As a 28-year public education veteran, I believe in the benefits of public education. No other profession has as much potential to impact the future of our country for generations to come. In 2017, we are educating children for careers that have yet to be created, using technology that is outdated almost as soon as it is purchased.
In the words of my campus speech pathologist, Laura Peterson, “Public school can be many things for children; primarily, it’s a place for us to teach them (how) to learn and to create a desire to learn. If that means giving them food, clothing, love, hugs, or building self-esteem, then that’s what we do.”
Copperas Cove ISD serves more than 8,000 students, many of whom are closely connected to our neighboring military base, Fort Hood. Our community is growing, yet highly mobile, and is very supportive of its school system. Local businesses and community members provide countless hours of volunteer support and take pride in our academic and athletic achievements. In short, Copperas Cove ISD takes pride in educating the whole child.
The OWLS Family
Before I officially joined the Williams/Ledger campus as principal in 2012, I met with existing leaders to establish open communication and get a sense of the school’s culture. I asked these leaders to identify the best thing about their campus, and they all said, “the people.” I also asked them what they would like to improve, and they all mentioned student behavior.
My counselors proposed the idea of recognizing one student in each classroom per week as an Outstanding Williams Ledger Student (OWLS). They developed a nomination process and designed a button that students could wear during their week. We quickly realized that the S could also stand for “staff”; thus, OWLS became the new “logo” for Williams/Ledger.
I also established a Positive Behavior Initiatives and Supports team that created behavioral expectations for all common areas. We posted these expectations in hallways using common language. They were explicitly taught (and modeled) using a uniform lesson plan during the first six weeks of the school year and then reviewed as needed throughout the year. Additionally, we created a token economy system to reward students who meet expectations. “Hoot loot” can be exchanged for prizes and other incentives.
Since 2012, discipline referrals have declined significantly each year, with a more than 60 percent decrease in total referrals. Teachers feel empowered to set and hold high expectations, and students want to meet them. Students are recognized and rewarded for successes, both academically and behaviorally. Parents are partners in the process and are invited to attend all celebrations.
A student teacher in our kindergarten team recently asked her students to write a sentence about what it means to be an OWL. Answers ranged from “being nice to everyone” and “being a good friend,” to “following the rules.” One kindergarten student wrote, “Being an OWL means family.”
These answers from our youngest students speak volumes about our school and the culture we have built.
Relationships are the heart of public education. Positive relationships among all groups create an energetic and exciting environment and establish a strong foundation for learning.
In support of this goal, we have intentionally increased our number of after-school clubs. Clubs help our students feel like they belong and support relationships among students. In five years, we have gone from six to 25 different student clubs.
We have also worked hard to keep our teachers. Increased high-stakes testing and accountability measures, heightened paperwork demands, ongoing changes in legislation, shifting family dynamics, and a changing economy all contribute to teacher burnout. In Copperas Cove, mobility is also a factor. Many of our teachers are military spouses who are not in the area very long.
With so many factors outside my control, I believe it is important to take care of the factors within my control. Teachers, like students, need to feel loved, appreciated, and validated; they need to be recognized for the amazing things they do every day. I send them postcards, leave them notes, and keep a never-ending supply of chocolate in my office (and my office door is OPEN). I am on first-name basis with my staff; I know them as people. These little things contribute to our teacher retention. When teachers come to our campus, they make a long-term commitment to our students and our vision.
Parent & Community Partners
Prior to 2012, parent volunteers were not a visible presence at Williams/Ledger. Now, however, our parent volunteer coordinators offer biweekly volunteer training and orientation sessions. Our parent-teacher organization is an active group, generating additional funds for special projects around the campus. As of May 2017, our parent and community volunteers had donated 2,300 hours of service to Williams/Ledger Elementary.
During the 2015-16 school year, as part of the Parent Advisory Council, a parent suggested that the school do more to acknowledge high-achieving students; thus, “Sweets with Sullivan” was born. Each six-week period, A-honor roll students are treated to homemade cookies and juice and receive a spirit stick from me. To date, I have baked 98 dozen chocolate chip cookies!
Each year, our campus celebrates Read Across America. This year, we had 26 guest readers. During our annual College & Career Awareness and Career Day event, 22 community businesses presented their careers to our student body.
Whether it’s helping out in the office, working at the book fair or other special events, or selling popcorn and pickles, these parent and community members are PRESENT and making a difference!
Each year, new teachers are welcomed into the Williams/Ledger family. During my five years as principal at Williams/Ledger, I have watched my staff grow in a variety of ways. Their hearts are larger; they are not afraid to take risks.
The Williams/Ledger campus team has truly embraced a growth mindset, including the concept that true growth occurs outside our comfort zone. I am equally proud that many of my OWL staff members have begun to pursue their own personal growth by starting graduate courses and pursuing careers in curriculum and instruction or educational leadership.
Each year, new teachers are welcomed into the Williams/Ledger family. During my five years as principal at Williams/Ledger, I have watched my staff grow in a variety of ways. Their hearts are larger; they are not afraid to take risks. The Williams/Ledger campus team has truly embraced a growth mindset, including the concept that true growth occurs outside our comfort zone. I am equally proud that many of my OWL staff members have begun to pursue their own personal growth by starting graduate courses and pursuing careers in curriculum and instruction or educational leadership.
Through the development of positive relationships, Williams/Ledger is growing leaders among both students and staff—one of the highest callings of public education. We are producing leaders who will shape the future of our nation.
Marla Sullivan is in her sixth year as principal at Williams/Ledger Elementary School. This is her 28th year in public education. Mrs. Sullivan holds a bachelor of music education from Baylor University, a master of education from the University of Texas at Austin, and her mid-management certification from Tarleton State University.