A look at how 3 innovative principals are softening the pandemic’s blows

Part of the recovery process is allowing students, families and staff to discuss COVID, race relations and other pressing issues.
S. Kambar Khoshaba
S. Kambar Khoshaba

Principals have never had a greater opportunity to be superheroes than they do now as they help their school communities rebound from COVID and other turbulent events of the last few years, S. Kambar Khoshaba says.

Part of that recovery process is allowing students, families and staff to discuss the pandemic, race relations and social-emotional wellbeing, among other pressing issues, says Khoshaba, principal of Western Branch Middle School in Virginia’s Chesapeake Public Schools.

“When I have kids and staff here for a finite amount of time, this is where people come before paperwork and relationships come before rigor,” says Khoshaba, who was named Virginia’s outstanding middle school principal of 2021. “We have to do everything we can to help everyone get through the pandemic—there’s never been a greater need.”

During the tumultuous summer of 2020, Khoshaba formed three separate social justice advisory councils comprising staff, parents and students. The councils began work by reading the book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, which sparked some robust and honest discussions around race relations. “We came at this in a vein of trying to understand instead of trying to be understood all the time, and people felt like they had a real voice and they were heard,” he says.”I believe we now have deeper relations coming out of this adversity.”

The student discussions, which covered topics such as dress code discrimination and a lack of representation in honors classes, were particularly powerful. Students felt girls and students of color were being unfairly targeted under the school’s dress code. One student, in fact, said she was more anxious about being accused of violating the dress code than she was about her academic performance. “If these are my students’ perceptions, if this is how they’re feeling, I’m going to look into it,” Khoshaba says.

Students write about their sense of belonging in the principal's "office on wheels" at Western Branch Middle School in Chesapeake, Virginia.
Students write about their sense of belonging in the principal’s “office on wheels” at Western Branch Middle School in Chesapeake, Virginia.

Khoshaba also stationed an “office on wheels” in the school hallway. He asked students to write on a whiteboard about whether they felt they belonged in the school. Feedback from students who said “no” has prompted the administration to create another gender-neutral bathroom, among other actions. “This is real stuff,” he says. “This is qualitative data that’s more important than any number generated by a state test. This is how we can help kids feel better about themselves.”

Inspiring teacher growth

The distress caused by the sudden shift to online learning in the spring of 2020 spurred Principal Amy Skirvin to launch a series of virtual fireside chats with parents and others, focused on a study of The Distance Learning Playbook.

Skirvin, principal of Waldport Middle/High School in Oregon’s rural Lincoln County School District, stationed herself next to her fireplace with a mug of hot chocolate to lead the sessions, which had no set agenda so participants could voice concerns and ask questions as conditions and policies changed in the early days of the pandemic.

Popular topics included discussions about the school’s honor society, college scholarships, and how athletics would function during the pandemic. “It kept people working together,” says Skirvin, the 2021 Oregon middle school principal of the year. “I am a huge believer in collaborative leadership and working with staff on a lot of the decision-making.”

Amy Skirvin
Amy Skirvin

The shift online gave teachers a new opportunity to record and watch themselves and then reflect on their practices on their own and with other teachers. This fall, administrators offered strategies so teachers could focus on their self-observations on instructional practices, behavior management, academic vocabulary and other classroom priorities.

One teacher has inspired some of her colleagues to begin a shift toward proficiency-based learning, under which students are measured by the skills they have acquired rather than being issued letter grades. “Because of watching each other, teachers are talking, they have an open environment and they are trying new skills,” Skirvin says. “It comes down to collaboration and trust and there being an open door where people have someone they can rely on to lead them to be the best that they can be.”

Making room for mental health

Many barriers can prevent students from getting adequate mental health care. The surging need for treatment seen early on in the pandemic motived principal John Gies to open a mental health clinic in his building, Shelby High School.

COVID relief funds allowed the district, Shelby City Schools in Ohio, to forge a deeper relationship with its local counseling partner, says Gies, who is also the state coordinator for the Ohio Association of Secondary School Administrators. Counselors visit the school at least once a week and can also be called in as needed.

John Gies
John Gies

“Our counselors are maxed out,” Gies says. “This is taking the kids who have some really big issues off their plates.”

The district is also putting relief funds toward co-pays so counseling is free for students and families. On-site treatment also means parents don’t have to take time off work, Gies says. The counselors provide other services as well, such as conducting drug and alcohol assessments if student-athletes fail drug tests.

Gies also worked with the student council to plan monthly fun activities such as “ripped jeans day” and karaoke. “The rise in anxiety and the stress levels have just been pushed to a height that we haven’t seen for a long time, or maybe ever,” Gies says.  “We have situations where kids are screaming over something that a couple of years ago wouldn’t have been a big deal. You have to figure out what’s causing the behavior.”

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Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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