How I Lead

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

Scott Wolf, the principal of North High School in Denver.

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.

How I Lead

This Memphis principal says supporting teachers and parents helped pull her school out of the bottom 10 percent

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Principal Yolanda Dandridge has led Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary for the last two years, and was previously the academic dean.

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.

Principal Yolanda Dandridge walks almost 14,000 steps a day — double the national average.

It takes a lot of walking to manage two schools. Dandridge has led Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary for the last two years and was previously the academic dean. She temporarily took over Frayser Achievement Elementary when the schools had to share space this year because of maintenance issues at Georgian Hill’s original building.

“I am constantly on the move,” Dandridge said. “How else can you keep up with elementary students?”

Both schools are part of the Achievement School District, which is charged with turning around the state’s lowest-performing schools but has struggled to accomplish the task.

This year, Georgian Hills not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom 10 percent. In 2016, before Dandridge took charge, Georgian Hills was in the worst 2 percent of schools.

Dandridge was honored by the achievement district for her work.

“She is a real standout among our principals of someone who understands what it takes to turn things around,” said interim achievement district leader Kathleen Airhart.

Dandridge talked to Chalkbeat about how she gets to know her students, her efforts to motivate teachers, and why school buildings are important.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

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

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Dandridge walks almost 14,000 steps a day — double the national average.

I tell my teachers to always stay focused on the “why” behind their careers. For me, my “why” was the fact that my little brother got all the way through elementary school without learning to read. He wasn’t able to read until the fifth grade. He came from a family of educators, and he still slipped through the cracks. If that could happen to him, it could happen to so many kids.

I started teaching in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, and I taught in that state for more than a decade. I came to Memphis as a teacher, I was asked later to consider taking on the principal role at Georgian Hills. I said, “You want me to do what?” Now, I’m grateful for all those years in the classroom and as an academic dean to prepare me for this role.

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

Any chance to get into the classroom, I will. If a substitute teacher doesn’t come, which does happen sometimes, I will teach the students in that classroom for a day. I love getting to know students by helping out in the classroom.

I am also constantly walking the hallways of both schools. That’s how I start the morning — I greet students and their parents by name when they walk into the school. I walk students to their classrooms. I’m constantly monitoring the hallways.

When a new student registers for classes, the first thing the office staff knows to do is call me down so I can meet them.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?

I really prefer to always consider the experiences that a child may have had prior to entering our building.  When you approach discipline with a keen awareness of the types of situations a child might have or experience, it really makes you a better educator.  And you understand that the best thing for us to do is to ensure that students know and understand that we have their best interests in mind. When children connect with you and other teachers in this way, discipline is less challenging.

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

I’m very proud of what we’ve done at Georgian Hills and now at Frayser to really focus on our teachers.

Every Wednesday after school, we’ll have a period of professional development. I try to be attentive to what my teachers tell me they want to learn more about. There is a lot of coordination on lesson plans in particular. Teachers work together on their lesson planning, and I also will personally give feedback on a teahers’ lesson plans. My biggest, driving question is “What do my teachers need most?” They don’t need to be spending hours everyday lesson planning when they can collaborate. We can help there.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?

Evaluating teachers has always provided me with the opportunity to hear and see the creativity and passion that our teachers bring to the classroom.  My thought on evaluations is to take the anxiety out of it and ensure that teachers are comfortable and understand that the overall process is about improving their skills and enhancing the tools in their toolbox.

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

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
This year, Georgian Hills not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom 10 percent of schools in Tennessee.

When I was early in my teaching career in Mississippi, I had a student with a single mom. Her mom was an amazing support system for me and my classroom. She was always wanting to volunteer at the school. But she struggled to provide basic needs for her daughter — she was struggling to get a job. But she was trying so hard. There’s a stigma of parents, especially in low-income communities, not participating or caring about their child’s education. This mom was giving her all, and it changed my view of parental support. The school needed to find ways to also support her.

And so as a principal, I’m always thinking about how I can support my parents and invite them into the school. So that they feel welcome and wanted, and also so they are encouraged in their own role in their child’s education. We hold math and science nights, where parents learn how to do math games or science experiments at home with their kids. We provide them with materials and knowledge so that they can provide enrichment in their own home.

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

We, like many schools in Memphis, don’t have the facilities we need for our students. Georgian Hills had to vacate our school building due to an issue with the roof. That created a hard environment for this school year — moving to a new building where we share space, and then me taking on that school as its school leader when the principal left. Honestly, I thought this year could break me as a school leader. But it didn’t, and it didn’t break our school either. We had a culture in place where our teachers felt supported among the chaos of the start of the year. After a year of repairs, we’re planning on moving back to our original building this fall.

But the issue here is that we don’t have the school buildings we need. Schools should be palaces in a community.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

You have to mobilize people’s efforts to “win.” The first secret to this is to love your people. They are here for a purpose and you have to help them understand the higher purpose that they are here to serve.  You have to have the right people in place, be responsible for developing them, and have the courage to let them go when student’s needs aren’t being met. Finally, transparency rules.

How I Lead

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

PHOTO: Hill Street Studios | Getty Images
Happy birthday sign and balloons on school locker

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.

Can you imagine marking the birthdays of more than 2,000 people?

Probably not, but Sharee Blunt, the principal of Northglenn High School, can. With the help of a massive spreadsheet and a talented office manager, she hand-delivers a birthday card to every student and staff member in her suburban Denver school.

Blunt talked to Chalkbeat about how recognizing birthdays helps her get to know students, what a mother’s emotional reaction made her realize, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry.

Blunt was recently named the 2018 High School Principal of the Year for Colorado by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

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

My first job was at Shaw Heights Middle School in Westminster teaching physical education and health. I have always had a strong desire to work with young adults and inspire them to reach goals through education. My parents always stressed the importance of a good education and how that can positively impact a person’s life, and I wanted to share that same philosophy with others.

Fill in the blank. My day at school isn’t complete unless I __________. Why?

My day at school is not complete unless I get the opportunity to connect with at least one student, one teacher, and one parent. I believe it is our social responsibility to help positively impact at least one person’s life each day.

PHOTO: courtesy of Sharee Blunt
Principal Sharee Blunt, with students at Northglenn High School.

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

I get to know students by showing them that I genuinely care about them. Every morning I try to start my day by being out in the hallways and telling them good morning and to have a great day. I make every attempt to support our students at extracurricular activities such as concerts, sporting events, and banquets. I look for opportunities to bring the student voice into building decisions through the principal’s advisory committee that I established when I became principal.

I also love celebrating birthdays so I hand-deliver a birthday card to each of our students and staff members on their birthdays. I have a lot of help organizing this with my office manager, of course.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?

Recently I was in a teacher’s classroom for a formal observation on a Friday afternoon right before spring break. I had thought about postponing the observation because I anticipated the students would be restless, but I also wanted to honor the teacher’s intentional and thoughtful planning for the evaluation. The lesson did not go as the teacher had planned and I felt her stress and frustration quickly. I reassured her that we all have those kind of days where even our best laid plans do not go as expected and it was OK. She is a great educator and I hope that she felt supported – I look forward to being in her classroom again in the next week.

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

A couple of years ago I wanted to start up a system of “giving back” and “paying it forward,” so I created a campaign called Norse Cares, after the school’s nickname. I am proud to say that climate and culture we have inside our building is built on treating others with kindness and we look for a variety of different ways to help our Norse families and community members.

During winter break we provided gifts and food to 120 students. We provided three books to each kindergarten students at North Mor Elementary School. In October we raised money to put together 60 bags for cancer patients enduring chemotherapy at the Rocky Mountain Cancer Center in Thornton.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?

Student discipline is one of the toughest parts of being an administrator. Great people make poor decisions from time to time and I believe it is really important to discipline the behavior and not the person. What I mean by that is that you can have a hard conversation with someone without making it personal. I always try and handle discipline situations with dignity and kindness so that the student knows that I care about them through those tough times.

What is the hardest part of your job?

The hardest part of my job has been handling the death of a student or staff member. We are blessed with the opportunity to work with over 2,000 students every year and you make every effort to get to know them. When something happens to one of them, it is like losing a family member.

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

Four years ago I was working with the family of an incoming ninth grader who did not live within our school boundaries. Their son Frank had applied to our STEM biomedical and engineering pathway, a four-year program that allows students to earn college credit and work closely with industry partners. The family knew that we had a waiting list to get into the program and waited anxiously to find out if Frank was accepted.

At our spring STEM celebration that year the family learned that Frank had been accepted and Frank’s mom came over to me with tears streaming down her cheeks. I will never forget her words as she told me how we were going to change her son’s life forever. Frank is a senior at our school and will be graduating in May. Not only has Northglenn High School and our STEM education changed Frank’s life and his future, he has changed our lives too – Frank and his family inspire me every day. They are a great reminder of the true value of education and the work we do every day.

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

The issue having a big impact on our school and every other school would probably be school funding. Financial resources are low, deferred building maintenance is high, and other financial responsibilities have a negative impact on daily operations. As a school, we are addressing the issue by seeking grants and other resources to provide the best quality education for our students.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

The best advice I have received is to end each day on a positive note and wake up every morning with a grateful heart. “Not every day is a good day but there is good in every day.”