Michael Smith admits he doesn’t talk much about his Web site or weekly blog with the staff, school board or community in his rural Oakland, Ill., district, because most folks probably don’t know what a blog is. That’s not a disrespectful dig, but reality: In his agricultural district 200 miles south of Chicago’s bustle—comprising only 300 students, 50 staff, two schools, and one principal—tending a Web site isn’t as high on anyone’s task list as teaching, farming the corn and soybean crops for which the region is known, or football.
But it is high on Smith’s list. His two-year-old site PrincipalsPage.com started as a way to help streamline a principal’s day and has grown to a 10,000-visitors-per-month site that the Chicago Tribune, Sacramento Bee and Reuters have recognized for its clever writing and usefulness to administrators. And the site’s accompanying blog, launched last year merely to drive traffic to the main page, has followers from as far as New Zealand. The site’s utilitarianism and the often-acerbic lilt in Smith’s posts earned him contributing writer positions with Converge magazine. Smith has done all this writing while helping Oakland make AYP for the three years of his tenure.
The Site’s Start
Smith launched PrincipalsPage.com as a repository for the important forms he created and collected while principal in Oakland from 2000 to 2004. “Its original purpose was simply to be a place for me to store forms, letters, etc., online,” he says. “I was moving to a different office, and I didn’t want to throw away the items I had collected as principal ? in case I got fired as superintendent. Really.”
Unlike Smith’s signature self-deprecation, PrincipalsPage.com is no-nonsense. Categories line the left of the home page linking to forms Smith hopes are as useful to other principals as they were to him: sets of interview questions for hiring English teachers, assistant principals, reading specialists and teacher aides; handbooks for administrators and students; and singular forms with, for example, sample contract language for various districtwide positions, information on how to identify bullying, and community service guidelines for high school graduation. “In Illinois there’s a listserv for principals and superintendents, and people would go on looking for an absentee letter, etc., so I’d say, ‘Go to PrincipalsPage.com.’ Before I knew it, it was bigger than I’d ever imagined,” he says.”
Nancy Eskew was Oakland’s dean of students and curriculum director for 13 years and a 20-year second- and fourth-grade teacher before retiring last summer. She was also part of the team that hired Smith as superintendent, a move she calls “the smartest decision the district ever made,” thanks to Smith’s organizational skills and penchant for technology and for promoting it in Oakland.
“He’s had principals from all over the country call or e-mail asking for certain pages,” says Eskew. “I’ve used PrincipalsPage several times throughout my administration, and I’ve told him many times that if he charged just $5 a year for a subscription, he’d be a millionaire. But he just wants the site to help people.”
Today, PrincipalsPage.com features superintendent-related forms for one-stop information shopping. Smith has written many, and many principals have offered their own original forms and documents to be posted along with his.
The Blog’s Birth
The blog started as a place to blow off some administrator steam. Though Smith weaves in personal information about his wife, daughter and dog, his sardonic humor shines through education-related posts like “New Principals: You Can’t Say I Didn’t Warn You,” which advises administrators to maintain a thick skin in preparation for their inevitable first insult attack from a parent defending his or her child. In “Educators, Don’t Forget Our Goal: Teach Students to Mow Their Yards,” Smith offers cheeky commentary on the equal import of students’ achieving high ACT scores and learning lifelong community pride by becoming kindly neighbors and keeping their yards neat.
Social Media as a Unifier
Smith’s blog—aptly named “The Blog”—and his use of Twitter and Plurk have connected him with administrators outside of Oakland, which he says “allowed me to grow 1,000 times more than I thought I could’ve.” He continues: “It goes back to getting outside of your general area. I think that’s important, because too many superintendents just don’t get involved. Social media is just passing them by. In education, there’s always something to learn and improve upon.” He reports that the blog and Web site have made the learning curve for him “that much quicker.”
Smith has made the curve quicker for his staff too. “He’s promoted technology and is not afraid to spend if it will benefit the student,” says Eskew, who in 2006 teamed with Smith to write a $21,000 grant to purchase nine SmartBoards for use in the district. Today there’s nearly one for each of the district’s 34 teachers. “He’s gotten teachers who never would’ve touched a computer to utilize technology,” she says. “I firmly believe that because [the SmartBoards] have helped teachers fine-tune their curriculum and helped students, they’ve helped us make AYP.”
Jennifer Chase Esposito is a contributing writer for District Administration.