It was a Monday morning, the start of a new week at Pathfinder Elementary School, and first-graders Addisen McNally and Troy Cross were in the main office with principal Devin Doll.
But they weren’t sent to the office because they were in trouble.
Just the opposite, in fact.
Addisen and Troy were with Doll because they had earned enough positive points to become principal’s assistants, and they were preparing to make the morning announcements over the public address system.
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“We reward the positives as much as we can,” Doll said.
After the announcements, Doll left the office to make the rounds at classrooms and visit students. Pathfinder is a school of 584 students in kindergarten through fourth grade in the Platte County R-3 School District.
Being seen by students is important, said Shelly Nielsen, principal of Overland Trail Middle School in the Blue Valley School District.
Nielsen stands in front of the building when school buses arrive in the morning and when they leave in the afternoon. She greets the students there as well as in the lunchroom, hallways and classrooms.
“Being visible helps kids,” Nielsen said. “It makes us more approachable and it lets them know we’re interested in them.”
Recently, Nielsen discussed social studies projects with sixth-graders in the library of the school.
“She’s easy to talk to,” said Joy Yan, a sixth-grader.
Not so long ago, the school principal was someone students hoped they’d never see — let alone talk to. Seeing the principal meant the shame of being sent to the office for misbehaving.
For other students — those who didn’t require disciplining — the principal often was only a voice heard over the intercom.
Not any more. Today’s principals are seen and heard in friendly conversations in classes, on playgrounds, at games, debate tournaments, plays — they’ve even been known to high-five a student in the hallway.
The job is full-time, year round, rewarding, demanding and stressful. Principals are held accountable for a school’s graduation rate, student test scores, attendance levels and readiness for college or careers. The principal also must account for the personal safety of every student in the building every day — preventing bullies, shooters, suicides and other threats.
“We are considered the face of the school,” said Marc Williams, president of the Kansas Association of Secondary School Principals and principal at Spring Hill High School. “It is very important to make personal connections with your students and parents.”
With Doll’s coaching, for example, Addisen and Troy welcomed their classmates and teachers back to Pathfinder and read from a script about the activities planned for the day.
Pathfinder is participating in The Leader in Me, a nationwide program to teach students leadership and life skills.
“We are teaching students to be leaders, to be self-motivated, to set and reach personal and academic goals,” Doll said.
In a simpler time when kids were growing up, Doll said, the emphasis was on “beans, buses and balls,” making sure students were fed, transported to school and given the opportunity to play sports.
Elementary schools must do much more now.
“Now, we’re addressing academic as well as social and emotional needs,” Doll said.
A world with Google
Technology has changed teaching significantly.
“Our middle school students have never known a world without Google or Facebook,” said Nielsen. “If these kids want to know something, they just ask their phones.”
Students at Overland Trail, a middle school of about 650 students in the sixth through eighth grade, are expected to bring their own electronic devices to school. But the school also will provide laptops and tablets.
“Projects are what excites kids more than reading out of a book,” Nielsen said. “For their social studies projects, the students researched an artifact, wrote scripts and created their own video.”
At EPiC Elementary School in the Liberty School District, all learning is project-based. EPiC stands for Every Person Inspired to Create.
The school opened in 2014 and educates 300 students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
“Project-based learning allows students to tap into their interests,” said principal Michelle Schmitz, who has been with the school since it opened.
Students pick an area of interest in a subject being taught and then research that area using their electronic devices.
EPiC doesn’t look like a traditional school. There are no classrooms with rows of desks. Students gather in small groups, large groups or as individuals in cozy areas where they can sit or stand or sprawl comfortably with their iPads.
“This is a lot more hands-on,” said Sophia Lemoine, 10, a fourth-grader.
Sometimes a squabble on the playground may send a student to the principal’s office but Schmitz said the incidents are rare because “this is a different type of environment... kids collaborate a lot during the day, and they learn how to compromise.”
Students are learning skills they can take into the workplace as well, such as how to code. Even kindergartners are learning how to tell a computer what they want it to do.
And teachers and administrators are learning from the students.
“I wanted to change the font color on my iPad,” Schmitz recalled. “So, I went to the lunchroom and asked the students for help.”
Park Hill South High School opened in Riverside in 1998 and Dale Longenecker was there as assistant principal in charge of discipline.
Principal now for 11 years, Longenecker has seen many changes over the years.
The curriculum has become more rigorous: all students must complete Algebra I, Geometry and Algebra II. Dual-credit courses are offered that allow students to earn both high school and college credit.
“Our kids learn more than we did,” he said. “The opportunities now are so much better due to technology.”
Dealing with life
Yet, schools, and principals, are expected to do more.
“The role of schools has changed,” Longenecker said. “The things we can fix are always being added to the list: stop bullying, suicide prevention, health class, personal finance.
“They’re all good things, but nothing ever comes off the list.”
As the principal of a school that educates between 2,600 and 2,700 students in the ninth through 12th grades, Longenecker said his management style is one of “distributed leadership,” relying on assistant principals and others in midlevel management positions to meet with department leaders, hire staff and handle other daily obligations.
Conflict resolution is part of the principal’s job in ways one might not imagine — disgruntled parents at basketball games, for example.
Longenecker started his career in education as a math teacher before becoming an administrator. Typically, the path to the principal’s position begins in the classroom.
Ann McGuff was teaching math when she was asked by her pastor to consider an administrative position at Good Shepherd Parish School in Shawnee.
“I was a classroom teacher and I loved having a classroom of 25,” McGuff said.
Although she hesitated at first, in her 13th year now as principal of Good Shepherd, McGuff said she has a class of 391 in kindergarten through the eighth grade at the Catholic school.
McGuff is also a lead evaluator for an international accrediting agency. She leads accreditation teams that review other schools in Kansas.
“I come away with some good ideas,” she said of the evaluation experience.
One of those ideas — faith families — she brought back to Good Shepherd. Faith families bring together one student from every grade, for a total of nine students, with parent leaders from the parish.
They participate in activities throughout the year such as prayer services, food and clothing drives and volunteer work.
The school has been recognized for its scores on Kansas assessments and has received the Kansas Governor’s Achievement Award.
McGuff credits the teachers with the school’s high marks: “Teachers here see this as more of a calling than a career.”
Yet, Good Shepherd is about more than good grades. Eighth-grade graduation may be the end of a student’s education at Good Shepherd, but McGuff has her sights set higher and further into the future: “Our goal is to get them to heaven.”
When the smell of fresh popcorn fills the hallways at Brougham Elementary School in Olathe, students know it’s time for another movie night. Three times a year, the school shows a movie for the students at the end of the school day.
Of the some 350 students in kindergarten through fifth grade, about 250 stay after school to enjoy a movie and popcorn.
Principal Stephanie Conklin believes in making school fun and celebrating student successes, whether for rewarding good behavior, recognizing leadership or achieving academic goals.
Conklin herself experienced a surprise celebration in October when she was named recipient of the Milken Educator Award, a national honor that includes a $25,000 cash prize.
Keeping students safe
Although Conklin wants students and staff to enjoy coming to school, her most satisfying accomplishment to date is the dismissal procedure she created with an eye on student safety.
“Dismissal is an elementary principal’s nightmare,” Conklin said. “My first visit to the school was at dismissal, and it was chaos — everyone ran outside.”
With her plan, dismissal is calm and efficient.
The school is located in a residential area of Olathe and draws from a two-mile radius. Except for students in special education and day care, there are no school buses.
When the bell rings at 3:35 p.m., students who walk north to go home meet at the library. Students who walk south meet in the kindergarten hallway. Car riders go the gym. Students are released at 3:40 p.m. and are safely on their way home no later than 3:50 p.m.
“It takes 22 people and two radios,” Conklin said. She is always part of the dismissal process and rotates through the locations.
Conklin tells the students that her role as building principal is to keep them safe and to make sure they learn as much as they can.
School safety concerns are one of the most noticeable changes in the principal’s job over the years.
“We are having to spend a great deal of time focused on school safety,” said Marc Williams, principal of Spring Hill High School and board president for the state association. “We practice drills as if there was an actual shooter within the building.”
Clark Mershon, principal of Staley High School in Kansas City, North, shares that concern.
“A big part of the job is situational awareness, anticipating what could go wrong,” Mershon said.
Staley, a school of some 1,500 students, has security cameras, secured entrances, a deputy monitoring the parking lot and an electronic scanner that can screen visitors and run a background check based on the visitor’s driver’s license.
Yet, the most effective resource for school safety are the eyes and ears of the students themselves, said Mershon, who is also the Kansas City area representative for the Missouri Association of Secondary School Principals.
“Students will share with us in confidence their thoughts about students who are talking or behaving in a way they shouldn’t,” Mershon said.
To achieve that level of trust the school must create a healthy, respectful culture.
“Through these doors walk the best students and parents in America,” reads the sign that greets visitors to Staley.