Ask educators what it takes to achieve school success, and collaboration and community engagement are sure to be among the answers. To learn how school leaders can spark collaboration and engage all members of the school community, Principal Leadership contacted Paula Callan, the principal of Messalonskee High School in Oakland, ME, and the 2022 Maine Principal of the Year; Nicole Carter, the principal of Novi High School in Novi, MI, and the 2022 Michigan Principal of the Year; and James Garst, the principal of Andrew Lewis Middle School in Salem, VA, and the 2022 Virginia Principal of the Year.

Principal Leadership: What do collaboration and active community engagement look like in your school?

Garst: Our school has about 900 students, and it’s the only middle school in our small town. For me, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned over the years, and especially during the pandemic, is we can’t do everything. So, collaboration and community engagement here look like shared leadership in terms of trying to get all aspects of the building involved in some form of helping run the building. It looks like teachers leading initiatives. For example, we’re currently working on building our vision for the next several years here and that’s really teacher led. I set the vision, and they’re building the mission around it. That involves community members as well.

Callan: For me, shared leadership at our school means having a leadership team with teachers from the varying content areas. These teacher leaders are voted on by their peers to serve on the team. We also make sure that we have representation of our support staff, our paraeducators (which we call ed techs), cafeteria workers, and custodial staff. Any decisions that we make, we always get student input, whether it’s through a Google form survey or from students who we include on our interview teams for staffing co-curricular and extracurricular activities. James is correct, we can’t do it all ourselves.

Carter: Our school is in a suburb of Detroit. Diversity is our greatest strength as a school and community, with a student body composition of 43% white (non-Hispanic), 33% Black, 12% Hispanic, and 12% Asian. Our level of community engagement and community is very strong. Our parents are highly engaged and connected to our school. For example, for parent-teacher conferences or curriculum night events, we get anywhere from 95% to 99% attendance. Several community partnerships also help our school to be successful. For example, we partner with the Novi Education Foundation, the Novi Community Coalition, Friends of Novi Schools, and Novi Youth Assistance, which are all housed in the main office area of our high school. We’re able to connect families and students to a variety of resources, such as one-on-one counseling, which has been pretty tremendous.

Principal Leadership: What role do your administrative teams play in connecting with students and community members?

Garst: Last year, we implemented the Ron Clark House System, which is a student engagement model. Every student is assigned to a house; we have six. Our houses compete through various activities throughout the year for points and we have our point championship. That creates community engagement, but it also supports students and student leaders and enables our leadership team to really get to know the kids.

Callan: I have two assistant principals. One is responsible for working with our freshmen and juniors, and the second works with our sophomores and seniors. Their primary responsibility is around academics and attendance and behavior concerns. But we also work very closely and collaboratively as an administrative team. If I’m planning a workshop, they’re sitting at the table giving their input. I meet with them, my school resource officer, and my athletic administrator every Monday morning so that we know what the week is going to look like and where we need to offer assistance with class coverage.

Carter: Currently, it’s myself and three assistant principals. To connect with the community at large, I host parent coffees. Historically, those were face-to-face, but these last couple of years we’ve done it with Zoom, and we’ve actually had higher attendance rates. My assistant principals attend those as well. We make sure that we prioritize visibility at a variety of events that we host. For example, in September the Novi Mental Health Alliance, in conjunction with our school district and various community partners, hosted its very first parent camp at Novi High School. That was a resource fair for parents of students in kindergarten all the way through high school. We held 15 different breakout sessions and heard from a keynote speaker. The event focused on the important role that parents play in their children’s development. We tried to encourage families to ask questions of their students—for instance, during the ride home from school—to intentionally check in with them in the hopes that we’re going to raise brave contributors to society.

Principal Leadership: How do you ensure that noncertified staff—bus drivers, custodians, clerical employees, and teachers’ aids—feel connected to and have a say in the life of your school?

Garst: First off, we make sure everybody is included in a house in our system, including our building manager. He and I are in the same house for example, House of Amistad. Also, in the spring we used to have teacher appreciation week. But we would just kind of lump everybody into that and not everyone would feel recognized. So now we recognize certain groups of staff members separately. For instance, during National Custodian Appreciation Week, we bought our custodians a barbecue dinner and had a nice little gathering. We’ll do the same for administrative professionals and instructional assistants when it’s time to celebrate their recognition weeks as well.

Carter: We provide professional learning opportunities for our paraprofessionals, custodians, bus drivers, and clerical staff throughout the course of the year—with intentionality. We want all stakeholders to feel like they’re valued and respected and that their voice is heard. When we do diversity, equity, and inclusion training, we have that training provided for the bus drivers. Especially for paraprofessionals, I feel like they’re a huge support group within our school. They do a lot of work to help our students and teachers. And their work needs to be acknowledged. We really try to make sure that they feel like they’re a part of the Wildcat family by inviting them to different activities and celebrations.

Callan: For me, it’s about intentional visibility. It’s not uncommon for staff and students to see me serving lunch in the cafeteria or mopping up the floor or vacuuming a carpet or washing windows. And in the morning, our entrance for our ed techs is right outside my door, so I make sure I’m there from 7:15–7:40 a.m. when they’re clocking in. It’s a good opportunity for me to get a feel for how they’re doing. This is my 22nd year in this building, and when I say I have an open door, it’s an open door. Our custodial and ed tech support staff are included in our Eagle excellence award nominations, and we’ve had staff members from all of those groups recognized by the student body for their great work.

Principal Leadership: Does being named a state Principal of the Year have any impact on your work? Does it validate what you’ve been doing in terms of community engagement and collaboration?

Carter: That’s an interesting question. To be honest, I feel like this is the first time in my 23-year career where I’m actually being asked questions about what it takes to be an effective school leader. What kind of sacrifices do you have to make on a daily basis in order to be at your pinnacle, so to speak? I feel like this is the first opportunity that I’ve had to actually have a voice. A number of people have asked me for interviews, to write articles, to do podcasts—you name it, I’ve been asked to do it. At no point in time in my career was I afforded that opportunity before. By earning this recognition, it’s giving us as school leaders a greater voice.

Callan: I would have to agree with Nicole. As educational leaders, it’s very humbling to receive this recognition. We never want the spotlight on us. We kind of work behind the scenes to make sure everybody is being successful in their respective positions, whether that’s students or teachers or support staff members. But it’s also very nice to have a platform where you can speak up to support your colleagues not only in the state but across the country and really advocate for the profession.

Garst: I’ll echo what Paula said. I don’t love the attention. But I do hope I can use it as a springboard to be an advocate. I feel like we as principals are stuck between the boots on the ground and the policymakers. Sometimes those two don’t always work well together. That was never more evident than during COVID. I’m speaking for Virginia here. A lot of stuff was left to the counties, and it was very difficult to navigate COVID policy/protocol vs. student safety and practicality. But coming out of that, I hope that I’m able to use this recognition as an opportunity to continue to advocate for the profession and public education in general.

Principal Leadership: Now that it’s January, what advice do you have for your colleagues when it comes to engagement for the second half of the year?

Callan: January for us is the end of the semester. This year what I’ve done differently is I’ve enlisted the help of a mental health professional to work with the staff in getting them to focus on self-care and maintaining their mental health for the second half of the year. For us up here in Maine, January to March is a long road. We do have a one-week February break in there, but it’s a long haul for students and staff.

Garst: We’re probably on a similar calendar. Mid-January for us is kind of a new start. For those courses that are yearlong, it’s kind of a breaking point. For those courses that last a semester, it’s a natural transition. One thing I preach, as hard as it is, I try to get our teachers and everybody in this building to approach every day as a new opportunity to help a child. With our most challenging students, you never know when you’re going to have a breakthrough. Every day is an opportunity to make a difference in the life of a child.

Carter: One thing we’ve done with our staff in January is to identify one word that can be their driver for the new year. We also help staff figure out how to have that word be their source of inspiration or motivation. I feel like January is also the month of affirmations with intentionality with the staff. One mantra that I say often is, “Each day and in every way, we strive to be better, to do better, by the students that we’re blessed to serve.” In terms of mental health, we do self-care activities with students during “UMatter Week.” These activities include spending time with therapy dogs, engaging in mindful minutes, and meditation. One thing I always tell my staff is, “Don’t allow Monday to take away your Saturday and Sunday.” I feel like we, as educators, have a tendency to overthink and focus on the coming Monday rather than focusing on the here and the now and being fully present.

Principal Leadership: Can you share one thing that you’re especially proud of when it comes to collaboration and community engagement?

Garst: For six years, we have had a student-led food pantry here at our school. We have students helping students in terms of doing fundraisers and getting food for the pantry and stocking bags and distributing them. We feed about 40 to 45 families on a regular basis. And we use our house system to do that. Each month, we have a house-giving competition to see which house can collect the most food. This schoolwide initiative helps us throughout the year to give back to those families in need. All students have ownership in the program to some extent.

Also, within the house system, every Wednesday morning we hold family group meetings. So, each student within each house has a small group that they meet with. For instance, I meet with 12 kids. I check their grades, I make sure they’re coming to school, and I make sure they’re not getting into trouble. We do a fun social-emotional activity to help them kind of rebuild those skills that were lost during the pandemic. It’s a time to really get to know kids and build positive relationships. That whole system is what I’m most proud of.

Callan: This year, our focus has been on reengaging students through relationship-building. We’ve tried to identify the students who are lacking that personal connection with an adult in the building, and I’m proud of that focus. I’m also proud of our staff. Every year as a staff we review the goals we have set for the year, and we grade ourselves on a scale of 1 to 4. We’re our harshest critics, usually. But one thing that I was really proud of last school year was how we did when it came to giving students a stronger voice in decision-​making. As a school, we scored a 4+. That never happens. So, I think we’re doing something right.

Carter: We too are striving to have that one trusted advocate or ally for each student. I always tell students you’re not known by your student number. We want to know you by name. Every single student has a story. I host focus group lunches where I’ll randomly select students by grade level. I’ll just ask them simple questions: What do you like/dislike about our school? What are some characteristics of teachers that you really enjoy learning from without naming names? I also have “Cookies with Carter” lunch chats with teachers. It’s nonjudgmental. I ask them to come to the table with something that they’re proud of, something that they’re working on, and I always ask them what I can do as the leader of this building to better support them. I am here to serve students and staff.