NASSP’s 2020 National Principal of the Year: Kerensa Wing

In second grade, Kerensa Wing’s teacher, Ms. Gillespie, came down with laryngitis. She asked Wing and a classmate to present the lessons that week—and they did. Since then, Wing has always felt at ease working with students. For her, creating and cultivating relationships with youths came naturally. Her goal was to inspire them, to see what they could learn and accomplish. Pretty early in her educational career, Wing knew she wanted to get into teaching, but she never thought beyond that to where teaching might take her.

Wing began her career as a history teacher at Collins Hill High School (CHHS) in Suwanee, GA, in 1994—in a brand-new school. She moved up to assistant principal for eight years and then left for a short time to be the principal of a new school. But Wing couldn’t stay away. She soon returned to CHHS, where she became only the third principal the school has ever had.

Building Global Competence

Gwinnett County Public School District in Georgia is the 12th-largest school district in the nation, encompassing about 180,000 students. CHHS supports 2,900 of those students and employs 250 staff members. With a diversity that Wing feels to be representative of the worldly population, the school’s makeup is 31 percent Hispanic, 30 percent black, 21 percent white, 13 percent Asian, and 5 percent multinational students. The voices you hear in the hallways around the school incorporate 36 home languages. Wing uses this diversity, coupled with creative problem-​solving skills, to create a global mindset in her students. She wants them to be ready for the real world when they graduate.

As part of this plan, she hires teachers who are reflective of the student body and trains with her staff on cultural competency. “Mrs. Wing keeps instruction on the cutting edge by utilizing an advisory board made up of community business partners and fostering student participation in local, regional, and state innovation expos,” explains Amy Crane, the chair of the school’s language arts department. “She inspires culturally relevant pedagogy by partnering with a school in Monrovia, Liberia, where students videoconference monthly to discuss science, technology, engineering, math, education, culture, and teenage life.” The students look forward to these monthly calls and learn so much from their Liberian counterparts, she notes.

But these calls would not be possible without Wing’s implementation of technology to aid in her attempts to be globally competitive. In 2014, the school had only two mobile classroom carts. Now they have “tech buckets”— portable buckets with six laptops each—in 25 classrooms, plus 300 Chromebooks and 15 laptop carts. Wing used grant money to make sure her science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) classes have 1:1 technology during class time. “I embrace new EdTech programs—like PenPal Schools—where students collaborate through online projects ranging from human rights and the environment to current events and robotics,” Wing says. Students learn to use technology while practicing literacy and social-​emotional skills. Their current weekly use of eClass—a digital content, learning, assessment, and support system that enhances student engagement and the learning process—is at 92 percent.

Another way Wing promotes global competency is through professional learning communities (PLCs). One of her first actions as principal at CHHS was to structurally change the schedule to accommodate common planning—a move designed to help teachers collaborate using research-based practices to create realistic activities that make students globally competitive. Before implementing them, though, Wing herself attended workshops, read books, and delivered training. Today, she says, “Our students have the competitive advantage of a richly diverse population, and teachers draw on students’ backgrounds and experiences to enrich their lessons, providing global perspectives in the classroom.” As a result of their PLC focus on integration of technology, authentic learning experiences, and assessment alignment, student performance on state assessments has increased between 3 percent and 13 percent in “proficient” and “distinguished” levels on all tests.

Stepping Up With STEM

In 2014, a group of teachers approached Wing to inquire about establishing a STEM program at CHHS. She loved the idea. She immediately began researching, assisted the teachers with training, and took a year to plan and implement an innovative and academically integrated program. “In developing the program, the teachers and students worked together to develop a vision and a mission for their learning, and I provided resources and structures to encourage their innovation and creativity,” Wing says. But she didn’t want the program to only be available to gifted students. She wanted equity and made sure that the STEM program was open to all students regardless of their academic standing, including those students with IEPs. They use project-​based learning in order to provide creative and diverse learning opportunities for students. Currently, 12 percent of CHHS students have chosen to be involved in the STEM program.

In order to create innovative and exciting STEM programs for her students, Wing serves on committees and talks at conferences such as the Georgia Department of Education STEM Forum and the Georgia Association of Secondary School Principals to share her experiences and also learn from her fellow STEM leaders. Crane explains that Wing looks for and hires teachers who embrace innovative teaching practices that enhance student learning. “She provides all teachers with training on cross-curricular instruction through project-based learning and organizes site visits for teachers to observe nontraditional classrooms across the state,” Crane says.

Student Advisement Groups

One of the programs that Wing has implemented is the student advisement period. For 27 minutes each day, students meet with a teacher who connects with and advocates for every student in their group—a program she developed as assistant principal. The time is meant to show students that there is a caring adult in their world. Here is where the teachers create relationships with students. The advisement period is for reading, goal setting, tutoring, and watching the school news, where Wing always ends the news with her catch phrase, “Wing Out!” The advisement period also serves to teach lessons, including what it means to be an Eagle—their school mascot—as well as digital citizenship, writing résumés, financial literacy, and time management. For those students who are academically sound, the advisement period is used for what she calls “voice and choice.” The students have more of a say in what they do with their time and are allowed to develop special-​interest groups that might involve games, wellness, school spirit, crafts, or music appreciation. Wing places freshmen in advisement groups with student mentors, and any student deemed to be at risk has one-on-one mentoring. She notes that this program has had a 75 percent success rate in keeping freshmen on track for graduation.

Think Before You Post

Wing created the Think Before You Post campaign last spring out of district mandate. Students were posting ideas and comments on social media that could—and sometimes were—being taken offensively or as a threat. Even though the students thought their comments were harmless, the school did not. The main thrust of the Think Before You Post campaign is to bring a positive impact to social media. However, it is not the adults at the school who are advocating this agenda; it’s the students. The school has created student ambassadors to deal directly with the other students who post inappropriate comments. When the media relations department finds an inappropriate message, they remove the message from the social media site and forward it to the student ambassador. That ambassador then approaches the other student and explains why the comment was inappropriate. This way the message is not coming from an adult, but a peer—someone to whom they might listen.

In order to create a cohesiveness among the diverse student body, Wing has also developed programs such as No Place for Hate, Diversity United clubs, an Intentional Acts of Kindness campaign, and an annual Culture Night—all of which are student-run. Students learn to appreciate and respect the diverse cultural experiences of their classmates.

Calling on Community Involvement

Wing has taken specific steps to involve the community as well, and she pulls in resources wherever she can find them. One way she has made contact is through the Suwanee Chamber of Commerce, partnering with many chamber members to participate in the Principal for a Day program. Every year she invites one local business member to come into the school and shadow her for the day. In November she hosted the local fire chief; other years she has included elected officials, bank executives, and doctors. The Principal for a Day program helps to dispel myths about the principal’s role—like the assumption that they simply dole out discipline all day long. Outside observers get to see what students are working on, and students get to ask questions and learn from different types of professionals.

Additionally, Wing maintains relationships with other community partners, including regular partners in education—Lifetouch and Chick-fil-A—but also faith-based organizations. Every fall and spring, Wing delivers high school season sports passes to local religious offices, encouraging clergy and spiritual leaders to attend school events. She believes it’s important for students to see adults available not only for educational support, but also for spiritual support.

Wing works diligently to bring parents into the fold as well. She holds town hall meetings as a way for students and parents to raise concerns. As a direct result of one of these meetings, new security features were installed in the school, and new security procedures were implemented. The students and parents appreciated being heard and seeing that action was taken to alleviate their concerns.

Encouraging Student Leaders

At CHHS, leadership is a shared responsibility, as Wing believes it’s her mission to develop leaders at every level. She has an open-door policy and is willing to meet with any student who needs her, but she also proactively meets monthly with students on the Student Leadership Team and President’s Council to discuss school improvement and opportunities for all students. “I believe our student leaders are our largest untapped resource,” she notes.

Ellen Norrington, a junior at CHHS, explains the school’s position: “Collins Hill consistently pushes its students to take leadership roles through organizations such as the Advisory Team, the Leadership Team, the Gwinnett Student Leadership Team, mentoring, and service summits.” In addition to attending meetings, Norrington also does a lot of public speaking about the school programs. “I have guided and explained how my STEM branch functions to state supervisors, talked with parents at orientations, spoken publicly to the community [about the STEM program], and interviewed for an internship,” Norrington says. “Being a triracial female engineering student, Mrs. Wing empowers me to strive for success.”

Mentoring Future Principals

One accomplishment Wing especially values is her ability to mentor future principals. “Each year, Mrs. Wing has been selected to host principals in training during a 40-day internship,” says Kim Nichols, assistant principal for student leadership and professional learning. “Twelve candidates have become principals, and one [has become] an area superintendent. Seven teachers have become assistant principals.” Many of these principals stay within the Gwinnett County School District, so retention is high.

Wing also works with The Wallace Foundation’s School Leadership Principal Training program. Since her second year at CHHS, Wing has worked as a coach with aspiring principals and novice principals for nine years—in fact, she’s still in touch with them—as she strives to build a relationship with each principal. “As a new principal, it’s nice to know that you have someone there for you to ask questions. My principals can call me anytime, and I will help them work through the issue,” she says.

It’s All a Team Effort

When it comes to having mentors of her own, Wing credits many individuals with helping her get to her current position. She particularly notes the positive attitude of Jerry Cauley, her basketball coach at Forsyth Central High School; Jim Owens, her volleyball coach at Oglethorpe University; Jane Stegall, the athletic director of Shiloh High School of the Gwinnett County Public Schools; and Glenn McFall, the immediate past principal of CHHS.

“Without their encouragement,” Wing says, “I don’t know if I would be where I am now.” She believes success is a collective enterprise, and much of the credit can be shared with her current administrative team as well. “It’s a group effort,” she says. “I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without them.”

Wing always knew she wanted to be in the education field. Her own mother was a fourth-grade teacher. By elevating others into leadership positions and helping them to become strong leaders, she has created an atmosphere of camaraderie and support—fostering a positive mindset that thoroughly empowers her students, her teachers, and her staff to be the best they can be.


Christine Savicky is the senior editor of Principal Leadership.


Sidebar: Meet Kerensa Wing

Wing was born and raised in Georgia and currently lives five minutes from her parents’ house. She obtained her bachelor’s degree in history and secondary education as well as her master’s degree in secondary social studies from Georgia State University in Atlanta. She earned her educational specialist degree in leadership and supervision from Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, TN. She also has certificates in Quality Plus Leadership Academy for Aspiring Principals and the Public Education Leadership Project at Harvard University. Wing also has experience working with young people at Rock Eagle 4-H Camp in Eatonton, GA—run by the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension—where she taught and coached fifth through eighth graders.

In her spare time—which is very scarce—she enjoys reading and playing tennis, but most of the time you can find her in her folding chair on the sidelines of a sports field cheering on her son, Walker (20), and daughter, Kyia (15). Wing is also very active in her church. “I teach a Sunday school class of third through fifth graders at Pleasant View Baptist Church. The support my church family gives me allows me to pour into my students as well,” she says.