Monday, October 23, 2017

I was Principal for a Day

Today I shadowed an elementary school principal as part of a district-wide "Principal for a Day" program engineered by San Antonio Independent School District superintendent, Pedro Martinez. I got to spend several hours following around Principal Cynthia De La Garza, of Collins Garden Elementary School, on a beautiful brick campus over 100 years old.  The day was superbly coordinated with precision and rigor even when something unexpected occurred. I was impressed.

It was Awards Day, the 1st nine-weeks grading period having just ended, so I got to stand on stage for 3 different awards presentations, shaking students' hands and giving out ribbons for perfect attendance, good citizenship and honor roll. The school has over 500 students enrolled and today's awards went to Kinder, 1st and 2nd graders.  The 3rd, 4th and 5th graders get to walk across the stage tomorrow - I almost wish I could go back for it.  ;)  Nearly every student got at least one award, so I reckon  I said, "Congrats!" "Good job!" "Nice job!" "Way to go!" or "Felicidades!" at least 200 times, but it was great because they were all so adorable.  The ones who were star struck looking out from the stage at all their classmates and parents in the audience, the ones beaming with pride, grinning ear to ear, the ones who were clearly embarrassed at the attention, and the ones too shy to make eye contact.  Rituals like this are so important.  Like Principal De La Garza said to the parents who attended today's ceremonies, precious memories were made today.

Attendance is a big deal for a principal, representing dollars for the school in the form of an allotment of revenue based on average daily attendance, along with the obvious fact that kids can't learn if they aren't present.  I was very impressed at how quickly the school knew its daily attendance after the bell rang:  Only an hour or so into the day they knew they were at nearly 97% attendance.  Only a handful of kids were absent, and 4 of them were from the same family - making it easier to find out what the source of the missed school day was.  Visits are planned to the homes of kids later in the day if no one responds to a phone call explaining the absence.

I could go on for paragraphs about everything I saw and heard during my informative job shadow, but I probably need to get back to my real job, so I've provided a quick summary of the highlights below: 

Schools continue to hone the task of feeding hungry kids:  One of the first surprises I got came right at the start of the day when I learned that breakfast is served directly in the classroom immediately after the bell rings for school to start.  The principal explained that this practice ensures that all kids get to eat, not just the ones who get to school early, and it also provides a way for them to track who eats and who doesn't.  I thought for sure it would make the start of school hectic and unproductive, but they've got the organization of it down to a science and the kids ate pretty quickly and got to work.

Technology is a challenge:  I couldn't believe that teachers are using old transparency-like machines to project images and documents on the wall.  I didn't expect state of the art digital equipment exactly, but I would think they would have something a little more up to date.  One of the machines I saw a teacher using looked like something my nonprofit threw away last year when we moved.  We hadn't even used it in 15 years.  On the one hand, I personally think kids today need fewer devices in their hands and less screen time overall, but what I saw in the school was a lack of the basics of technology that could help teachers be more effective and efficient.

Innovation is all around:  From the Pre-K  program located directly on their campus, to the master level teacher - an amazing concept if you haven't heard of it, to the dual language curriculum, innovation is thriving all over this school.  Principal De La Garza is determined to get her kids test scores up, and she is driving change and excellence through innovation and a deep belief that inspiring a love of life-long learning will spur her kids to greater educational outcomes.

The principal doing morning announcements
Some things never change:  Two foundational elementary school components were comfortingly and firmly in place, the library and morning announcements.  My favorite part of any school is usually the library and I wasn't disappointed at Collins Garden.  I met their new librarian and her passion and commitment to reading, the bedrock of educational success, was evident during our conversation.

I also learned that the school partners with the San Antonio Youth Literacy program and has reading buddies for struggling second grade readers.  #love

Morning announcements was the first treat of the day - I love to see kids leading and taking ownership like that.  I got to do the Pledge of Allegiance and lament the fact, once again, that since I didn't go to Elementary school in Texas, I have never learned one word of the pledge to the Texas flag. #shhhdonttellanyone

I don't know how a principal manages to focus on education:  Between the boys's bathroom door getting accidentally locked, the AC not working in the preschool, finding batteries for a microphone, and parents showing up without ID for the award ceremony, a principal's job is to wear many hats that require troubleshooting a variety of issues all day long.  It's easy to see how hard it must be to focus on the monumental task of facilitating the capacity of 30 teachers to work effectively with over 500 students. My hat is off. 

Last note:  Sadly, I didn't get to stay for the visit this afternoon of "MacGruff the Crime Dog", in celebration of Drug Free Red Ribbon Week.  Maybe I will go back on Friday with my crazy socks on. As gracious and welcoming as I am sure Principal De la Garza would be, I guess I need to get back to the world of mentoring though.

The garden the students made at Collins Garden
*I remember wishing I could win the Perfect Attendance Award when I was in elementary school.  My school only awarded this coveted honor once a year - at the end of the year.  I never made it all the way through a school year without missing a day.  There was the year we got chicken pox, and the year we got lice, and I had horrible ear infections pretty much every year, but for the most part I attended school regularly and was a good student.  Honor roll was no problem for me, but I wanted that perfect attendance ribbon something fierce.  So I think it's pretty awesome that the system has evolved to where this award is given every nine weeks, making the feat more achievable for everyone.