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Friday, May 13, 2016

At the Starting Line

This is one piece of a continuing series of posts on school improvement reflecting my professional experience. I had prepared this manuscript for publication but time eluded me. The blog posts advance in time and concept in book-form beginning with the Blog post on March 21.

     The morning after my acceptance of the new position, I went into the elementary school where I had been working and announced to the only staff present, the twelve-month employees, I had been asked to switch to Horace Mann. Awkward congratulations followed he news. 
     Later that day, the head custodian approached me. He stood reverently and stated that the entire custodial crew of the school had requested that he ask me if they could follow me to Horace Mann.  
     I had always gotten along with the crew and respected their work. Although their support and commitment was appreciated I couldn’t answer them without pointing out the huge task ahead. My description didn’t alter their interest. I told them I’d see what I could do. 
     My initial visit of Horace Mann was alarming. The front entrance sat atop a concrete porch that was stained by the repeated disposal of wax stripper that was obviously the work of some uncaring, inattentive custodian. A small window above the door was cracked and wore bright red book tape as a hasty and insufficient Band-Aid. I hesitantly opened the main door. It was dark. I flipped on the nearby light switch. The dimness that greeted me was attributed to the fact that the light globe was half full of dead flies and moths. 
     The very next thing that caught my attention was the dusty display cases that flanked the foyer entrance. The cases were full of athletic trophies boasting of the prowess of various teams. My stare rested upon the deflated football marking the 1934 city championship. I suddenly felt deflated myself.  
     The rest of my tour revealed a glaring contrast between the dark and dusty, staid and stagnant environment within the school, and the surreal and ephemeral world of the adolescents outside of the school. There were prints of French impressionists lining the library walls above the outdated books that collected more spider webs than sign out cards. There were portraits of former principals hung in a neat row along the main hallway like it was a museum gallery. The woodwork was deep brown, the walls painted a pale, institutional green. It went on and on. It was not inviting.  
     Within a week the new superintendent, Dr. Terry Grier, began work. (Terry eventually advanced to become superintendent of several large city districts after he left Amarillo, finally retiring this year from his post as superintendent of the Houston Independent School District. He was selected as a finalist as for the Superintendent of the Year award by the national organization of superintendents). I met Terry on his inaugural review of the realm. He was aghast at the condition of the school. He immediately ordered a change after hearing me relate the transfer request of the custodial crew at the school where I formerly worked. The timing allowed an exploitation of the new superintendent’s honeymoon.  
     Dr. Grier would sustain an interest in the school throughout his tenure with the district. He championed many of our school improvement attempts, and equally as important, didn’t get in the way of anything. He also surrounded himself with creative leaders of vision, like assistant superintendent Dr. Jane Hammond (Jane later became superintendent of the Jefferson County Colorado school system where she was recognized as Superintendent of the Year by the American Association for School Administrators for her work in the aftermath of the tragedy at Columbine High School) and her husband, Gene Huddle (a highly skilled and extremely resourceful consultant), as well as Executive Director of Junior High/Middle Schools, Dr. Howard Smith (presently Dean of the College of Education at Pittsburgh State College in Kansas).  
     The superintendent’s gesture of support, perhaps intended to produce some degree of immediate achievement, paid dividends for us. The walls were quickly covered with brighter colors. The building was attended to with sweat and pride. 
     With the physical plant receiving a makeover intended to welcome the staff and learners back in August, it was time to begin renovation of the conceptual infrastructure. The vacant position of assistant principal was filled by someone without any administrative experience. He was well equipped however, for the challenge we would endure. Ken Williams was a bear of a man with a caring and compassionate character. He was dedicated and firm in his convictions. He would prove to be an invaluable reservoir of energy and effort.     

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