Principal for a day

Michelle Bernard, acting as principal for a day, reads to a group of students at Catawba Springs Elementary School. 

As a journalist, I’ve covered local education in Catawba and Lincoln counties for the past three- and-a-half years. Frequently while doing stories, I would interview principals, but for the most part, I never really thought about what their job entails.

That all changed when I took part in the Lincoln County Schools Principal for a Day project. It was organized by the school’s administration in an effort to get a cross-section of the community to step back into a school and experience a day in the life of a principal.

Each participant spent time in one of the district’s schools and experienced what it was like to be a principal for a day. They came from many different walks of life – city and county government officials, law enforcement, medical, nonprofits and small business owners. They then shared their experiences and feedback with administrative staff.

That feedback was varied, Associate Superintendent Aaron Allen said.

“It was an opportunity for them to see some of what they hear about in real life, which was a good thing, but it was also eye opening,” said one participant.

Some noted the prevalence of mental health issues, even in elementary school.

“It also served as an opportunity for partnerships,” Allen said. “One of the people who did it said that she was an older-generation person coming back in and that after her experience, she knows that she needs to get busy with folks in her generation to become more actively involved in our community schools.”

Back to school

I was sent to Catawba Springs Elementary in Denver to spend the day with principal Kristi Smith. While I know now that Smith’s day is always different, most start with greeting students as they come in via buses or cars.

Imagine learning the names of just 50 or 100 students. Smith knows the names of hundreds of them. When the students are all in their classrooms, there are morning announcements and then Smith makes sure all classrooms are covered for the day, both in terms of teachers and supplies.

On the day that I was at the school, Smith visited the classrooms to check on teachers, students and supplies. As is the case in many public schools, supplies and resources are at a premium, and Smith and her staff have to be creative in sourcing what they need.

“I’m looking to see that the students are actively engaged – what’s the teacher doing with the students; what’s the interaction between the students and the teacher,” Smith said. “Based on our school goals, one of the things that we are trying to work on is making sure that all of our students, regardless of their ability levels, are actively engaged so we can make sure they are all making growth.”

Whenever I wrote stories about the results of annual state assessments of individual schools, I always interviewed the principal. I was under the assumption that the teachers were responsible for the test scores, and to a big extent they are. What I hadn’t realized was how much influence the teacher has in assessment success.

Full house

In the hallways or classrooms, students flocked to Smith, excited to talk to her and show her what they’re working on. As she travels through the school, Smith’s also looking at the building itself, checking it for cleanliness or if any repairs need to be done.

Catawba Springs is one of the district schools that is close to exceeding capacity. That means every classroom is in use. With space at a premium, making sure that everything is in working order is a high priority for Smith.

On days when Smith isn’t observing classrooms, she meets with teachers during their planning times to discuss teaching needs and goals. Each grade level has a set planning time.

During mealtimes, Smith is in and out of the cafeteria, making sure everything is going as it should. When it’s time for the students to go home, Assistant Principal Joshua Henderson is in charge of buses, though Smith also monitors car pickup. When all students have been dismissed, Smith still has meetings to attend until the end of her day.

Started in classroom

Like many Lincoln County principals, Smith was once a teacher, and while she still has a good bit of contact with students throughout the day, she said she isn’t able to develop the same kind of individual relationships with students. Smith came to Catawba Springs as an assistant principal in 2005 and became principal in 2007.

“I miss the individual relationships and I try to form relationships with specific students,” she said.

For example, Smith said she’s formed a close relationship with the four members of the school’s student council executive board.

“There are certain children in our building that have different situations,” she said. “I think we see them, not necessarily for discipline, but for other situations or things going on in their life. You develop a relationship with them because you try to become a positive support person for them.”

It’s sometimes hard not to think of the principal as the primary disciplinarian. Smith said she rarely initiates corrective action, primarily because of the school’s peer support system and support from parents.

Summing it all up

It was amazing to me to know how much Smith must manage throughout the day, and how aware she is of everything that’s happening.

She’s much like a ship captain, constantly working to keep the school afloat and moving forward at the proper speed, all without hitting iceberg-like obstacles. Her office is neat and tidy (except for the pile of stuffed animals in one corner, which were slated to go to nursing homes). If it were me doing her job, I’d have sticky notes and bits of scrap paper littered throughout the office to remind me of everything that needs to be done.

“What you set out to do is probably not ever what you end up doing because different things happen during the day and it changes the course,” Smith said.

In this first round of what Allen plans to make an annual program, he said he really didn’t have an end in mind.

“Honestly, I didn’t know if I’d get all the schools covered, and luckily we did,” he said. “We want people to know that we are very successful in Lincoln County, but we didn’t get there alone. It’s because of the partnerships with the community, and these partnerships have ebbed and flowed throughout the years. Now, it’s an opportunity for our community to become reinvested in our local school system in 23 different sites at all levels, and it can be as convenient as they want it to be.”

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