As National Principals Month came to close in October, the staff on the Advocacy team here at NASSP decided we needed to get out of the office—away from the politics on Capitol Hill for a moment—and spend a day reminding ourselves why we do the work that we do. We reached out to several principals in Northern Virginia and asked if we could shadow them for a day, hoping that the experience would enhance our perspective on the current successes and challenges faced by principals and public schools so we might better advocate for the resources they need in 2019 and beyond. To my delight, I got all of that and more from my visit with Carole Kihm, principal of Longfellow Middle School in Falls Church, VA.
It was clear from the moment I walked in the door at Longfellow that I had chosen an excellent school to observe. The front office staff was warm and inviting, and Principal Kihm greeted me with a big smile, introducing me to every member of her staff. One thing that also struck me upon entry was the tight security procedure. With school safety on the top of everyone’s mind these days, it was encouraging to see that the school had a buzzer to request entry, securely locked doors, and an ID scanning system. Longfellow’s school resource officer, Frank, was also nearby, who Principal Kihm described as an integral part of the school’s team and their community. With my printed “visitor” badge securely in place, we were out of the office on the move.
Our first stop was a seventh grade team meeting including teachers, one of the school’s counselors, and an assistant principal. The team focused on a few students who were struggling, and I was struck by the holistic way they approached developing a support strategy for them. The team was looking beyond academic performance as a standalone issue; instead, they discussed issues those students were facing in their personal lives, including with other students and at home. They thought critically and discussed strategies for providing both learning support and well-rounded personal care for each student. The team also discussed an annual mental health screening that had taken place the previous day to identify students who may be suffering from depression or even suicidal thoughts. Since joining NASSP, I’ve heard many principals talk about how our society is depending more on wraparound services in schools, and my visit to Longfellow made that reality very apparent. Today’s educators aren’t just teaching math, science, and history anymore. Now, they’re relied on as a critical part of the all-around care our children need.
After the team meeting, it was nonstop visits to classrooms for the rest of the school day. At first, I thought that Principal Kihm might be trying to squeeze more than usual into her day on my account. As we spoke with teachers and staff throughout the building, however, it was clear that this was just a typical day for her as a principal committed to being constantly visible and involved with all aspects of her school—complete with picking up any bit of trash in the hallway as we walked, as well as saying hello to every student and teacher we saw! Among our many stops, I had the pleasure of visiting (and hearing) Longfellow’s nationally recognized Chamber Orchestra as they prepared to perform at the Midwest Clinic; an incredible Career and Technical Education program that has produced seven straight state Science Olympiad Tournament winners; a media department that boasts a full television set and produces two student-led broadcasts a day; a robust language department featuring courses in Chinese, Spanish, French, and Latin; and an English language learners department that supports Longfellow’s growing population of first-generation American students who speak 58 different languages.
When Principal Kihm and I had a chance to debrief at the end of the day, I wanted to know what makes her school so successful. With the typical humility I’ve come to realize is a hallmark of so many great principals we work with, she told me that all the credit goes to the incredible staff she’s hired over the years. It’s evident to anyone that visits Longfellow Middle School that she has indeed assembled a wildly talented team of educators and professionals. Together, they’ve created a culture of success and learning where the diversity of the student population has become one of their greatest strengths. Even just visiting for a day, the eagerness of Longfellow students to learn was palpable. Classrooms were attentive and engaged because, as Principal Kihm told me, it’s cool to be smart at her school.
What I observed in my shadowing visit is something that NASSP has long sought to impress upon local, state, and federal lawmakers by encouraging them to conduct similar visits with school principals. As they consider funding and policy decisions that affect public education, it’s critical that they understand the realities our schools are facing, what makes them successful, and what support they need to ensure continued success for all students. If you’re a school leader looking to make an impact on policy, consider reaching out to your elected officials about shadowing you for a day. I guarantee that if they’re even a fraction as inspired as I was during my visit with Principal Kihm and Longfellow Middle School, support for our schools and public education in America will be a lot better off. If you’re interested in setting up shadowing visits with lawmakers and NASSP staff, please reach out to our Advocacy team. We’d love to provide guidance and assist you in doing so.