Henrico County VA

Leaders play principal for a day

Colin Steele of Ameriprise Financial Advisors (right) with Henrico High School principal Ron Rodriguez during the “Principal for a Day” event held March 31.
Keeping up with a school principal is not for the faint of heart – or slow of gait – as 20 Henrico business leaders learned at a recent “Principal for a Day” event.

At Chamberlayne Elementary, Nancy States of Virginia Commonwealth Bank followed in the footsteps of Muriel Brinkley as the principal whizzed from classroom visits to meetings with teachers and administrative tasks – in between pauses to hug students, console a crying child, and even join in a game of jump rope.

At Lakeside Elementary, principal Herb Monroe’s morning activities included counseling a pair of students as they worked through a conflict; recruiting help for short-staffed cafeteria workers; assisting the guidance counselor with creating a transition space; calling a parent whose child arrived at school out of sorts; consulting with teachers and meeting with team leaders.

Like Brinkley, Monroe also sprinkled the morning with frequent pauses, awarding a pencil to a student celebrating his birthday; high-fiving a neatly dressed young man; and passing out “Power Paws” and “Pride Paws” to students modeling good behavior.

What’s more – to the delight of passing students – Monroe even performed an impromptu “SOL dance” to celebrate a class’s improved scores.

Louis Gilmore, director of business development at Richmond International Raceway, was just one of the “shadows” who came away awed by the energy and dedication of their principal counterparts.

“I have a newfound respect for principals and all that they do,” said Gilmore, who followed Dana Bost of Fairfield Middle School. Describing a day in which they hopped from administrative and educational tasks to counseling and scheduling, he marveled, “She had so many balls she was juggling!”

Following their morning tours, the 20 visitors gathered with principals at Belmont Recreation Center, where they compared notes at a debriefing luncheon.

Asked what had surprised or impressed them, Lori O’Toole of United Way described her admiration for the “controlled chaos” at Byrd Middle School as hundreds of students efficiently transitioned between classes. Seeing technology in action was also a highlight for O’Toole, who observed as a teacher used electronic tablets to view individual responses to math problems, while simultaneously guiding class discussion.

Many visitors also commented on the hands-on nature of the job and on the amount of interaction principals had with teachers and students.

Doug Fritz of RIR, who followed Ingrid Grant of Laburnum E.S., noted that she “walks around to every single class, every day.

“In 12 years of school I never once saw my principal,” said Fritz. “But [Grant] is very visible and interactive.”

Melissa Silver of Astyra, who shadowed at Trevvett E.S., said, “I was surprised by the involvement of the principal. When I was in school, the principal stayed in the office. But [Mandi Mulholland] knew every child’s name.”

After visiting Hermitage High School and observing student presentations, Sam Young of Astyra remarked, “I was surprised that the kids were as advanced as they are.”

In a drafting and animation class, he watched as students designed video games and buildings, while in a language arts class, he listened to students read their own poems.

“One child read a poem about Katrina,” said Young. “He was so talented I was blown away. All those kids are very talented.

“I felt stupid,” Young concluded. “I was never that creative.”

Non-stop job
The principals and guests also spent part of lunch comparing and contrasting the worlds of business and education, and finding parallels between leadership in the boardroom and classroom.

In both worlds, it was agreed, a leader needs skills in problem-solving and communicating. And in both, said Ingrid Grant, a person needs “flexibility and availability – because you’re not going to be able to stay on schedule.”

All the principals had stories to share of the crises that pop up throughout the day – from broken-down furnaces to children running out of medication– and require constant shifting of schedules and resources.

Grant commented that any time she has an important project to work on, she takes it home, because the school days are too hectic and full of interruptions.

Monroe remarked that he had looked forward to the debriefing as a rare chance to sit down and eat a real lunch, instead of wolfing a sandwich at the end of a day. Prior to the March 31 luncheon, Monroe said, he had had exactly three sit-down lunches this school year.

What’s more, the school day never ends when the students go home for the day. That evening, most of the elementary principals were planning to attend the All-County Chorus event to see their students perform – although Muriel Brinkley said she would miss it to attend her school’s Chick-fil-A night.

And neither does the day end when principals get home for the night – even if they are exhausted.

“I’ll be reading to my daughter [in the evenings],” said Monroe, “and she’ll say, ‘Dad wake up!’” But he cannot sleep at night, Monroe said, without having a pocket notebook within arm’s length to jot down to-do’s.

“I go through two of these a week,” he said, displaying the battered, ink-stained pages of his current notepad.

“It’s a non-stop job,” agreed Grant. “It’s always on your mind. I will sleep with the computer next to me and fire off emails in the middle of the night.”

Help wanted
Finally, the group discussed how best to develop the relationships established at Principal for a Day into lasting, ongoing partnerships.

A collaboration between Henrico County Public Schools and the Henrico Business Council of the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce, the program was designed to foster deepen relationships between the business and education communities and is expected to become annual event.

A number of partnerships already exist, and several principals and business leaders rose to cite examples of student artwork displayed at businesses, reading and mentoring programs, school supply drives, and family activities sponsored by Richmond International Raceway.

But the needs are never-ending, emphasized the principals, and there are always openings for more volunteers, more lunch buddies, and more collaboration.

“My parents [at Chamberlayne] are working so hard,” said Brinkley, citing the example of a parent who goes to school and works shifts as a nurse. “They just can’t volunteer.”

“We need the community to come help.”
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