“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. … Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” —Brené Brown
NASSP’s 2021 National Assistant Principal of the Year, Chelsea Jennings, has a deeply personal connection with this quote after learning to embrace and share her own difficult story. Jennings grew up in Arkansas, and her family frequently moved to find construction work or accommodate economic hardship. (Her parents suffered from drug addiction at different points in her life, which led to arrests, incarcerations, and evictions.) She found herself enrolling at a new school every couple of years. Life became particularly challenging in high school when her parents divorced. She struggled to keep up with her grades, work nights and weekends, and take care of her mom and sister. When she was 16 years old, her aunt and uncle Karen and Ronnie Bradshaw—a local school teacher and school superintendent, respectively—took her in and provided her with the structure and discipline she needed to succeed. Jennings knew she wanted to become the first person in her immediate family to earn a college degree—and she did! That perseverance and resilience have defined and shaped her educational career.
Journey Into Education
It was because of her aunt and uncle that Jennings became interested in pursuing a teaching career. She tells the story of having a large whiteboard in the garage. Jennings would play school with her little sister, but Jennings always got to be the teacher. Additionally, any time she took an aptitude test in high school, the results steered her toward education and working with children. Jennings’ postsecondary educational journey began at the University of Central Arkansas—a school historically known as a teacher’s college. She started as an elementary education major; however, once she started taking some English literature classes, her passions changed, and she graduated magna cum laude with her Bachelor of Science in Secondary Education.
After graduating, Jennings applied for jobs at schools in her uncle’s school district—Springdale School District in Springdale, AR. Days before school started, she was hired as an English teacher at J.O. Kelly Middle School in that city. Two years later, she became an English and ESL teacher at Springdale High School. During the six years that Jennings stayed in that position, she became the lead teacher of the school’s professional learning community and developed the pilot curriculum for the Common Core State Standards in her district.
Her next move was as a district curriculum specialist for the Springdale School District, collaborating and developing curriculum across the grades. She found that she enjoyed the leadership role, so she returned to school at the University of Arkansas to get her Master of Education in Educational Leadership degree. Though she never expected the position to come so quickly, she became the assistant principal (AP) of Lakeside Junior High, an eighth and ninth grade school, in 2016. While working as the AP, Jennings also obtained her National Board Certification, and she is currently back in school at the University of Arkansas to get her education specialist degree in education leadership.
Jennings describes herself as a servant leader and a whole-hearted believer in collaborative leadership. She works to serve her students and their families, even if she doesn’t always know how she will do that. But once she finds out what they need, she dives into learning everything she can and implements her ideas through collaboration. She is constantly reading and learning about how to be a more effective servant leader for her school, successfully implementing numerous programs that have benefited everyone in the school community.
As a way to help manage stress and trauma, Jennings has instituted the use of a classroom technique called “Dump and Jump.” (She is quick to note that she did not come up with this technique, but using it has helped both her students and teachers.) With this technique, the teacher or administrator takes five minutes at the beginning of the session to allow people to vent before a professional learning session or school meeting. “[It’s] an opportunity to ‘dump’ emotions and distractions so the students can ‘jump’ into the work,” Jennings says. This could include journaling or discussing their “rose and thorn”—sharing one good/beautiful thing and one challenging/tough thing that has happened during the day. She also advocates for the “Checked Baggage” technique. Each student or teacher takes a piece of paper and writes their concerns on it. Then the paper is folded in half and set aside—providing a physical way that people can leave their concerns for a while. The concerns will still be there when class is over, but psychologically they have been “checked in” for safekeeping while the class or meeting is occurring. The ideas came from a professional development seminar through the Arkansas Leadership Academy and have helped to clear students’ and teachers’ heads before class starts. Jennings also blogs an SEL Tip of the Week on her Google site, https://sites.google.com/sdale.org/seltipoftheweek/home.
Arkansas has the highest rate of adverse childhood experiences (ACE) in the nation at 60%. Jennings sees this trauma every day through the addictions, homelessness, abuse, food insecurity, deportation, and mental health crises that many of her students and families face. In 2019, Jennings took over responsibilities for the Alternative Learning Environment (ALE) program. “As a first-generation college graduate myself, I know every student has the potential to transcend their circumstances,” she says. Instead of punishing students who were already in a destructive cycle, sometimes due to circumstances beyond their control, Jennings wanted to adapt the educational system to meet students’ needs. Jennings believes that, for decades, students have been forced to conform to the adult version of what education should be. For her, their behavior—or misbehavior—is just the students’ way of communicating a missing skill or unmet need. So, she wanted to help them learn to maintain their composure and handle their stress and trauma constructively rather than striking out. In the summer of 2019, Jennings and the ALE teacher visited three different ALE programs to learn new approaches and structures.
For the last two years, Jennings has led book studies on Conscious Discipline: Building Resilient Classrooms by Dr. Becky A. Bailey with her faculty. In the summer of 2020, she organized a Conscious Discipline summer institute, with 20 educators from four secondary schools forming a network of support and leadership. The student-centered approach focuses on inclusion, interventions, and teaching self-regulation skills to instill lifelong self-discipline. She has taken steps to build capacity among her teachers and developed a clear plan to address individual academic and behavioral needs.
“Mrs. Jennings introduced our school culture to a new discipline mindset based on understanding our students’ and our own social-emotional learning styles. This innovative approach changed the personal lives of many of our staff members in how we parent, how we approach relationships, and how we build culture in our classrooms,” notes Rachel Cornett, the choir director and music teacher at Lakeside Junior High. “She more than guided us through how to incorporate this new philosophy, she also laid all the groundwork for helping us feel safe enough to take a risk in completely revamping our approach to classroom management.”
As a result, the discipline referrals for ALE have dropped by over 50% compared to 2019. Thirty percent of the current 2021 ALE students were on track to exit ALE by the end of the school year.
Jennings also found help for herself. By learning how to help traumatized students, she developed the capacity to recognize and cope with her own traumatic past. She found this new information transformative and started opening up about her past to her faculty and staff, who began to see her in a new light. “At the start of this past year, we were all feeling every single emotion as we walked back into the school building. Chelsea stood in front of us, visibly shaken, and poured her heart open with the story of her traumatic childhood and all she overcame. She demonstrated to us what our students might be facing and how one adult can change a child’s trajectory,” Cornett says. “She modeled how to be vulnerable and honest in our educational journeys.” The experience has led to more trust, collaboration, and understanding in the entire school community.
Due to the rise in school choice options in the area, Lakeside saw a decline in school achievement and student diversity. But rather than seeing that as a negative change, Jennings collaborated with her team to work creatively and diligently with the student leaders of the school. They developed a student recognition program and offered various leadership opportunities, such as a principal advisory committee, student council, educational talent search, and Mi Futuro. They also continued to have an award-winning EAST (education accelerated by service and technology) program that pairs students and teachers with community members on service-learning projects. These are student-led passion projects that help students develop technical skills and a sense of civic responsibility.
For example, one student needed a prosthetic leg. So, the students teamed up and used a 3D printer to make him a new leg—which he uses to this day. At Lakeside, that same student built on this work to help others with disabilities by designing an ostomy shield to protect the stoma of a classmate. Another group of students worked closely with an animal shelter to develop advertising to help the animals get adopted. EAST also formed a partnership with the Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese—people of descent from the Marshall Islands—and created a documentary on the building of a traditional Marshallese canoe.
Standards-based grading (SBG) places emphasis on students mastering grade-level skills and knowledge rather than covering a certain amount of content. Jennings describes it as, “Moving away from the completion of assignments and multiple-choice tests at low depths of knowledge, which can result in watered-down expectations.” Jennings admittedly had no working knowledge of how to implement SBG when she started at Lakeside, so she taught a first-period ninth grade English inclusion class while also working as an assistant principal. This experience allowed her to implement SBG firsthand and “grapple with the paradigm shifts in thinking and in practice.” The goal for implementing SBG is personalized learning. To that end, Jennings wants students to take ownership of their learning and decide how to demonstrate mastery of skills based on their own interests, talents, abilities, and aspirations. Ultimately, Jennings wants to move past trying to mold students into what the adult version of education is and move them toward advocating for themselves and taking responsibility for what they learn.
Lakeside Junior High has many programs that students can engage in, including a student-led TV production program that airs daily on YouTube and a grassroots theater program that performs plays annually. Each student at Lakeside belongs to two high-interest, self-selected clubs such as kickball, makerspace, and chess. The students contribute to cafeteria cleanup and supporting custodians. The school also holds monthly assemblies for attendance and character awards to recognize and empower students—including those who rarely receive awards.
Jennings is incredibly humble and grateful for the many mentors in her life, including her aunt and uncle. But when she describes her accomplishments in education, she is quick to add that she couldn’t have done any of it without her collaboration with her faculty and staff. She credits her lead principal, Dr. Michael Shepherd—the 2011 NASSP/Virco National Assistant Principal of the Year—with allowing her the freedom and flexibility to implement ideas. “One of my favorite things about Lakeside is we encourage people to pilot new ideas, take risks, and make mistakes as part of the learning process,” she says. That directive comes from the top down, which makes her lead with the same style. “I [like to] model a growth mindset and a readiness to go through both the ‘unlearning’ and learning process that moves us toward reflection, inquiry, efficacy, and innovation,” Jennings says. This growth mindset, along with her own determination and resilience—and ability to strike a balance between challenging students and staff and supporting them—has created a highly effective school administrator whose positivity and perseverance are an inspiration to all.
Christine Savicky is the senior editor of Principal Leadership.
Sidebar: Meet Chelsea Jennings
Chelsea Jennings lives in Rogers, AR, with her husband, Franklin, and 9-year-old son, Everest. She describes her family as outdoorsy since they all like to hike, canoe, and camp on the King’s River in Eureka Springs, AR. However, if weather doesn’t permit that, they also enjoy playing board games and having family movie nights. In the mornings before driving to school, Jennings takes a sunrise walk with a group of neighborhood friends. After that, she has a one-hour commute to work, which she spends listening to a leadership audiobook to get her focused and ready for the day. On her way home, however, Jennings, a self-described true crime “junkie,” is glued to true crime podcasts. On weekends, she can be found enjoying a backyard BBQ with friends, playing in a pickleball tournament, or watching the Arkansas Razorbacks.
Jennings started the 2021–22 school year as the principal of Sonora Middle School. Since Sonora is the sixth and seventh grade feeder school to Lakeside Junior High, “my heart is already invested in serving these kids and families,” she says.