chalkbeat near her home on the Upper West Side, “but I’m still going to innovate and take it to the next level.”

The school’s co-founders — Jessica Stein and Meghan Mackay — also have ties to Success, as do several board members listed in the school’s charter application. (One of the board members, Jenny Sedlis, is a Success co-founder and director of the pro-charter advocacy group, StudentsFirstNY.)

But Kim’s vision also seems tailored to avoid some of the usual critiques of charter schools, including that they rely on harsh discipline policies. By contrast, her plan for Zeta calls for limiting the use of suspensions. She also wants her schools to be diverse, though she admits that will be difficult in residentially segregated areas like the Bronx.

A mother of three, Kim has taught in classrooms in New York City, Long Island and even West Africa. She worked on special education issues in Philadelphia district schools before heading to law school at Temple and Columbia. While working as a corporate litigator, she took on a case pro-bono for Success — and was soon offered a job as the network’s first general counsel.

Below are edited highlights from our interview with Kim earlier this month where she described how her experience as an Asian-American growing up in Iowa shaped her views on school segregation, why she believes high-stakes tests are important, and what role she sees for charter schools like hers.

Kim talked about sending her son to Success:

My child was 4 years old when all of this kind of unfolded. The first school I visited was Eva’s school, Harlem 4.

… I was so astounded by what I saw — which is the energy of the teachers. Just the level of dedication, commitment, the joy and energy of their teachers — I was blown away.

Then Eva gave a talk at the end. She was clearly a hard-driving, almost in a sense, from my perspective then, a business person. So I thought, “That’s the type of person who should be running schools.”

What’s your role going to be as you launch your own charter schools?

I’ll be the CEO. I want to take all of the great things that I saw at Success and at other schools and — like in any other enterprise — I want to take the best of the best, and I want to implement it.

And then I want to work on implementing some of the ideas that I have as well.

What’s your goal for your schools?

The number one goal is to just create additional education opportunities. As a parent, I feel this very strongly: No parent should have to send their child to a school that is not a good school.

… Our schools are going to prepare kids for the tests, and the reason is that tests are access to power. And whether you like it or not, if you want to go to college — to a good college — if you want to go to law school like I did, you take the SATs. You take the LSAT. You have to do a good job.

How are you going to measure your schools’ success?

Academic outcomes are first and foremost because truly, if I can’t hit the academic outcomes, there’s no point. I’m wasting everybody’s time and I don’t want to do that. That’s number one.

… We’re looking at going backward from very rigorous high school and college curricula, and working backwards from there. So that’s our vision when we’re establishing our schools. What do kids need to be successful in college?

And it’s not just the testing outcomes, but it’s also the soft skills that kids need in order to get there. Kids need to be able to self-regulate, and that’s got to start in elementary school, in order to be successful in middle school.

On what her schools will look like:

One of the most important elements of our school design is going to be technology.

We’re still in early days, but I’m visiting many schools across the nation that are doing things that are very exciting in technology. I’m also going to be looking in the private sector to understand what are the skills that kids need to actually be innovators. I’d love if one of our students were able to invent an app that made a difference in the world.

Many New York City schools, district and charter alike, are highly segregated by race and class. Kim spoke about the city’s segregation:

In New York City, with the exception of Success Academy and other high-performing schools, you can go to the playground and look at the skin of the children who are playing there or look around the neighborhood and the socioeconomic status of the neighborhood, and you’ll know the quality of the school. It’s a terrible, terrible situation. And that’s 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education.

And how her own background informs her views on the issue:

I grew up in Iowa. I was one of the very few students who looked like me. My dad was a math professor. There were very few African Americans, few Hispanics, and very few Asians. That was hard in a lot of ways in that I grew up with a lot of teasing and whatnot. But I also was forced to navigate a world that I didn’t understand from my own experience.

… I have the perspective that it shouldn’t [just] be the case that minorities are integrating into the larger majority population. The majority population also has to integrate themselves in the minority enclaves. As long as we have this idea that it has to go one way only, that’s perpetuating the problem.

Have the city’s charter schools done enough when it comes to integration?

… It’s just so challenging for charters because honestly, opponents of charters use the segregation idea as another weapon against charters in terms of why they’re not serving the greater good — because they’re segregated.

Well, they’re segregated because they went into areas that were low income. Unfortunately, those kids weren’t getting a good education.

So what should the mission of charter schools be?

Charter schools were largely, originally intended to bring options to children who didn’t have them — so that would be low-income [students]. That’s not really my vision of charter schools. I think that charter schools are places where innovation can happen.

… I would love for what we learn through our [research-and-development] approach to be implemented at district schools. I’m very interested in district reform. I think there are a lot of challenges to district reform, but we’d love to come up with solutions that can be applied in other contexts.

Kim explained her decision to leave Success and start her own schools:

Staying with Success surely would have been a very rich experience, but I also thought I wanted to build something and I had some ideas.

… It was a really hard decision. But I’m really glad I did and every day I’ve made that decision, I feel like I’ve made the right decision.

I guess it will be answered once I have the schools up and running. If they’re doing well, then I’ll have my answer.

How I Lead

‘A lot of the first year is just figuring it out’: What it takes to help run a community school

Photo courtesy of Salem Gregory (left)

Salem Gregory spends her days juggling meetings to review attendance data, supervising social workers and guidance counselors, and making sure her students have what they need.

But she’s not a principal. She is a community school director responsible for tearing down the physical health and emotional barriers to learning her students face. And thanks to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s expansion of the program, more leaders like her are stepping into schools this year.

Gregory, who technically works for the school’s nonprofit partner, Wediko Children’s Services, acknowledges it’s a big task. “It takes a while to get a system set, and a lot of the first year is just figuring it out,” said Gregory, who has been on the job at M.S. 363 Academy for Personal Leadership and Excellence in the Bronx for two years. But, she added, “it was exciting to start something new in tandem with the school.”

For this edition of “How I Lead,” we asked Gregory about how she became interested in the job, and what she considers the biggest misconceptions about how community schools work.


What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?

I have always been drawn to working with students and families. In high school and college, I was actively involved in a variety of community service and volunteer projects. Spending two summers at the Wediko summer residential program in 2009 and 2010, I received exceptional training in working with students with severe social, emotional and behavioral issues. I was able to meet great people who introduced me to the field of social work, and I was drawn to exploring human behavior within the various environments they inhabit.

Fill in the blank. My day at school isn’t complete unless I _______.

Greet students in the morning. It helps keep me grounded in the work and sets a positive tone for the day.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?

Wediko supports students where they are in a variety of ways. One is through our milieu approach. We are often in the hallways during class transitions, in the lunchroom, speaking with students as they arrive and depart, and in the classrooms supporting small group and individual instruction. This enables students to gain trust and build rapport with other adults in the building who are not their teachers, and for the Wediko counselors and clinicians to become seamlessly integrated into daily structures and routines of the school day.

In some key ways, you share the role of leading the school with the principal. How do you split leadership responsibilities?

The principal and I communicate regularly. We have set weekly meeting times, as well as informal check-ins as needed. While I support the academic and instructional pieces and play an integral role in this process, Wediko is the “go to” for anything relating to social/emotional programming, and managing all community partnerships within and outside the building.

What’s the biggest misconception about the community schools program?

It is not a one-size-fits-all program. There are so many community schools across the city with a variety of strengths, assets and areas of development. Oftentimes it is easy to lump schools together within a certain category.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?

We’ve had the opportunity to partner with the Bronx Adult Learning Center to support two evening ESL classes for adult learners in the building. It’s been a great opportunity to engage with the surrounding community in a different way, and expand the supports we can offer in the school.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective.

Running the “Parenting Journey” group for a small group of parents was a very memorable experience for me. While I am not a parent myself, facilitating conversations around parents’ own experiences growing up, their relationships with their own children, and sharing hopes for the future completely changed the way I think about parenting and what it means to be a parent. The women I worked with were incredibly resilient, funny and faithful. I can only hope to have their strength and wisdom if I ever become a parent.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?

While this is not directly related to education policy, federal immigration policies have impacted our families. We have continued to develop the school as a safe space for everyone and communicated regularly with families regarding these changing policies and increasingly unfamiliar system.

We have been able to partner with community based organizations specializing in immigration law that allow parents and families to know their rights and seek resources for support.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

Stay connected to people. Be impeccable with your word. Don’t take anything personally. Don’t make assumptions. Always do your best.