It isn’t every day that you get to step out of your work eco-system and enter someone else’s… especially when that someone is a seasoned middle school principal!
I had exactly that opportunity on Thursday, February 21st at Deerlake Middle School: one of Leon County Schools top ranked schools, consistently earning an A rating, and serving over 1,000 students!
It was a privilege to shadow Principal Steven Mills, spending the day asking him hundreds of questions, listening to the various issues that needed his attention and meeting students, staff and faculty that clearly love their jobs, their school, and the students they serve.
Before I leap into sharing a bit of my experience… let me share the “how this happened”. For several years, The Foundation for Leon County Schools, with support from Envision Credit Union and The Edison, set aside this one day for the business community to experience a day in the life of a principal. This is my first experience as part of the program, and I sure hope not the last.
WFSU works with schools and students nearly every week of the year. As a Ready To Learn public media station, our education department primarily operates under grants which serve our Title 1 community. I have been to many schools in and around Tallahassee, and worked with outstanding principals in each place. I never truly thought about what their day was like… or how their days have changed in response to the tragic shooting events throughout the United States. From the time Principal Mills wakes up, I think safety and security are on his mind.
My day began at 8:30am. School doesn’t start until 9:15am, but the front office was already a beehive of activity with parents, students, and faculty sorting out various things for the day ahead. The school office is a happy place; cheerful, welcoming and wearing a smile. I was greeted by Principal Mills and we were out front in no time at all, greeting students as they poured onto campus. We were joined by crossing guards, a faculty member and the school officer. Everyone is visiting, but vigilant… Principal Mills had already been at school for a good hour before I arrived, and every morning of every school day, you’ll see him out there.
Up next: a visit with a parent and her son, who is homeschooled but will be joining a class for field trips this year. Homeschooled students are welcomed to take part in a lot of public school activities including sports, clubs, and social events.
Next we observed a geometry class. Each teacher is observed by either the principal, assistant principals, or the dean. For experienced teachers this happens at least once a year, but for new teachers, observation days happen more frequently. I think we often forget that each school is a complex business with not just students and their teachers, but staff and contracted services as well – and each needs attention, including aspects like school lunches, the resource officer and cross guards, the school grounds and maintenance. When it’s done well, you don’t even notice it all! The principal is responsible for all of these elements working together, and it doesn’t end there…
The AD (I have to admit, it took me a little while to figure out what the AD was…while we have many acronyms in the world of PBS KIDS, that’s not one I was familiar with, while every school in Leon County sure is) is the Athletic Director! Did you know that there are 14 sporting activities for Deerlake Bucks to participate in? This means that on any given day, the principal likely has at least one sport that parents and students would like to see him or her in attendance. During my day at Deerlake, athletics were a hot topic! Athletic Departments across the county certainly compete, but the coordination between administration and AD’s is much more than I ever imagined. That’s not even delving into the many other clubs that take place on campus; Brain Bowl, math, chess and even creative writing are all examples of extra-curricular offerings that really appreciate the principal’s attention.
The day took a darker turn as a teacher discovered a note on the ground from a distressed student. This time it was lucky. There was a discoverable cry for help, which arrived because of the teacher’s swift action and the school’s preparedness to take the steps necessary to get a student medical help. It was a sobering event, which reminded me that students finding themselves in situations they’re unable to cope with can spiral out of control – alone.
And then, time for lunch duty! Principal Mills spends his lunch along with other faculty and staff, monitoring the cafeteria. The kids are loud, but it’s happy chatter, mixed with that unmistakable lunch room smell and the comradery of lunch servers and staff. I packed my lunch, and asked about a hundred more questions of Mr. Mills until – oh, I almost forgot! Before lunch we went to visit Deerlake’s amazing art room, the STEM Lab, and the Media Center. I could have spent my entire day between these three spaces as there was so much fun and hands-on learning happening. It was a joy to be around! The projects are amazing and the spaces reflect the student body’s enthusiasm and talent!
After lunch, it was time to convene with some of the other administrative team. It is already planning time for the incoming class of 6th graders and the outgoing class of 8th graders. Courses have to be selected and new school software mastered to ease the transition from one space to the other. It’s complicated, and much cooperation has to take place between multiple schools, their teachers, and hundreds of nervous parents eager for their child’s next academic steps. I asked about hundred more questions, about resources, IEP’s, testing, the future and what was it like during the summer months. Afterwards, Principal Mills headed back outside for parent pick-up… safety and security. These two things had never left his mind, the entire time I shadowed. The students went home safely, and the school was secured.
Thank you Mr. Mills, for your service to our community and future leaders. Thank you to Deerlake Middle School staff and faculty for making my day so welcoming and warm. Thank you to the Foundation of Leon County Schools for making this opportunity available!
Tasha Weinstein, Education & Engagement Manager