March is Middle Level Education Month. In celebration, Principal Leadership talked with two current principals and one former middle school principal to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing this group of educational leaders: Jay Masterson, principal at Joseph L. McCourt Middle School in Cumberland, RI; Autumn Pino, principal at Roosevelt Middle School in Cedar Rapids, IA; and Crechena Wise, former principal at Tetzlaff Middle School-Accelerated Learning Academy in Cerritos, CA, who is currently the principal at Gahr High School in Cerritos.

All three principals are 2016 NASSP State Principal of the Year winners in their respective states. 

The National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform developed a paradigm for midlevel education, calling for it to be academically excellent, developmentally appropriate, and socially equitable. That presents quite a challenge, our middle school principals agreed, adding that there’s no single blueprint for success.

Biggest Challenges

One of the biggest challenges facing middle school principals today, Masterson says, is holding on to the middle school model. With the inception of the Common Core and the need to boost student proficiency, the middle school model-with teams and interdisciplinary curriculum-has become difficult to maintain. “We have taken different approaches to try and hold on to the concept of personalization,” he says. “We have used an intervention/enrichment block that has become a personalized block of time for teachers and students to get to know each other better by intervening in math and reading or enriching students who are proficient in those skills.” This scheduling, Masterson explains, has resulted in multigrade classrooms, which has broken down grade-level barriers and increased student interest in their development by using a growth mindset.

For Pino, the biggest challenge also involves personalization—meeting every student at his or her level to feel valued, connected, engaged, and empowered. “As a school administrator,” she explains, “I used to think that the challenge was in fighting the daily tug between being a manager and the desired state of being an instructional leader. But over the last several years, my thinking has shifted. For me, the greater challenge is equitable practice and creating conditions where all students can thrive.” Middle school is an incredibly valuable time in a student’s life, Pino asserts, and she has shared with staff that they cannot be satisfied with reaching most students, but need to be “relentless” in pursuing all students.

Wise believes that the biggest challenges facing middle school principals are the demands to meet the needs for all students as well. “We need additional support for CTE [career and technical education] middle school pathways, student mental health, and the merging of technology with new curriculum that supports Common Core,” she says.

Vertical Teaming 

When she served as a middle school principal, Wise worked extensively on “vertical teaming,” which involved working with the high schools to ensure that their electives were gateways for high school courses. “It was important, in particular for middle school students, so that we could directly create seamless transitions,” says Wise of vertical teaming. “As a middle school principal, I attended several PTSA meetings of my feeder elementary schools to help transition parents and students to middle school. We provided a day in which the site paid to have elementary students spend the day on campus. … Elementary students toured the campus and asked questions about the site.”

At the high school, Wise says, two departments were given time to collaborate about curriculum and instruction once a year. “There was an exchange in classroom visits and time to discuss best practices,” she notes. “All elective courses at the middle level worked as an introductory course to high school elective courses. The middle school Spanish 1 teacher created common assessment and data analysis with the high school Spanish 1 teacher. The middle school students also were given the opportunity to visit the high school campus and worked with the high school counselors to create high school completion plans with all eighth graders.”

So, what are the biggest changes in being a middle school principal over the past 10 years? For Masterson, it’s the shift from building management to building leadership. “This current model is one that principals embrace, as we want to be leaders of our organization, rather than middle management,” he says. 

There’s been a rapid change related to innovation in a digitally rich world, Pino notes. “I have tried to use the context of the broader community (outside the walls of school) to think about how this should shape me as an instructional leader and in reflecting upon what opportunities we are providing for our students. Ten years ago, I was trying to engage students in the context of a more traditional model; now, I find myself seeking ways to live within flexible scheduling where we can provide authentic learning experiences where students are challenged and demonstrate their knowledge in a variety of ways,” she explains.

“The largest changes stem from the evolution of students in a technological society,” Wise agrees. “As technology has evolved, so has the need to support student socio-emotional needs.”

These midlevel principals have much to be proud of at their schools. For Masterson, it’s the school’s intervention block. “Students build a timeline for their learning so that they can graduate from intervention into enrichment. We have found, though, that once students become proficient and are eligible to go into enrichment, many want to stay in intervention because of the bond they have developed with their interventionist,” he says. “Students who are in enrichment participate in science Olympiad, chess, movement activities, Yoga, and STEM, to name a few. These students are scheduled based on their high interest and their teacher’s high interest in the course offering.” McCourt Middle School implemented a 1:1 Chromebook initiative three years ago, which has been very successful. “Our students are learning and creating products just as we do in the real world of the 21st century,” Masterson says. 


Another positive change at McCourt Middle School involved the school’s writing program. “One program that we are utilizing to prepare our students for the rigors of high school is the writing strategy that is called Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD),” Masterson says. “This strategy is in its second year and has gone from sixth grade only last year to 80 percent of the school for our core curriculum. We noticed how important the ability to communicate in writing has become in standardized testing; SRSD is a systematic method to writing that can be implemented across all curriculums.”

Roosevelt Middle School’s “turnaround” coaching model process has been innovative in creating a culture enabling instructional shifts. “We designate specific cycles of focus and align our praise, data collection, and incremental steps toward improved practice linked to the identified area,” Pino says. “In this structure, teachers are observed for 20 minutes weekly/biweekly, followed by a co-planning session. There is tremendous power in providing teachers with the kind of support and feedback that is timely and specific. I work alongside our associate principal and two teacher coaches to implement this model, and we are seeing significant results related to student engagement.”

Pino celebrates her school’s diversity. “As we think about best practices, we hold a strong desire to teach students about skills such as problem solving, teamwork, growth mindset, and grit that will serve them well beyond high school,” she says. Three years ago, Pino notes, the school created the Roosevelt Option Program, which created an atmosphere for more individualized instruction through a project-based, blended-approach learning model with flexible scheduling. “This began as a seed school concept, and due to its positive impact across all student demographics, we are expanding this model to building-wide implementation next year,” she says. “Successes of this diverse and individualized approach to student learning include higher student engagement, greater school connectedness, and a significant drop in student behaviors. Students in the Option Program have shared that this program is working because they are key drivers in the learning process.”

“To improve academic excellence, we focus on using a relevant and rigorous curriculum, coupled with research-based instructional strategies to ensure academic success. We also use data to drive instructional decisions and student interventions,” Wise notes.

In the end, principals’ roles—whether at elementary, middle level, or high schools—is all about leadership, not just in theory, but in reality. “Although we have been studying educational leadership for some time,” Masterson says, “we are now starting to see the difference that leadership has in moving a building forward.” 

Michael Levin-Epstein is the senior editor of Principal Leadership.

Middle School Principals—Perspectives on Social Media

Social media is important to middle school; it’s a way principals can connect with students, staff, and parents on another level. “Something extraordinary about social media is that your message is far-reaching and its audience touches people of all ages, experiences, and backgrounds,” Pino says.  

Masterson: Middle school is a time where parents traditionally allow their children to grow more independent. While that growth is important, it creates a situation where parents have a hard time connecting with the school as their children begin to not share as much at home, and parents also do not see their work much either. This year, I have worked to develop a strong social media presence on behalf of the school. I have started principal accounts for Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. I use these accounts to tell the story of our school. This has become a place where parents feel very connected to the school. They have also begun to communicate directly with me through these accounts because there is a level of comfort that they have with social media that email just doesn’t provide them. I have also discovered that our local media is interested in following the accounts because it helps them feel connected to the school as well, and it gives them tips on future stories. I am a huge proponent of social media, and I am looking to create even more of a presence, not only for our school branding, but also for our families to continue to feel connected and share the story of our school.

Pino: We live in a connected world, and by nature, middle schoolers are a microcosm of society. I cannot think of a better place to embrace the power of social media and to guide our students about effective use! We use social media as a platform to engage families and to showcase the great things happening in our school. Social media has also allowed for students to take more ownership of their learning. As a building principal, it has allowed me to spread the word about the incredible talents and accomplishments of our students with the larger community.

Wise: Social media plays an important role in society and in schools. It’s important that we foster environments that allow students to grow and attain vast amounts of information while we ensure their safety.

Middle School Principals—The Most Problematic Issue

Pino: Mindset. We have worked hard at addressing student and teacher mindset. At Roosevelt, we honor the diversity of our students because it makes us better educators and stretches us to improve our practice. In an effort to push and open the minds of the staff and students at our school, we have created opportunities for explicit teaching of the differences between having a “fixed” and “growth” mindset, based on the work of Carol Dweck. Honoring best practices in brain research, we are transforming cultural belief systems through the use of growth mindset sentence stems—praising student effort, perspective, and thinking. Data collection through classroom observations and student reflection is yielding profound and powerful results. We have a desire to shift to a culture where students and staff are constantly searching for ways to learn more, dream big, and understand the value of failure and perseverance. Ultimately, our goal is to become a place where having a growth mindset is a way of being.

Wise: The most problematic issue involves the need to support student mental health and socio-emotional needs. Our district created a partnership with the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work to provide clinical hours and research at sites to support students.

Masterson: The biggest problem I had this year was not being able to hire an assistant principal before the school year. We were proud that our former assistant principal was able to receive an offer to be a principal in a neighboring state. With the school year starting, I was doing both jobs until the middle of October. We decided to hire a dean of school culture for the year so that we could repost the position in the spring. This solution assisted in discipline investigations, etc., so that I could go back to leading the building. I am still holding on to both administration roles, but having a dean to investigate situations creates space for me to consult with teachers and work on curriculum. The faculty and staff really stepped up and assisted wherever needed so that our students felt nothing different in their experience.