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  Middle school principal navigates a sea of challenges

Follow a middle school principal for even half a day, and one lesson will emerge: There are two realities on campus, two worlds running in tandem. The first reality is the domain of the kids. It is governed by social questions, uncertainties and formative challenges. The second reality is the domain of the administrators. It is governed by academic goals, the need to keep order, and security issues.by: POST PHOTO: NEIL ZAWICKI - Cedar Ridge Middle School Principal Matt Newell explains to seventh graders Thursday how, if they do well enough on the state test, they can earn the right to give him a Mohawk.

At Cedar Ridge Middle School, Principal Matt Newell walks the shadow junction between these two realities. His job is to blend them and route them in the same direction.

On Thursday morning, even before he enters the school, he greets two parents as they walk out, having met with the counselor about their child and his troubles. Newell knows the parents, and knows the troubles as well. The three have a five-minute conversation about the student’s progress, what new steps can be taken, and what else they can try.

The conversation is one in a catalogue of issues Newell keeps open as he goes about his day. The two parents are invested in their child’s success, and Newell and his fellow administrators are trying to cultivate this attitude among all parents.

“When behavior issues come up, the counselor and I are always being sucked away,” Newell says. “So this year, we changed a couple things. Now, when a kid gets even the slightest (bad) behavior mark, we call home.”

Newell says the majority of the time, the parents have no idea what is going on, given the filter of the child’s account of school events and the understandable demands of everyday life for busy parents.

“So now, we really have this climate of calling home, and what we find is that parents are very responsive.”

While he talks, Newell clicks on his computer, revealing a bar graph that tracks behavior issues in the school by month and year. He points to a significant drop in discipline referrals for this month, compared not only to last April, but to just last month. Newell attributes the drop to the new policy of parent involvement.

“Kids are going to mess up,” he says. “Good kids are going to mess up. You’re trying to influence the kids to make better choices. That’s what I’d like to do, rather than just do all the discipline all the time.”

Managing behavior problems is just one facet of Newell’s day. Negotiating the busy hallways of the between-class shuffle, Newell stops to talk with seventh grade math teacher Ryan Shanks, and the two pick up where they left off on an earlier conversation regarding state testing, another part of the world occupied by the administration. The issue is that the kids have not taken the state math and writing tests seriously, mainly because the tests are used as a measurement of progress and do not impact grades. This challenge, to get the kids to want to do well on the state tests, is at the top of Newell’s list.

“We want to see growth,” he says. “So we’ve put together some incentives.”

The “incentives” are revealed when Newell drops in on Shanks’ class later in the day, announcing the plan to encourage performance on the tests. His plan plays to the reality of the world occupied by the kids.

“We want to celebrate your success,” he tells the class. “Each one of you are going to have a different goal on the tests, and we want to help you meet that goal.”`

Newell lays out a plan for the kids, declaring a competition between grades.

“The first place class gets to have a pizza party,” he says, “and we also want each class to score as high as they can individually. So for example, the seventh grade class can set a goal, and if they meet that goal, then they get to shave a teacher’s head.”

Not only can a successful grade shave a teacher bald, but Newell goes one further.

“If a grade gets 80 percent collectively on their tests, then you guys can give me a Mohawk and color it, and then I have to wear it for a week,” Newell announces.

The kids, laughing, begin joking about Newell with a Mohawk, suggesting colors and styles. His work done there, he returns to the halls, talking with each teacher he meets about the testing incentive plan.

The test priority can be addressed only in concert with a collection of other concerns, and as Newell moves from one task to the next, a walkie-talkie on his hip crackles to life several times, summoning him to other incidents: There is a “trespasser” on campus, and he needs to go check it out. Some kids are making a video on the shot put field without adult supervision. The new computer lab, being used for the first time by the Life Skills class, has tripped a breaker.

Such surprises punctuate Newell’s day, while at the same time he works to maintain academic goals and mitigate student behavior. At lunchtime, he works the crowd like a political candidate, and upon returning to his office for the first time in two hours is greeted with the news that two kids had outbursts in class and that he needs to meet with them in his office.

This is the classic principal image: The enforcer who emerges only to correct transgression. Perhaps for many kids, their perception is that a principal is kept in a closet, like an action figure, and taken out only when it’s time to lay the hammer down.

A young boy sits in Newell’s office, head down, school lunch tray on his lap. He’d been mouthing off to his math teacher earlier and has a history of such behavior. He’s prepared for the hammer, but Newell does something different.

“OK, first of all, you’re amazing, you’re good.” Newell tells him, and then starts asking him about his science fair project, which had to do with botany.

“How did you come up with your experiment?” Newell asks him. “Because I don’t know how it all works, but when I saw your experiment last night, I thought, ‘Awesome! Plants!’ So that’s why it’s hard for all the adults that want to see you succeed to see you here today.”

The kid, now more relaxed, tells Newell the teacher with whom he had a problem “always gets kids in trouble for no reason.”

“She’s tough, isn’t she?” Newell says. The kid nods.

“Do you think she’s like that because she’s like, ‘I hate kids and I have this job so I can be mean to them?’”

The kid shrugs, and then shakes his head.

“Now I’m going to enlighten you,” Newell says. “She wants exactly what we all want for you, she just goes about it different. And she goes about it that way because I want her to.”

After an awkward fist bump, the kid is allowed to leave Newell’s office, and to finish his lunch at a nearby desk. His next appointment is with another student who has had more than a few problems and needs to be assigned in-school suspension. Nonetheless, amid the trouble and the sentencing, he finds time to connect with Newell.

“Are you really gonna let them give you a Mohawk?” he asks. “That would be so funny.”

This brings Newell back to the realities of life at a middle school.

“Now, think about the fact that you have the sixth graders and then the seventh and eighth graders with their own sets of issues,” he says. “So it’s a multi-layered set of realities. Middle school is the flavor of the moment, and they all think the world is ending. When I got here I thought, ‘I have the best of both worlds. It’s an elementary and a high school combined.’”