It’s early in 2020 and riotous swing music tumbles through colorful hallways, pulling students and teachers from classrooms into a large common area. They sway and shuffle as the room fills up, unable to resist dancing when Selena belts through the loudspeakers.
When everyone is assembled, I greet our 600 students and 60 staff members from the second-floor balcony. We say our affirmations in English and Spanish. They yell loudest on the last one: “I am somebody amazing!”
I put on “Eye of the Tiger” and students lead a calisthenics routine before everyone disperses to class in an orderly fashion.
Before the pandemic, this was how we started every single day at Sky Harbour.
Taking the time to connect, smile and loosen up helped everyone feel more ready to take on the day.
‘A safe haven’
Sky Harbour is a beautiful school on the Southwest Side of San Antonio, but our students face big challenges outside of our walls. More than 96 percent are economically disadvantaged, and 29 percent are English language learners. Growing up with 11 siblings and parents who were just trying to survive, I know their struggle.
A new principal can’t just breeze in and start changing everything. I knew I had to spend time establishing trust.
For me, school was always a safe haven, a place where people cared enough to help a struggling reader learn to love books.
I want to touch my students’ lives in the same way educators touched mine. I want to raise the bar for them – academically and socially – and give them what they need to reach it.
Building a family climate
But a new principal can’t just breeze in and start changing everything. I knew I had to spend time establishing trust, building relationships and creating a family-like climate.
The daily gathering was just one way I began to foster connection. I also worked hard to build stronger relationships with my staff, getting to know each of them, learning about their lives and families, and showing them that I cared and was there to support them.
I remember the day a teacher confided in me about an ongoing health issue that she had been battling. When she got up to leave, she stopped in the doorway.
“You know, I’ve had about seven different principals and I’ve never let any of them know my health issues.”
I hugged her. “Thank you,” I replied. “I am so grateful and honored.”
A foundation of trust
Before COVID-19 closed our school and upended our lives, I saw evidence that Sky Harbour had become the family I always wanted.
Discipline issues were far less common; we were no longer putting out fires, we were checking in on kids. When I walked the halls, I saw engaged teachers in vibrant classrooms with curtains hung in the windows and cozy reading nooks for children.
Only then could we start looking at areas where we needed to do better for kids and partner on solutions.
In 2019, I went through Holdsworth’s 2-year Campus Leadership Program with a team of leaders from Sky Harbour. We focused not only on improving our own leadership, but on solving an issue at our school – tied to student outcomes and rooted in data – where we had an opportunity to improve.
For our Problem of Practice, we committed to boosting reading skills in our special education students. Though the pandemic tried to throw us off course, we made a lot of progress and learned so much in the process.
‘We’ve got to get back in there’
This year, the challenges we face are greater than ever. Teachers feel they’re expected to continue as if the pandemic never happened. They’re exhausted and overwhelmed. And yet, we must all go on.
To help address the wide variety of student needs coming back from the pandemic, we implemented small group instruction across campus to give each child more individual attention.
Knowing this would be a big ask in a difficult year, I had 1:1 meetings with every staff member to make sure I was learning their stories, listening to their concerns and providing the support they needed to be successful.
So far, we’re making good progress. But we can’t keep pushing our teachers if we’re not also pushing ourselves as leaders. We can’t lose the trust we worked so hard to build.
In a recent meeting, I told my leadership team, “The moment teachers don’t believe we are in the trenches with them is the moment we lose them. We’ve got to get back in there.”