(from left) Molly Howard, Jefferson County HS, Louisville, GA; Cheryl Guyett, A.J. Dimond HS, Anchorage, AK; James Dierke, Visitacion Valley MS, San Francisco, CA; Meredith Caswell, Samuel Slater MS, Pawtucket, RI; Patsy Dean, Upson-Lee MS, Thomaston, GA; Bruce Curry, Polytech HS, Woodside, DE

Six principals from across the country have been named as finalists for the 2008 MetLife/NASSP National Middle Level and High School Principal of the Year awards, which honor outstanding educators. These principals' accomplishments include changing their school's climate, building teams, spearheading reform, and collaborating with community members.

The NASSP and MetLife awards focus attention on the outstanding work principals do in middle level and high schools across the country. The finalists are chosen for their accomplishments as high-achieving principals while making a daily investment in their students' future.

The 2008 middle level finalists are:

  • Meredith Caswell, Samuel Slater Junior High School, Pawtucket, RI;
  • Patsy Dean, Upson-Lee Middle School, Thomaston, GA;
  • James Dierke, Visitacion Valley Middle School, San Francisco, CA

    The 2008 high school finalists are:

  • Bruce Curry, Polytech High School, Woodside, DE;
  • Cheryl Guyett, A.J. Dimond High School, Anchorage, AK;
  • Molly Howard, Jefferson County High School, Louisville, GA.

    Middle Level Finalists

    Meredith A. Caswell
    Samuel Slater Junior High School
    Pawtucket, Rhode Island

    "I learned early on that 'we may not have all come over on the same ship, but we are all on the same boat,' steering toward a course of action that ensures success for all students," Meredith (Merry) Caswell says. She was determined from the beginning of her tenure at Slater Junior High School seven years ago that everyone on the staff would work as a team. The staff began by crafting a new vision and mission statement. A yearly theme is woven through all the professional development, faculty meetings, and special events, which are tied to the vision, school improvement plan, and needs assessment. Using Breaking Ranks in the Middle, Turning Points 2000, and the Rhode Island High School and Middle School regulations as a framework, Slater has transformed from a traditional junior high school to a progressive middle school. Classroom walk-throughs, peer teaching and coaching, and lesson studies are integral parts of the school culture for staff members. Teachers use data from state assessments, district literacy and numeracy assessments and benchmarks, and informal classroom information, interest, and learning style surveys and observations to improve and differentiate their instruction. A weekly advisory period stresses academic success, positive behavior, and plans for the future. The school is moving in the right direction, Caswell says, consistently making all the targets under NCLB and ranking in the top two tiers of all middle schools in the Value Added category under the RI School Accountability System because they have realized that "the strength of the wolf is in the pack."

    Patsy H. Dean
    Upson-Lee Middle School
    Thomaston, Georgia

    "To fully implement the middle school concept, there must be a balance among academic excellence, social equity, and developmental responsiveness," according to Patsy Dean, who took a struggling middle school with no direction and low morale and, with a vision and support from staff, students, and the community, turned it into a 2005 Georgia Lighthouse School to Watch. Learning-focused teacher teams, steering committees, instructional coaches, and administrators provide the leadership necessary to create a school community focused on meeting student needs and promoting academic achievement. All core content classes are heterogeneously grouped and the special needs program is based on an inclusion model using co-teaching as its foundation. Teachers in each content area have collaborated to develop a set of essential learnings, common assessments, instructional plans and tools, and performance-based activities. An optional week-long summer class, five professional learning days per year, and at least two hours of collaborative planning weekly for each grade level content area promote collaborative planning for effective instruction. The large school is divided into small learning communities where teams focus on getting to know individual students and their families and helping students with their academic, emotional, and behavioral needs. An advisor/advisee program pairs each student with an adult advocate and a three-year character education program emphasizes positive personal development. These school improvement initiatives and the commitment of all stakeholders have promoted higher student achievement and an improved overall learning climate.

    James. S. Dierke
    Visitacion Valley Middle School
    San Francisco, California

    Ensuring students have a safe, nurturing, and stimulating learning environment in the middle of a high-crime community can be challenging. Yet James Dierke met the challenge head on by focusing on the fundamentals: school safety, classroom management, home-school communication, and building trust among the staff, students, and parents. He also recognized the importance of meeting the needs of all students. A large number of students live with people other than their parents because their parents are in jail or in drug treatment. The Roots Program provides a social worker and therapist to help these students cope with the daily problems they face. Representatives from more than 20 outside agencies come to school to work with students and their parents in a variety of capacities. Grade level "families" and a grade-level care team approach offer a measure of personalization and the Beacon after school tutoring program provides both tutoring and after-school recreational activities. More than half the students stay after school to attend tutoring classes. A gifted program, college gear-up program, and high school visitation program help students recognized the importance of education and making plans for the future. All students and staff members are involved in a schoolwide reading program, and all eighth grade students are enrolled in Algebra. Dierke has worked with the faculty and students to develop a strong sense of leadership, ownership, and pride in the school, which the San Francisco Chronicle called "an island of safety in a sea of trouble."

    High School Finalists

    Bruce O. Curry
    Polytech High School
    Woodside, Delaware

    Bruce Curry ascribes to the tenet that "leadership is action, not position." As principal of Polytech High School, he sees his role as guiding, energizing, and exciting a diverse group of staff members and students. He does just that in a variety of ways. For example, every staff member is an integral part of at least one of 11 action teams that continuously examine the school's successes and challenges using extensive "indicators of progress" data. Staff members also participate in a self-directed professional development program that provides monthly seminars taught by staff members from the district and school about areas of greatest need and interest. Five academies create small learning communities, bringing a sense of closeness and promoting opportunities to coordinate interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, and integrated lessons and activities for the students. All the academic classes are considered college preparatory and instruction emphasizes higher-order thinking skills and differentiation. Polytech has instituted a summer reading program, added "double dosing" in math and reading to help struggling learners, and strengthened the connections with dozens of businesses that employ students through a strong school-to-work program. An Advisement Support System provides each professional staff member with 8-10 students to mentor from the time they arrive until they graduate. It's no surprise, then, that Polytech has one of the highest graduation rates in Delaware at 96%. Polytech High School has risen from "one of the poorest performing schools in the High School That Work Consortium in 1991" to one of the best in the country, earning a Superior rating in 2006.

    Cheryl M. Guyett
    A. J. Dimond High School
    Anchorage, Alaska

    When she was appointed principal of Dimond High School in 2004, Cheryl Guyett inherited a quality school whose students and staff members were limited by the isolation that often plagues large high schools. She made it her mission to create collaborate structures of students, parents, and teachers throughout the school. Almost three years later, these teams have transformed the culture of the school from a hierarchical structure to a web of collaboration. The staff provides direction through house meetings, department chair meetings, and a monthly faculty forum. A Monday Late Start schedule created 45 minutes each week for teachers to work in collaborative teams on instructional topics of their choice. All staff members are involved in projects such as vertical teaming with elementary and middle feeder schools, cross-district world language projects, grade-level curriculum alignment, and technology applications. Guyett and her staff have implemented many of the concepts in Breaking Ranks II to restructure teaching and learning at Dimond High School with the goal of personalizing the school and increasing student achievement. Programs include lunchtime tutoring, homework assistance, extended learning, credit recovery, and personalized reading assistance. The school was reformatted into four houses, including a Freshman House modeled on the academy concept that promotes small learning communities, and two smaller houses. Students stay in their houses until graduation. This personalization has lead to increased school safety, improved student and staff satisfaction, increased student achievement, and a sense of community that often is lost in a large school.

    Molly P. Howard
    Jefferson County High School
    Louisville, Georgia

    Bridging a serious achievement gap can be a daunting challenge, but it's one that Molly Howard tackled head on with the help of the entire school community. When she took the helm of Jefferson County High School, her first order of business was to create a school improvement team that developed a mission and vision for the school and set several top priorities: increase graduation rates, create a personalized caring school community, and increase student achievement on state tests. To address those priorities, Howard worked with the school community to build a culture of collaboration and establish a true learning community. An annual summer workshop gives teachers a week of uninterrupted time to develop and refine units of study that reflect best practices, differentiation, essential learnings, and standards. One decision the staff made, knowing that setting high expectations is a key to student achievement, was to eliminate all lower-level courses. All students take college preparatory-level English, as well as math, science, and social studies. With extended learning time and a mastery approach, every student also has the opportunity to master essential Algebra I skills. Students who have not mastered standards are offered extra help through an after-school tutoring program and in-class retests. To keep students on track, each certified adult in the school serves as an advisor to a group of 12-15 students and follows the students throughout their entire high school career. According to Howard, the advisory program has helped create a new culture within the school. Now the school boasts improved student achievement and a 75% graduation rate, which is above the state and national rates.

    The Selection Process

    The search for the National Principals of the Year began in early 2007 as each state principal's association selected its State Principal of the Year. From this pool of state award winners, a panel of judges selected three middle level and three high school finalists. The national middle level and high school winners will be named in September and recognized in Washington, DC. during the Principals' Institute for State and National Principals of the Year, October 26–27, 2007.

    The six finalists each receive a $1,500 grant. The two national award winners receive an additional $3,500 grant. The grants are used to promote the advancement of learning opportunities for students or other related investments, such as capital improvements, technology-related equipment, or specific educational programs.

    For more information about the MetLife/NASSP State and National Principal of the Year programs and winners, please visit