The challenges facing principals in the back half of the 2023-24 school year are myriad but familiar. Among them: student mental health concerns, looming budget hurdles, school culture questions, and student engagement and achievement gaps.
Still, a number of school leaders are handling these concerns with innovation and aplomb — including K-12 Dive’s principals to watch for 2024. Due to their successes and the obstacles they have overcome, the following five principals make the short list to keep tabs on in the new year.
Christopher Young, North Country Union High School in Newport, Vermont
In this small, rural community Principal Christopher Young sought to better understand the complexities of teachers' responsibilities and students' engagement in lessons. So last year, he began teaching an elective course on leadership and literature, and he's continuing to do so this semester.
Being in the classroom is giving the former English teacher and 2023 Vermont Principal of the Year a firsthand view of how teachers are grading for proficiency and how students are balancing academics and social and mental well-being.
That understanding is adding to Young’s collective push to improve academic outcomes and social-emotional health at the 710-student high school. The school overhauled its grading system, starting five years ago when Young became principal. Rather than using letter grades that included factors such as participation and homework completion, students are measured on progress toward key content areas for each subject.
Efforts are also centered on rebuilding school-home connections for students who disengaged during the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, the school created a substance abuse prevention and recovery program to help students quit vaping. On a national level, Young spoke out with other principals against a Republican-led effort in Congress last year to cut Title I funding.
Young is also known for adding joy to school life. He attends field trips to go skiing with students. He's also made cameo appearances in school plays, and this month, Young has been practicing a routine for a Dancing with the Staff fundraiser.
Despite the challenges — and because of the opportunities — Young says, "I just look forward to coming in every day. There are endless possibilities."
Betty Cobbs, Woodside Elementary School in Everett, Washington
There are up-and-coming principals to watch — and then there are principals worth watching because of their extensive experience.
College intern, teacher, administrator and human resources director are just some of the positions Betty Cobbs has undertaken at Everett School District in Washington over more than five decades. Now, as principal of Woodside Elementary School, she's continuing what those around her view as not only a career in education — but a civil service.
In 1988, Cobbs became the first African American principal in the Washington district, located just north of Seattle, according to the Everett Herald. Since then, she's served as administrator in four elementary schools, including her first principalship at Jackson Elementary School.
Currently, as principal of Woodside Elementary School, she serves 578 students and leads 36 classroom teachers.
Her responsibilities as principal, string of accomplishments and long track record of educational service have fueled new avenues to create a positive school culture. Last year, Cobbs created the "Betty Cobbs Challenge," which involved doing "The Betty Dance" to the tune of James Brown's 1971 hit "Super Bad."
In the challenge video, Cobbs urged school and community members to accept her dance challenge and share it on social channels.
Meanwhile, she's also juggled mentoring the first African-American female president at Everett Community College, adding to other education-related volunteer efforts she's undertaken throughout the years.
"Help someone when you have the opportunity to help them," she told Homage, a local publication for older adults and those with disabilities. "It will be worth it.”
Harrison Bailey III, Liberty High School in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
Student and staff mental health is top of mind for Harrison Bailey III, now in his 12th year as principal of Liberty High School in Pennsylvania. As part of that priority, Bailey launched a trauma-informed school-based wellness center in 2020.
Though the wellness center is still operating today, it has faced some challenges: namely, the expiration of some of its funding that came from both state and federal pandemic aid. Due to its success, however, school leaders are looking for alternative ways to keep it going.
“The system is working well. Obviously, we want to continue to add resources to it,” Bailey said. “I think the fact that we had a good system in place allowed us to weather the storm of some of the cutbacks.”
Moving forward, Bailey said his focus at the 2,800-student school is to connect with large-scale partners — including hospitals, universities, school districts and the juvenile justice system — to address mental health needs within the greater school community.
Bailey would also like to see the wellness center scale across the state one day. That dream took a step forward Jan. 17, when Bailey testified before the Pennsylvania House of Representatives’ education committee about the wellness center and student mental health.
Mental health is “on everybody’s mind,” Bailey said. “I don’t know that there’s a lot of people who really know what to do about it, and so I think a model like ours provides them with … some stability and some kind of clear idea about what to do. I think that’s why it’s catching some energy.”
Christopher Page, Highlands Ranch High School in Highlands Ranch, Colorado
“All in” is more than a catchphrase for Highlands Ranch High School Principal Christopher Page — it’s a commitment to open collaboration across the school community.
The 2023 Colorado High School Principal of the Year has prioritized creating a safe, welcoming and inclusive environment for students and educators alike to submit suggestions and feedback.
Based on student feedback, for instance, the 1,500-student school has increased professional development on differentiated instruction and equity and diversity. Staff, likewise, have reported feeling more encouraged to participate in open and direct conversations about school issues and to challenge policies and proposals.
Page, who has served as principal of the Highlands Ranch, Colorado, school since 2015, also co-founded and chaired the Douglas County School District’s Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Accessibility Committee, in addition to co-chairing a project that developed the district’s first equity policy.
“The culture at ‘THE Highlands Ranch High School’ as Dr. Page calls it, is a true family environment,” Erin Kane, superintendent of Douglas County School District told the Colorado Association of School Executives. “He is incredibly committed to his students, staff, and families, and is someone we can count on, from the district level, to lend his voice to make our amazing school district an even better place to work and learn.”
April Meyers, Clinton Middle School in Clinton, Tennessee
April Meyers took the reins as principal of Tennessee’s Clinton Middle School in 2022, and she’s since embraced creative ways to engage students.
Meyers grabbed the attention of local news outlets for her “No Office November” initiative last fall when she gave her office up for a month and rolled around the school using a desk on wheels as she visited classrooms.
Meyers told local news station WATE that the initiative helped her build relationships at the 600-student school and allowed students to feel more comfortable speaking with a school administrator. On top of that, Meyers and her team saw a 17% decrease in discipline referrals at Clinton Middle School within the first quarter of this school year, WATE reported.
Meyers has worked in Anderson County Schools for more than 20 years, according to the district. Her roles over the years have included serving as a teacher, curriculum specialist and academic dean. At the state level, Meyers has sat on numerous committees with the Tennessee Department of Education. She was also named a regional semi-finalist for 2023-24 Tennessee Principal of the Year.
“She is a lifelong learner and hopes to set an example for students to never stop learning,” the district wrote in a 2022 post announcing Meyers’ new role as Clinton Middle School’s principal. “She feels privileged to work with the talented teachers and staff of Clinton Middle and believes that by working closely with families and the community, a supportive climate and culture can be provided to grow students to their greatest potential.”