Chapel Hill 7th and 8th Grade Center is a middle school on the west side of Indianapolis that was in need of a new school administrator. MSD of Wayne Township Superintendent Dr. Terry Thompson has overseen an impressive series of building initiatives which, most recently, included rebuilding the school into a state-of-the-art facility. As part of that makeover the school also got a new principal in order to enhance school leadership and education leadership school-wide. I had chance to speak with Sheri Marcotte this past week. She is an experienced and impressive educator. I asked her to comment on lessons learned in her first year at her new school. Below are excerpts that I have paraphrased from her responses to a number of questions posed to her in our conversation.
What is your background?
I graduated from Indiana University and worked at a wholesale produce company while I did my student teaching. It was an invaluable experience and gave me some great insight into customer service and how to really focus on what your customers want and need. That experience has served me well as an educator.
My career has been spent in the Indianapolis area including teaching in IPS (Indianapolis Public Schools) and as a middle school administrator and principal in both Franklin Township and Warren Township. I have worked in 5 different middle schools of the past 35 years.
What motivated you to take a new position at Chapel Hill?
I live on the westside closer to Chapel Hill and I am very familiar with the school corporation. It sounds materialistic but the new building was a very attractive to me and a big reason I wanted to come. In the end though the Superintendent Terry Thompson and Assistant Superintendent Dr Jeff Butts both convinced me that this was a place that needed me and that would give me lots of opportunity to positively impact students.
Describe the situation at the school when you arrived.
First of all, the people were great. I could tell that the hiring process the school had been through was excellent. The staff was really top notch.
I was aware that some of the staff might be resentful of me. I was prepared for some groups of staff to harbor some animosity towards me. That seems typical for a lot of new principals. But, I did not really experience that. I felt very comfortable with the people almost immediately.
The school had plenty of instructional programs. That was not a problem. In fact, my first impression was that there were too many instructional programs. The school seemed to lack a bit of focus.
The biggest thing I noticed was that the school generally did not deal well with large groups of students. Classroom management was fine but once students were in the halls, moving between classes, going to lunch, attending an assembly or going to the buses the environment became chaotic. This was not acceptable to me. I believe that students should behave well at all times in a well-run school. The passing periods and going to buses should be no exception. The lax atmosphere was sending a message to our students that acting in this way was acceptable behavior.
Fortunately, I came from a very similar school with a very similar demographic of students. Instilling order is second nature to me so I knew we could address this need.
What was the culture of the school when you came in? What did you do to change things?
Many of the staff members seemed to feel powerless in their inability to impact and address negative student behavior. I think they felt some underlying needs but didn’t really know what could be done about it. I tried to be focused and deliberate in my first year. I focused on just a few things.
First, as I mentioned, we added a lot of structure around how we dealt with large groups of students. The staff was skeptical that we could easily deal with this. Dismissal, in particular, was horrible. When you have 1,200 middle school students headed for the buses at the same time, it is important that you have order or things can get out of hand. We began by having teachers walk their classes to the buses. Students were required to be quiet and orderly. We saw an immediate and drastic change regarding how smoothly dismissal went. It was great. Teachers would come up to me in the halls and thanked me for creating such an orderly dismissal process.
Shortly after we began this practice, some teachers began to ask how much longer we would be walking kids to the buses. I realized that our management of students was not yet part of our culture. I became encouraged though when other teachers began to speak up and request that we always walk students to buses. This told me that they got it. It wasn’t a one time thing. We needed to maintain our focus on managing the environment of the school. I my mind it, starts on ensuring that the classrooms, halls and all common areas were as orderly as possible.
Another thing I changed pretty quickly was when the schools leadership team met. As a group they met each morning at the start of school. This meant that many of my best teachers were not in homeroom classes with students. To me, students are our number one priority so I changed the schedule around so that every teacher had a group of homeroom students – including those on the leadership team.
What are your plans for the coming school year? What will be your focus in the coming year?
Generally a lot of what I did in the first year was to instill order. The school was a chaotic environment and one where not everyone felt safe. We worked hard to address that immediately.
This year we are working on “Engagement by Design”. We want to ensure that our students are truly engaged in their studies. I don’t think this happens by accident and it doesn’t always happen naturally. We are being intentional about engagement with our students.
The other things we are doing this year is nothing. By that I mean we are doing nothing new. This school corporation is well known for its excellence and for staying on the leading edge of educational practice. But sometimes it translates into doing too much or changing practice too much. For this year, we are going to stick with the great curriculum we have and make it work for us. I am excited about that.