As the latter half of the 2022-23 school year gets underway, principals nationwide face a veritable phalanx of challenges. Across the board, the concerns are familiar, including fostering positive school culture to support engagement and achievement, closing the gap on pandemic-related learning loss, creating equitable access to enrichment programming, and providing wraparound services to reengage and support those most at-risk.
The following five principals are leaders you’ll want to keep an eye on as we launch into the new year.
Shelley Andres, Bonner School in Bonner, Montana
During a ceremony last fall in Washington, D.C., honoring the 2022 Class of National Distinguished Principals, Shelley Andres, elementary principal of Bonner School in Montana, received a bell. The bell, she said in an interview on the school's website, is a reminder of the honor she has in serving students, staff and families.
"Bonner School’s positive and welcoming culture reflects the way Mrs. Andres leads with kindness, generosity, and a tireless work ethic," the article said.
The 350-student pre-K-8th grade school's close-knit and family-like atmosphere has helped the one-school district in its staff recruitment efforts and push for academic achievement, according to a profile of Andres written for the National Distinguished Principals program through the National Association of Elementary School Principals.
The district, which is in a former logging community, faces challenges such as high poverty, a significant transient population and growing special education needs.
With the assistance of a statewide literacy grant, Andres developed a new framework for literacy instruction at Bonner. As a result, there's been a 13% increase in students receiving generalized supports and a 14% decrease in students needing more intensive support.
Andres was also instrumental in securing a $1.25 million grant in 2019 to create a new pre-K classroom for 30 4-year-olds, as well as expanded literacy professional development for staff.
Cynthia Cardenas, Lincoln Park High School in Brownsville, Texas
After over two decades of serving as an educator in Texas' Brownsville Independent School District and 14 years as a campus administrator at all school levels, Cynthia Cardenas thought she had seen it all. That changed when she was hired almost two years ago as principal of Lincoln Park High School, which has a student body that is made up entirely of pregnant or teenage mothers who are juggling raising a child along with trying to graduate high school.
"This is a different ballgame," Cardenas said. "The strategies that we need to use to educate our students to break the cycle, to empower them, are different. Because at this point, they don't feel confident, they don't feel they can graduate from high school, they don't feel that they are capable of going to college."
Cardenas, along with her staff, aims to change that. Everything from the school's curriculum to its enrichment and environment is crafted with the teenage mothers' daily challenges in mind. Those include little sleep, pediatrician and sonogram appointments, judgment from the broader community, and sometimes even resistance from their own families in earning a diploma.
Due to the school's small student enrollment of only 63 students, Cardenas works with a tight budget alongside larger schools within the district that receive more resources, she said. As a result, a big part of Cardenas' job is advocating for the needs of her students, all of whom are considered high-risk.
"We have a skeleton crew," Cardenas said. The school has only nine teachers and one campus administrator, along with a few additional staffers. Students interested in career training or taking college-level courses are bused to other school campuses to take advantage of those opportunities. Additionally, the school provides on-site child care for students' children up to 18 months old, supervised by a certified teacher and four BISD teacher assistants.
"So we try to be teachers. We try to be counselors. We try to be doctors and mothers and fathers and everything at the same time," Cardenas said.
Mary Fulp, Colony High School in Palmer, Alaska
Mary Fulp has spent 15 of her 17 years as a principal in Alaska’s Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District leading the 594-student Colony Middle School with a firm focus on school culture. This school year, she took a new position in the district leading the 1,015-student Colony High School, where many of her former students attend.
The 2022 Alaska Principal of the Year has been described by her district’s superintendent, Randy Trani, as “uncompromising” in her expectations for student achievement and growth mindset development.
Writing for NASSP in October, Fulp noted the middle school years are a key period to reinforce kindness and prevent bullying behaviors, as the high school transition can also be particularly difficult for students and that the middle school years are a key period to reinforce kindness and prevent bullying behaviors. This, she wrote, makes school culture all the more important.
Recognizing the prevalence of technology and social media in students’ lives, she included a digital citizenship course at the middle school level and also encouraged students to “THINK” about whether their online posts are “True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, and Kind” before they post them.
To further provide a platform for student voice at Colony Middle School, she hosted “Knights of the Roundtable” meetings — named for the school’s mascot — in which student representatives can share feedback.
In August, she told District Administration she believes her job as a leader is to identify the unique qualities of students and staff and nurture them so everyone recognizes they have something to offer. To that end, she starts each school year asking students and staff what they’ll do to make the school a better place, what one uniquely wonderful thing about them is, and who they are when at their very best.
Aaron Huff, Bosse High School in Evansville, Indiana
Now in his fifth year as leader of the 776-student Benjamin Bosse High School in Evansville, Indiana, Aaron Huff communicates the important roles that staff, families, students and the community play in supporting academic and social-emotional outcomes.
One such effort is a partnership the school has developed with car manufacturer Toyota. Called 4T Academy, this advanced manufacturing course for juniors and seniors provides hands-on activities for industrial robotics, computer automated design, hydraulics and more.
Students can visit plants, and seniors have the opportunity for on-the-job training in manufacturing assembly, body welding and painting — which can lead to high-paying jobs after high school.
More broadly, Huff, who began his education career as an after-school program coordinator, uses an equity lens in his work. He does this by encouraging staff to reflect on their upbringing and how they can diminish isolation and separation of races and cultures, Huff told podcast host Bill Ziegler in 2021.
"We just really put a few focal questions around, really, what it is we want our kids to know and be able to do. And then we also thought about how does the … lens by which you see the world impact the way you approach kids?" Huff told Ziegler.
Late last year, Huff was named president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. In that role, he said, he will focus on expanding the voice and participation of people of color. Additionally, he plans to highlight public-private partnerships for better collaborations among schools, employers and higher education, according to an interview with NASSP.
"I also want to focus on strengthening the collective voice of principals at all levels. We face the same challenges," Huff told NASSP. "The question is how do we engage those folks who aren’t engaged? There is power in numbers."
Miguel Marco, Helen Wittmann Elementary in Cerritos, California
During Miguel Marco’s time as the principal of the 540-student Helen Wittmann Elementary School in California, he has made school enrichment and community engagement a key focus of his leadership.
That work contributed to Marco’s recognition in 2022 as one of nine recipients of the Terrel H. Bell Award for Outstanding School Leadership from the U.S. Department of Education.
When he first became principal at Wittmann in 2014, Marco surveyed his school community and discovered students wanted more hands-on, engaging activities. Together, Marco and community partners created over 20 student enrichment programs, including robotics and sports programming for during and after the school day.
Huge congratulations to Principal Miguel Marco of Wittmann Elementary in Cerritos--honored today as one of nine recipients of the prestigious Terrel H. Bell Award for Outstanding School Leadership, as part of the 2022 National Blue Ribbon Schools Program awards ceremony. ????????⭐ pic.twitter.com/kTUrmNnJDp— CA Department of Education (@CADeptEd) November 3, 2022
“I’ve definitely learned from my students and from my own experience that the enrichment experience shouldn’t be isolated to the kid who’s classified as a GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) student,” Marco said in a November interview with EdSource.
Marco also holds regular “Coffee with the Principal” open forums with families to share information, listen to concerns, and address any pressing issues.
Through his enrichment-centric focus, Marco remains committed to keeping students excited about coming to school every day — especially in the face of learning loss recovery efforts.
“But we’re not going to stop students from taking band or going to coding or the library. Those are the first places a lot of kids get pulled out of, but they make the kid want to show up to school, too,” he told EdSource. “The desire to want to be at school is much more important than how quickly they learn their math facts.”