It is an honor to be named Alabama’s Secondary School Principal of the Year for 2021. I am humbled to be selected from among a group of exceptional educators, many of whom I have met. In addition, this honor has allowed me to share the community collaboration programs I have implemented at Chilton County High School (CCHS) in Clanton, AL, a small town of about 8,700 people.
As principal, my most effective educational strategy has been introducing programs to help bridge the gap between our community, families, and our school. There are very few towns in which I have ever worked where I have experienced such an outpouring of support as I have in Clanton. That support from families and the community is also a driving force behind the success of our students.
In 2017, after being named principal of CCHS, one of my first tasks was to develop a formal relationship between the school and families through the establishment of a parent teacher organization (PTO). This collaboration has allowed us to have a stronger working relationship with family members and to seek input about the needs of our students from a guardian’s perspective. For instance, one need that surfaced was that parents wanted to have a more informed picture of what was happening in the school. To that end, we established “Open-Door Wednesdays” where parents and community members are invited on the first Wednesday of the month to sit in on classes for a few minutes, tour the school with the guidance of our student ambassadors, and gain a greater understanding of the culture and needs of our school.
This community partnership has led to many school building improvements. During one of the very first tours, a community member noted that we were in desperate need of a ceiling replacement to cover pipes, wiring, and other hazards. This individual worked with us to seek grants for this extensive undertaking, and within months we were awarded a governor’s grant to begin the project and see its completion before the end of the following summer. In addition, this grant enabled us to paint the entire interior of the school.
Another of my objectives upon being named principal was to ensure that no senior ever walked across the stage at graduation without feeling that they were known and valued. To achieve this lofty goal, I established senior-led conferences. With the assistance of our English faculty, our seniors write a speech about the impact they believe CCHS has had on their lives. They reflect on their entire high school career since freshman year and evaluate life lessons and academic successes and struggles they’ve experienced. Then, they deliver their speech and complete a short interview with an administrator, along with teachers they feel have had the greatest impact on them and their family. For four years, both students and parents have remarked publicly and privately that their children look back on this experience as one of the most memorable of their high school years. In addition, when I present them with a diploma and shake their hands at commencement, they know that they are an important part of the CCHS legacy.
After I became principal, we also saw a need to better equip our students as they entered the workforce or competed for college scholarships by creating opportunities for them to participate in simulated interviews. To prepare, students begin working on their leadership skills as freshmen and continue until they complete their senior year. They are taught the difference between casual, business casual, and formal business attire through our career preparation classes. Each spring, we invite community volunteers to conduct mock interviews for our freshmen after they complete their resume and interview unit in their career preparation course. This allows students—at 14 years old—to hone a skill that they will use in the real world in less than three years.
In addition, in the late spring of their senior year, we invite representatives from local businesses to complete what we refer to as “Senior Blitz.” This activity is a marathon of six consecutive interviews where seniors present their resumes and participate in a full interview. Then, the representatives provide valuable feedback to the students. In the three years that we have held the Senior Blitz, which we did not hold in 2020 due to COVID-19, we have had more than a dozen students receive job offers on the spot from local companies. With this event, we empower our students to assume leadership roles, make adult decisions, and prepare for life in a postsecondary world.
Academic Letter Club
In 2017, we began the Academic Letter Club to highlight the importance of academic achievement throughout the course of students’ four years at CCHS. At the end of each grading period, students with a B average or higher in all courses are recognized in a formal assembly for their achievements. We also celebrate superior performance on the ACT once each semester through induction into our 25/30 Club. Students with a minimum of 25 on the ACT are given a medal to wear at graduation, recognized in front of their families and peers, and honored with their picture in a trophy case at the front of the school.
While academics are our primary focus, we also understand the importance of character in our students. Each month, our teachers nominate students of the month, who are honored with a recognition breakfast, a yard sign for their parents to proudly display, and a certificate to commemorate their achievement. We know that there are many students in our school who face academic challenges, but that does not mean they are not worthy of praise. Students with diverse interests and strengths make our student body strong, inclusive, and unique. We proudly recognize all of our students for their contributions to a positive school culture.
Coming Back to Community
The programs I’ve mentioned could not and would not be successful without the partnerships our school has formed throughout Chilton County and the surrounding areas. Everyone in the community has encouraged higher student achievement, which I believe contributed to a five-point increase in our score on the state report card in just one year. Our students scoring proficient in math on state tests also increased from 19% to 44%. Families are encouraged to be present and involved in their child’s education through programs such as the PTO and by attending problem-solving team meetings, and academic recognition and student character award ceremonies. Members of the community are often called upon to share their career expertise so they can offer students real-world experiences outside the classroom. It gives students a glimpse of what the world has to offer, and, oftentimes, sparks an interest they never knew they had.
Because of such programs, the climate and culture of our school have improved significantly. Parental and community involvement have increased, as have student achievement, morale, and the rapport between young people and their teachers. In the end, everything we do, we do for the kids.
Ron Pinson is the principal of Chilton County High School in Clanton, AL, and NASSP’s 2021 Alabama Principal of the Year.