The Pelion area schools in Pelion, SC, celebrated their centennial anniversary this year. Instead of treating students to cake, Pelion High School (PHS) Assistant Principal Erica Page marked the 100th day of the 100th year by delivering MoonPies to every class in true Southern fashion. In doing so, she also shared the 100-year-old story of the MoonPie, Duke’s Mayonnaise, and the Smith-Hughes Act with her students as she went from door to door.

“Our students loved it—we had a blast, and we made history,” Page says. “From finding the oldest living alumna, who graduated from PHS in 1935, to the children in 4-year-old kindergarten, thousands of celebrants benefited from our events focused on community, academics, athletics, and arts.”

Page began teaching at White Knoll High School in 2007 in Lexington, SC, where she wrote curriculum, assisted with DECA, mentored new teachers, and raised $60,000 with the School Improvement Council. In 2012, Page was promoted to assistant administrator at PHS, and in 2014, she became an assistant principal.

The biggest challenge Page faced when she became an assistant principal was moving from a large suburban school to a small, rural, community-​based school. “As a well-respected teacher leader from a large 4A school coming into an assistant principalship of a small, rural 2A school, I knew that I needed to make my best impression and build a strong foundation for trust through communication and fostering professional relationships with my new team,” she says. “As expected, I experienced natural anxiety anticipating how my leadership would be accepted in a school where many teachers had more experience than I [did].”

Page worked diligently and relentlessly to cultivate positive relationships while making personal connections with teachers during preservice activities. She met students in the hallways and during lunch. She got to know parents at registration and open-house events, and she took part in various community events and school competitions. “Doing this quickly gained me the support and trust of our stakeholders, amplified my credibility, and implemented the strategies and structures to increase the quality of my relationships,” Page notes. “In turn,” she adds, “I was accepted and welcomed with open arms, and now I cannot imagine leading anywhere else!”

“In just my first year here at Pelion High, it is clear that Ms. Page has an extensive knowledge of the students, community, and teachers that we support,” says PHS Principal Bryan Hearn. “She has been a valuable resource for me and a great advocate for our students. I am thrilled to have her on our administrative team.”

It’s important to Page to deal with the daily issues faced by her stakeholders—students, faculty, staff, parents, and the community. But her favorite activity is celebrating student and teacher successes and accomplishments. “Whether it is a small win in the classroom, a big win on the field, or dominating a fine arts competition, I love celebrating our students and teachers,” she says. “We announce accomplishments of students and staff members through social media outlets, our webpage, at sporting events, and quarterly celebrations. We host faculty tailgates, family nights, and monthly lunches to gather for fun, food, and fellowship.”

Highest Graduation Rates in the School’s History

Page understands that for schools to be successful, they must strive to improve every day. Under her leadership, students have reached all-time highs for end-of-course exams and achieved the highest graduation rate in school history.

At Pelion, Page and her team have created a robust dual-enrollment program in which students have the option to take up to 19 courses in seven departments to earn both high school and college credit on the school’s campus. Most recently, one-third of the school’s seniors graduated with college credit, and many actually entered college in the fall of 2018 as sophomores— they eliminated one year of college at an average savings of $24,000.

To close the gap and provide students with multiple pathways for success, Page led an assessment initiative that supports standards-based grading, revision, and reassessment. In addition, during Panther Time, students are provided with increased flexibility to return to a particular class each day for extra help to master content. “I attribute the steady increase of our promotion rates to on-time classroom interventions, Panther Time, and our assessment initiative. Overall, our promotion rates have increased 7 percent since 2013,” Page notes.

Pride Promotion

Last fall during a comprehensive data dig, Page’s data team designed the Pride Promotion Program to more effectively reach its most “at-promise” students.

During Pride Promotion, each student sets immediate, short- and long-term goals to work toward and achieve. “Our nine leaders have facilitated weekly meetings, and their individual meeting logs indicate that [combined] they have led an additional 243 meetings where students came to them for academic or behavioral support. Additionally, since implementing Pride Promotion, teachers, counselors, and administrators are actively reaching out to them and offering assistance. This has created a unique model of distributed accountability where our team is ‘all in for all students,’” Page says.

Through Pride Promotion, all students have increased credits earned and are on track for promotion, according to Page. In a recent survey, all students indicated that their mindset and feelings toward school had changed more positively because of the program. When asked how Pride Promotion has helped them, about half of the students said they felt better about coming to school.

Creating a Culture of Learning

Page created a culture of learning at Pelion High School by seeking out every opportunity to learn and grow. She obtained a seat in the New York City Leadership Academy’s Aspiring Principals Program to take her leadership to the next level. Immediately, she immersed herself in the rigorous three-week professional development NYCLA Summer Intensive, followed by the yearlong principal residency at PHS.

“As a lifelong learner and resident principal, I lead as a change agent to inspire students, teachers, and staff to foster educational equity for all,” says Page, explaining her role in developing a culture of learning. “While completing innovative principal simulations, conducting school-based research, and leading our data team through a current-state and root-cause analysis, I have demonstrated my commitment to student learning and professional growth. As data team chair, I have demonstrated passion by cultivating growth within myself and others, fine-tuning my reflective pedagogical practices, and fostering professional resilience.”

After the data team triangulated qualitative and quantitative schoolwide data to uncover inequities to increase student achievement, Page helped the school develop a plan of action to pair its most “at-promise” freshmen with mentors and enroll them in the PHS Pride Promotion program to build relationships, create accountability, and increase ownership of learning. “Pride Promotion mentors are academic and behavior coaches who lead restorative conferences. Our restorative conferences are an innovative approach to discipline. We find out what happened and who was affected, then create a plan to make it right instead of applying the traditional, punitive method that focuses on the broken rule, the rule breaker, and the consequence. Using this ‘time-in’ instead of ‘time-out’ philosophy gives our students a framework to share their perspective and discuss how to rectify the situation.”

Mission Accepted

It’s also important to create a culture of college and career readiness, Page says. During the 2014–15 school year, she challenged the senior class to graduate with a specific postsecondary plan. The program, called “Mission Accepted,” challenged the senior class to reach 100 percent college acceptance and/or military enlistment.

“I believe that high school is about graduating students with endless opportunities for success and preparing students for the next phase of their lives. This challenge set students up for multiple pathways for success. Whether it is immediately going to a local college to obtain an industry certification in a semester program, or enrolling in a two-year program, a four-year program, or enlisting in the military, they were set up for success because we administered entrance tests on our campus [where their scores are valid for up to three years],” Page says of the program. “We helped students apply to college in senior meetings, and we waived the application fee for students who visited our community college campus. Immediately, we had positive feedback and praise from parents, students, teachers, community stakeholders, and School Improvement Council members. Word spread that PHS graduates were prepared for the next phase of their lives, giving many students an opportunity to be first-generation college graduates. Since beginning this initiative, more than 96 percent of each graduating class has been accepted to college or enlisted in the military. Achieving this graduation success in our rural blue-collar community with a poverty index above 65 percent gives our stakeholders a great sense of pride and accomplishment.”

Page intentionally devotes time to build relationships with students and staff through icebreakers and fun games to create opportunities for play and laughter. “My intentional ‘time-in’ approach to leadership has been more valuable for students and staff—and rewarding for me—than I ever imagined. Doing things like making caramel ‘Frappuccinos’ with extra whipped cream for various advisement groups and circling up to talk about what’s good in life creates a ‘time-in’ opportunity for me and creates time to learn from one another and build trust.”

International Food Project

One of Page’s most transformative projects has been the International Food Project, which began five years ago. It originally started because PHS was a Walter P. Rawl and Sons Garden Mini-Grant recipient. The grant gave students enrolled in certain classes—building and construction, Spanish, mathematics, agriculture science, advanced agribusiness, and culinary arts—the opportunity to collaborate on an international program.

“With this grant, our building and construction students had an opportunity to build two large, raised garden beds,” Page explains. “Our Spanish students had an opportunity to research various peppers and tomatoes that are in traditional Spanish cuisine, and our agriculture science students researched what native peppers and tomatoes could grow in the South Carolina climate. Our students in agriculture calculations found the distance needed between each pepper and tomato plant, while the advanced agribusiness students planted the peppers and were responsible for monitoring their growth, testing the soil, and adding nutrients as needed. The culinary arts students found recipes and prepared the salsa for all to enjoy. This single project brought 120 students—and seven teachers—together and created an authentic learning experience that our students will never forget.”

Advanced Agribusiness Center

The Advanced Agribusiness Research Center at PHS is a huge part of the school and the Pelion community. “In 2012,” Page notes, “we began our journey of adding dual-credit courses in our Advanced Agribusiness Center. We started with two, then increased it to three, and now we have expanded our agribusiness dual-enrollment course offerings to five.” Page encourages collaboration between PHS students and the community through internships, service learning, and career shadowing via the school’s Center for Advanced Agribusiness Research.

“For example, our agriculture science classes work with local farmers to provide research data on soil, spacing, fertilizer, and other factors to determine market feasibility of various crops,” Page says. “Our agriculture marketing class captures drone images used in advertisements for local farms. In return, local farmers provide labor, equipment, soil amendments, seed, and expertise for various projects in our Center for Advanced Agribusiness Research. Our students have always given back by serving at community events, celebrations, and ceremonies. The agriculture students are active at the Pelion Peanut Party community festival and truly learn to lead by giving back.”

The Changing Role of the Assistant Principal

Page acknowledges that the role of the assistant principal has evolved over the years. “Traditionally, assistant principals were viewed as disciplinarians who disseminated consequences to students when rules were broken. Today, what I do as an assistant principal is much more than that. I am a lead learner in the school who facilitates professional learning and fosters professional growth within others. I provide our students with academic and behavior coaching so they can reach their full potential. When rules are broken, instead of focusing on a punitive punishment, I focus my time-in with students to understand what happened, who was affected, and how to make it right by changing the behavior.

As an assistant principal, I also build leadership capacity in students, teachers, and all staff members. … I believe that ALL children can learn, and it is my responsibility to provide them with equitable learning opportunities,” she says.

Page believes in the necessity of an equitable education, and she sums it up by saying emphatically that she’s “ALL in for ALL students.” “I use this motto with teachers, students, parents, and stakeholders to communicate my love and my passion to reach, teach, and lead every child, every day,” she explains.

Michael Levin-Epstein is senior editor of Principal Leadership.

Sidebar: Getting to Know Erica Page

Page graduated summa cum laude from Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, OH, 11 years ago with two minors—in personal wellness and recreation—and two Bachelor of Arts degrees—one in health promotion and education, and the other in physical education.

Not surprisingly, Page is a self-proclaimed fitness and health enthusiast. “I found my love for health and fitness as a young child through dance, gymnastics, running, and tennis. In fact, in middle and high school, I taught dance and gymnastics at a local gymnasium, and even now I enjoy going to tennis practice to hit with our tennis team. I have a passion for the outdoors, and I am a huge nature lover.”

In her spare time, you’ll find Page running, hiking, biking, wakeboarding, slalom skiing, wake surfing, kayaking, paddleboarding, or fishing. Her passion and love for the outdoors and nature come from her annual vacation on the Georgian Bay. That’s where she lives “off the grid” on a primitive island without modern-day conveniences such as electricity and plumbing, and spends her days swimming, sailing, harvesting berries, and working on her family’s 1960s boats and motors.

Sidebar: The Impact of Ms. White

Page believes that when students achieve, we all achieve and are inspired to strive for greater success. This belief stems from her tough-but-loving, highly influential eighth grade Algebra 1 teacher, Ms. White. “Ms. White believed in me when I struggled, she encouraged me when I wanted to give up, and she inspired me to become an educator. Just like Ms. White, I am compassionate, yet results-driven, and I make decisions with every student’s best interest in mind. She would often say, ‘It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish,’ and boy was she right!”