Ballou High School Principal Willie Jackson said that his first year as leader of the Ward 8 High School was a transformative experience.
“So many emotions, right? Being a former student and a former graduate of Ballou, and to come full circle as the principal –I just felt overwhelmed and blessed,” he said. Jackson graduated from Ballou High School (3401 Fourth St. SE) in 1987.
Jackson said his first year was about observation and relationship building.
“I came in with the eye of observation,” he said. “When you’re a first-year principal, I learned through schooling that you don’t come in and change the curtains the first year.”
Many first-year principals face an even steeper learning curve than Jackson, who grew up in Barry Farms and is intimately familiar with both the neighborhood and the school he leads. With Jackson, four principals, including William Haith of Anacostia High School (1601 16th St. SE), Marlene Magrino of Eliot-Hine Middle School (1830 Constitution Ave. NE) and Principal Nadine Smith of Dunbar High School (101 N St. NW) spoke about what they learned in their first year, and what they will take from those lessons moving forward.
‘A Bench of Talent’
All of the principals say that they learned the value of a talented group of staff and teachers.
“Eliot-Hine has a dedicated and diverse staff with many strengths in their areas of expertise,” said Eliot Hine Principal Marlene Magrino. “Together, we can provide our students with a world-class education.”
She points to the International Baccalaureate (IB) Middle Years Program, which is designed to promote independent learning, critical thinking and inquisitiveness in students. “Our IB program is one of the many things that makes Eliot-Hine unique, and our school community is excited about the growth in store for our school,” said Magrino.
Anacostia High School Principal William Haith said that one thing he had to learn was to balance his administrative duties with the time and attention he gave to teachers and their work. “I learned to minimize the amount of meetings I have during the day so that I can be in front of classrooms,” he said. “My one main job is to be able to coach teachers and to be able to give them feedback as they’re teaching in their classrooms.”
Dunbar High School principal Nadine Smith agreed. She said that one of the key lessons she learned is that a principal is only as good as the staff and teachers they are working with. “Invest in people, build a bench of talent, and never lead alone,” she said.
Lead by Example
The principals also emphasized the importance of leading by example. Ballou Principal Jackson draws on the example of his life-journey, which makes him a role model on multiple levels.
“I heard that I have street cred –I found that out this year,” he said. “When kids were getting a little inappropriate, kids would stand up and say, ‘Hey you can’t talk to my man like that, that’s Principal Jackson, he’s from Barry Farms’,” Jackson said.
“I try to make sure that I’m a model, because kids are watching, so we have to make sure we’re in principal mode 24-hours.”
Smith agrees, adding that holding oneself and the school to high standards is a critical but often difficult task. She said it was the first lesson she learned. “Hold yourself and staff to high standards,” she said. “This takes courage and love. Ground your work in kids and you will always show up courageous and filled with love.”
Smith said she learned that it was more important to live what was right than to be liked. “Lead by example and stick to your values and politics around students—you won’t be able to please everyone and that’s fine.”
Haith said that he learned that being visible is key to being a good role model. “In regards to students, it’s always a good sign when students make comments such as ‘why are you always in here,’ or ‘we see you all the time.’ You don’t want to be one of those principals who, when you do pop up in the classroom, they comment ‘we never see you.’”
The Community is Behind Our Efforts
Principal Magrino said that she was pleased to find tremendous support for Eliot-Hine in the neighborhood. “Eliot-Hine has access to many supports within the District and the community is behind these efforts. I am proud that our community is invested in the success of our students,” she said.
Haith and Jackson came into the school year wanting to strengthen those relationships. Haith said that while there have been tremendous successes, such as partnerships with the Anacostia Arts Collaborative, Union Temple Church and the Georgetown Medical Clinic, he learned where the school needed to switch focus in order to improve its image in the community.
“I’m extremely excited about where we are with the #WhyAna brand, and we’re looking to see how we can build on that as we go into the next school year,” he said. However, Haith notes that some families don’t use social media, or follow the school when they do. “Even though we’re making a small impact, we need to find ways to increase that impact that we’re having with our families and our communities
Three of the schools –Ballou, Eliot-Hine and Anacostia– will become Connected Schools in 2020, an initiative that puts schools at the center of a neighborhood hub that links DC agencies and other organizations with students and families, matching them to resources such as job training, housing and family wellness. The principals said these resources will help them collaborate with the community and with the District.
“We will tap into even more resources and find new ways to collaborate with our community as a Connected School, which will shift how we partner with government agencies and community organizations to educate the whole child – academically, socially, and emotionally,” said Magrino.
The principals are excited about applying what they have learned to the 2020 school year. “We will use our staff’s expertise, supports from the District, and excitement from the community to strengthen our IB programming, organizational culture, and foundation for future growth,” said Magrino.
In addition to becoming Connected Schools, Anacostia and Ballou High Schools are embarking upon a process of instructional redesign. The process will help the schools reconstruct their instructional models to help serve the needs of all students, particularly those furthest from opportunity.
Jackson said that he sees the process as another way to get the community involved with change at Ballou. He said that the Ballou Design Team will include members of the community as well as alumni, teachers and students.
“I can’t do it alone and I’m so appreciative of all the support from central [DCPS] office, the staff and the community.”
Meeting the needs of every student is a priority next year at Dunbar as well, said Principal Smith, adding that lessons learned in her first year will help her work towards that goal. “I will use these lessons to inform next year by leading through an equity lens,” she said. “At Dunbar, equity is working to meet the unique needs of every single student. We will focus on data-driven instruction – that is equity.”
She said the Dunbar school community will invest in its people by providing an excellent work environment, training, and support in meeting the needs of students. However, she said, she has learned that equity starts with the principal.
“I will hold myself and staff to high standards in order to show up as our best for our students – that is equity,” she said. “I will continue to be courageous and center my work on the folks I work for—kids!”