by March Smith, Principal, Forestdale School, Sandwich, MA
When I was hired to my first principalship in 2013, I was aware that the Sandwich Public Schools was in the process of creating a new STEM focused middle school. What I didn’t know is that the middle school would end up being just the first domino in a series of events that lead to a major reorganization of our district. A reorganization that ultimately took us from three K-8 schools and one 9-12 high school to one PreK-2 school, one 3-6 school and one 7-12 building with a 7-8 middle school and 9-12 high school under the same roof.
As I reflect back on who I was and what I thought I knew in July of 2013, I am amazed about how much I have learned about leading a school and what is truly important to successful schooling. When I first learned that I would become the principal of the PreK-2 school, pulling staff from three existing buildings, I was understandably excited by the possibility of helping create something new. Honestly, how often in one’s career does a principal get the chance be a part of creating a new school? In the beginning, all my excitement was focused on creating the highest performing PreK-2 school in the state. We were going to prepare every student to be high achieving, academically strong and ready to take on higher level learning.
However, when I first got what would become my new staff together to develop our mission statement, they helped me see that I had missed something very important; something that now has become the thing that I am the proudest of as the principal of the Forestdale School. As we brainstormed things that we all felt should be a part of our school, many qualities beyond strict academics came up over and over again; kindness, fun, perseverance and family. It was in reflecting back on that meeting that I realized I had been prioritizing the wrong thing. We would never be an academically successful school, if we did not first make learning fun, did not care deeply about our students and did not build a strong family culture within our school. Once I realized that (something my more veteran principals already understood), I was able to support my staff in different ways and get out of their way as they made some pretty amazing things happen in our first year and a half as a school.
This blog would become unbearably long (if it isn’t already) if I was to list ever great thing my staff has done these past 18 months, so I thought I would focus on two of the bigger things because they involved everyone.
Once we got 650 three to eight year olds under one roof, we started to realize that we had several children and families that were in significant need. Because the Forestdale School staff believes in kindness and views our school as a family, they were not content just recognizing these needs and expressing sympathy and empathy; they wanted to do something about it. They began raising funds to meet the needs of these families as those needs arose. For example, when one student needed a wheel chair and the family could not afford it and their insurance would not cover it, these funds bought the child a wheel chair. More recently, during a bitterly cold two nights in December one of our students and her family did not have heat in their home. After several unsuccessful attempts were made by our town’s Human Services Department to get their heat restored, these funds paid for a hotel room for this family to spend the night in warmth.
During the holiday season, our staff worked to make sure every one of our students had a present to open. Families of students in need were contacted and information on the child’s wishes were collected. Next, each child was assigned a number (to make the process anonymous) and four items were selected from the child’s list and each item was made into an ornament. The ornaments were then hung on our giving tree in our staff lounge and any interested staff could take an ornament, purchase the item, wrap it and return it to the school to be given to the child’s family. All in total we had 176 ornaments on our tree this year and each one was taken, bought and returned. That is an amazing amount of caring! Something of which I am so proud to be a part!
These big acts of kindness and generosity represent the tip of what I believe is an iceberg of caring that we have here at the Forestdale School. It is something that I recognized early on in my staff and felt that, as the leader, I had a responsibility to support and to encourage. Maybe it is the fact that we are all early childhood educators, maybe it is a common thread that existed in the previous three schools, maybe it is having so many young children under one roof, but whatever the reason I am proud to say that our school cares for our students and wants them to be happy on their way to success.
I strongly believe that our staff take many of their cues from us as leaders. What we emphasize, praise, encourage and support goes a long way to telling the staff what we value. If we do not praise and celebrate kindness, generosity and caring, then our staff will start to think we don’t value it. The “rule followers” in our staff (of which there are many) will not take the risks to do what they know is right for kids and that shows compassion if they think it will “upset” us. Often as leaders we have to give our staff permission to follow their hearts, trust their professional judgement and do what they think will best help their students be happy, safe and ready to learn.
Marc is the principal of the Forestdale School, a PreK-2 school of about 650 kids located in Sandwich, MA. He is also the MESPA County Director for Barnstable, Dukes and Nantucket Counties. Marc has been an educator for nearly 20 years and is in his fourth year as a principal.
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