Carrying the Vision

New principal Becky Baker faces numerous challenges as her first year at Bland Valley Middle School begins. One week before school starts, Becky is already balancing demands from her staff and the superintendent.

Principal Becky Baker meets with the Assistant Superintendent to discuss the school budget.

Becky Baker is both excited and realistic about the challenges of being a first-year principal.

“I would like to take this opportunity to share my vision with you, my dream for what Bland Valley Middle School can achieve in the near future. May I begin by saying that I am thankful for the opportunity to serve you as principal… I feel like I belong here. I think that I was meant to be here and lend my efforts to make this school succeed. Together, I know that we can do it.”

Becky Baker looked around her new office and smiled. She’d been waiting for this – wanting this – for a long time: nine years as assistant principal, six before that as a classroom science teacher. To her, it felt like she’d finally come home.

See Becky Baker’s introductory letter to her staff, outlining her vision for the upcoming year below:

And it’s a good thing that it feels like home, she told herself dryly, because I’m probably going to be spending more time here than there for the next few years.

But here she was, in her second month as principal of Bland Valley Middle School. She leaned back in her desk chair, savoring the moment. Her marching orders were clear: get Bland Valley up to expectations on AYP and on end-of-grade tests. She supposed that if these things did not occur within a reasonable time frame she would be heading off the same way as her predecessor, but Becky was confident of success – and she didn’t let herself dwell on the alternative.

See data for Bland Valley Middle School’s performance on end-of-grade tests below:

They had their challenges, yes: a diverse student population on the edge of the inner city, with a certain lack of seasoned teachers – but every disadvantage could be turned to an advantage, Becky was convinced, if she approached the problem creatively. And Becky was a trained problem solver; years in the physics classroom had honed that skill quite well.

Maybe she was crazy, but she relished a good challenge.

See the faculty profile at Bland Valley Middle School below:

See demographic information for students at Bland Valley Middle School below:

“Mrs. Baker, Dr. Handley is here,” buzzed her secretary.

“Oh yes. Please send him in.”

Taking a quick breath, Becky composed herself for her budget meeting with the Assistant Superintendent for Operations.

“Good morning, Dr. Handley, welcome to our school.” Smiling graciously, Becky rose to shake her visitor’s hand.

“Thank you,” replied Dr. Handley, his smile highlighting perfectly white teeth. “I’m looking forward to working with you this year.”

Dr. Handley believes in top-down leadership.

Dr. Handley was a career educator – he’d been a high school principal before moving up the ladder to his current position nine years ago. Dr. Handley was also an ambitious man, and hoped someday to climb even higher. Because of this, and also because of his concern for students and employees (he saw no conflict between these two values), he really wanted both his administrators and his students to succeed. But developing and overseeing a budget for such a large district had a way of masking that concern, and his first priority was getting this job done. The best way that he knew to accomplish this was by following district protocol, and so he did – and expected those under him to do the same. He ran a tight ship, and he was also on a tight schedule this morning, so after a few basic pleasantries he got right to the point of the meeting.

See copies the district’s statement on effective management of funds below:

“How is your budget process going?” he asked Becky, and continued before she could respond. “My office emailed you the district format for school budget preparation. I need to have the requisitions for this year’s budget in my office no later than September third – and next year’s request by September thirtieth.” He paused for a moment, gauging her reaction. “Now, I know this might seem like a lot at first, coming in new – but you’ll be able to make that deadline, won’t you?”

See an executive summary of the previous year’s budget below:

“Thanks for your concern,” she replied. “The budget will be ready and this year’s request is in process.”

The slight tension in Dr. Handley’s face relaxed, although his expression did not convey full confidence in her words. He rose to leave.

“I’m sure that you have the situation well in hand,” he said as he moved toward the door. “Just remember, money mistakes cost principals jobs. If you need help with the budget, give me a call.”

The PTO requests the removal of all snack machines from Bland Valley Middle School.

“We must never forget our goal: to help our students achieve to their full potential.”

Lily, Becky’s administrative assistant, tapped on the door. She’d worked with the last three principals, in a career that spanned twenty-one years at Bland Valley Middle School. She knew more than Becky about the history and culture of this school, a fact Becky took the time to appreciate. In many ways, Lily was the transition team.

“Lily,” she smiled. “What is it?”

Lily, a long-time secretary at Bland Valley, knows the history of the school better than anyone.

Lily handed her a letter, and, in her quiet, concise way, began filling Becky in. “The PTO’s been lobbying for some time to get rid of snack machines. You’re new; I think they see an opportunity to make some headway on this issue.”

“Hmmmm…” Becky quickly scanned the letter.

See the letter from the president of the PTO below:

Becky lifted her eyes from the page and met Lily’s. “What’s this about balloons and t-shirts?”

Lily kept her tone neutral as she replied, “Last year, Mr. Morris thought having a spirit day was a good way to build community.”

“Did he pay for it from snack machine money?” Becky questioned.

“Every school has some discretionary funds, and that’s where the snack machine money goes. It came out of there.”

“Oh.” Becky knew that Bland Valley’s discretionary fund also was used to bump up the part-time art teacher to full-time and pay for a ceramics program. “So, what do you think?”

“Looks to me like you’ve got a dilemma here: keep the machines and these parents are your enemy, get rid of them, and the kids will be angry, plus, you lose funding for the arts program – and I bet some of these same parents will be protesting that. Tough choices. And with our performance on the survey…” Her voice trailed off.

See results of the Family Survey at Bland Valley Middle School below:

See how students and families grade Bland Valley Middle School below:

Becky refolded the letter and tapped it on her desk as she considered. She didn’t want kids binging on soda and chips all day, but how could she replace the revenue those machines generated? And keep parents happy? Not to mention students.

“Thanks, Lily,” she said. “Really.”

New math teacher Beth Mackinaw’s enthusiasm bumps into experienced teacher Janice Ford’s cynicism.

Beth begins her first year of teaching.

“Working as a team is essential in building success. Not only does a winning team have the right players, but all of them work together, complementing each other’s strengths and fortifying each other’s weaknesses.”

Beth Mackinaw looked over her shoulder to where her visitor stood, just inside the door of her new classroom. Her new classroom! She still couldn’t believe it. Here she was, finally, teaching sixth grade math.

Her visitor smiled, and repeated, “Hi, I’m Janice Ford.”

Beth smiled a little bigger and climbed down from her stepladder, extending her right hand to Ms. Ford – oops, Janice! She had to remind herself that she was a colleague now, and not a student.

“Beth Mackinaw – I’m new here,” she blurted, blushing a little at the way that had come out.

“I know,” said Janice, her mouth quirking slightly at all the evidence of “new” that surrounded her. Beth had been hard at work – her bulletin boards were almost filled with eye-catching displays. Janice realized, somewhat ruefully, that it had been a few years since she’d put quite as much enthusiasm into her own classroom displays.

“So, you’re the head of the department, aren’t you?” asked Beth. “I’ve been dying to meet you. I’ve heard that you’re such a great teacher.”

See how Ms. Ford’s students performed on end-of-grade math tests below:

“Thank you,” Janice replied, her smile coming much more naturally this time. “Yes. I teach eighth grade – and I have for a long time. How are you settling in?”

“Oh, very well… I mean, the setting up is going fine, it’s just… well… I guess I am a little anxious about how I’ll get on with the students. It’s my first year teaching, and – I really hope they like me.” It was hard to miss the wistful note in Beth’s voice.

Janice mentally shook her head; it was hard to remember back twenty-five years ago, when she’d started her first year at Bland Valley. A lot had changed since then, herself included.

Janice vents her frustrations to Beth.

“Oh, they’ll like you well enough,” replied Janice. She looked Beth up and down appraisingly and asked herself, did I ever look that young? “Don’t worry about that. Just remember to show them who the boss is, and don’t lose control of your students – it can be pretty hard to get it back. That’s where most new teachers struggle, classroom management.”

“There’s so much to think about,” sighed Beth. “You know, when I was student teaching, all the routines – even the curriculum – were already in place. I just had to think about lesson design. Now I have to think about everything.”

“It can be overwhelming, I know,” Janice agreed. “I had the same feelings when I started teaching, even though it’s a little hard to remember that long ago.” She chuckled self-deprecatingly, but soon her face sobered, and she sighed. It was a little hard to share Beth’s innocence and optimism. “I must say, though, that times were better then. We did well! Today, it’s so much tougher.”

Beth’s expression dimmed a bit; she perceived that an impending drizzle was threatening to dampen her parade.

“What’s changed?” she asked hesitantly.

Janice threw up her hands in an expression of frustration, a tinge of bitterness seeping into her words. “We seem to expect very little from our students these days, and get even less. Well, you get what you ask for in life, don’t you? And if you want some help from the administration – good luck!”

“But I thought Mrs. Baker was new this year. She seems like she will be wonderful to work with,” said Beth. She hesitated to correct her senior teacher, but refused to think badly of Mrs. Baker, who seemed perfect to her!

“Oh sure, she’s nice now, but when you’ve been around as long as I have, you find out that they’re all the same. They say they’ll do this and they’ll do that, but really it’s all talk and no follow-through.”

Janice thought back to the last time she’d really put her heart into something. Two years ago she’d spent the summer developing a curriculum for at-risk students that required a double math period. She’d thought that it was going to work, too, and had been really excited about it. Then, in mid-August, the central office had pulled the program, citing scheduling difficulties and budget priorities. When she’d gone to the principal, Mr. Morris had merely shrugged and said, “I’m not going to bat for you over this one.”

Janice had given him an earful, really laid it on the line. He’d sat there, impassive and stony, and she’d gotten louder and louder, trying to break through. After all, these kids were failing because the system’s current curriculum and methods were failing them! And they could change that! How could he not see it?

The next day there had been a letter in her box outlining the “incident.” Attached was a copy of the district’s insubordination policy. The letter was to remain in her file for five years. She hadn’t bothered to respond. After all, what was the point?

See staff disciplinary procedures from the faculty handbook below:

As she’d said, the last time she’d put her heart into something.

She looked at Beth, shaking her head at the memory. “Just don’t expect much support from the administration, that’s all.” Janice opened her mouth to speak again, but caught herself and closed it. She shouldn’t have let her frustrations out on this new teacher – she could tell by the look on Beth’s face that she’d probably said too much already. But that’s just the way things are, she told herself defensively, and the sooner Beth finds that out the better, right?

Teacher’s aide Minnie Higgins reports a problem to Principal Baker.

“They watch each others’ backs.”

Minnie Higgins was on a mission. She liked her new job and she really wanted to keep it. She also really liked her new boss, and it just bothered her to hear people talking bad behind her back. Give the woman a chance! she felt like yelling. She only just got here!

Marching up to the front office, she purposefully pushed her way in. Huh, she thought, some people just can’t be happy unless they’re spreading discontent.

“I’d like to see Mrs. Baker, please.”

“Oh, hi, Minnie. I’ll see if she’s available.” Lily spoke softly into the intercom for a moment, then smiled at Minnie and said, “She’ll see you now. Go on in.”

“Hi, Minnie, how’s it going?” Becky smiled as Minnie sat down. Hiring Minnie as a clerical assistant had been one of her first steps as new principal, and she felt personally involved in her success or failure. Minnie lived just two blocks away, and employing her had served the dual purpose of filling the advertised position while building connections within the community.

“Good morning, Mrs. Baker.” Minnie perched on the edge of the leather chair in front of the principal’s desk. “Things are going fine – well, some things are fine. I was walking around the school today, you know, visiting with the new teachers, asking if I could help copy, set up, file – whatever I could to help them get ready. And then I heard something that really bothered me.”

Minnie went on to recount the tail-end of Beth and Janice’s conversation, concluding with, “It just doesn’t seem right that she would say those things to sour a new teacher her first few days. I just thought you would want to know.”

“Thanks,” said Becky quietly. Looking out her office door, she caught Lily’s eye.

As soon as Minnie left, Lily entered, ostensibly to hand her two pink phone messages. “You should know: Janice was written up by the last principal. Kids and parents love her, though.”

Becky looked at her assistant appraisingly. Just how much did Lily know?

See Ms. Ford’s mid-year evaluation from the previous year below:

Caring for an at-risk student presents a new challenge to Principal Baker and her staff.

“…If one member of the community lacks resources, or needs help, it is our mandate to devise a plan to help.”

Early in the afternoon Becky sat down to a meeting with two of her staff, guidance counselor, Arlene Adams, and sixth grade lead teacher Melissa French, both of whom had been at Bland Valley for several years.

Walter needs extra support.

“I’ve been prepping for the incoming kids, and reviewing their files. We’ve got one student coming from Peyton Ryan” – one of the feeder elementary schools – “A Walter Johnson,” Melissa began. “Anyway, when I looked through his file yesterday, I found a note about interventions they did in elementary school. Walter got a lot of special attention. Every day when he came to school he took a shower, changed clothes, ate breakfast, and then reported to class. At the end of the day, Walter would eat dinner in the cafeteria, change back into the clothes he wore to school, and then go home.”

Becky was taken aback. “Go on,” she murmured. “Why was this happening?”

Arlene took over the commentary at this point. “I’ve been a guidance counselor here for seventeen years, and this is as bad a situation as any I’ve seen.” She struggled to keep the anger out of her voice. “The conditions in Walter’s home are unspeakable. Horrible. You wouldn’t believe it.” She handed Becky a pile of Social Services reports. “Why he is still living there…” She shook her head angrily. “I don’t know. It’s beyond me.”

“But this should fall under the jurisdiction of Social Services, shouldn’t it?” asked Melissa. “I mean, it’s really their job to sort this out, not ours…”

Becky stifled a sigh as she looked through the reports. The challenges that some children had to go through in life – she just couldn’t help but wonder why. “So, it seems that his last school was able to make a plan to address the problem. Why can’t we?”

Melissa shifted in her chair. “Look, I know that this is an awful and tragic situation…but we don’t have that set-up here at Bland Valley. I mean, breakfast, sure, he can be a part of that program, of course, but if Walter comes to school and takes a shower, that means he’ll miss at least the first fifteen minutes of class every day. And that won’t work.” Her voice was adamant.

Becky took a deep breath. “We’ve all got to be willing to pitch in, even if it does mean bending our routines.” She looked at Arlene. “You’ve got experience with this. What should we do?”

Becky formulates a plan for her School Improvement Team.

“These changes, this team building, this vision need not and should not stop with the Bland Valley staff. The whole community needs to be involved…”

Becky glanced at her watch and at the items still remaining on that day’s to-do list. Her day was winding to a close, but she still needed to draft plans for her School Improvement Team. She rested her fingers lightly on the keyboard and stared out over the computer screen as she reviewed her vision for this committee. It would be composed of members of the administration, faculty, and community, as well as families and student representatives. They would establish a culture of learning and a community of involvement, and they would succeed one student at a time. She began typing as her thoughts jelled.

Click here to read Becky’s first draft of three sections of the School Improvement Plan.

Watch Dr. Pamela Tucker, Assistant Professor, University of Virginia, Curry School of Education, discuss the school improvement process and steps Becky Baker might take to achieve success.