How do school administrators prepare over the summer to ensure things run smoothly and that staff and students are on the right track when the school year starts?
Three principals from across the country shared their perspectives on what they do during the break so they feel like they can tackle the school year feeling ready to go. These are their nine pieces of advice.
Assist incoming students
It’s important to start meeting the needs of rising students before summer break begins, said Shampriest Bevel, principal of Bayside Sixth Grade Campus in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
Her school staff visits feeder schools and offers two summer orientation sessions for 6th graders. One session focuses on the school’s “house” system, which divides students into “houses” akin to teams. The other focuses on middle school protocols such as how to use lockers, how to rotate from class to class and more.
Examine previous year’s data
Administrators need “a chance to breathe” at the end of the school year, Bevel said. After the Fourth of July break, the administrative team begins to examine the previous year’s data for academics, discipline, attendance, wellbeing, teacher-student relationships and other metrics.
“We try to find out where our gaps were, the areas where we can improve, and what we did well so we can continue that,” Bevel said. For example, that process led Bayside Campus to set up a mentor-mentee program this year, so full-time staff members now have up to 10 mentees each, she said.
At Indio High School in Indio, California, administrators use summer to review the latest state assessment data and update the academic plan developed in spring, said Principal Derrick Lawson.
“We get a really sharp view of how our students did, what are the areas we should focus on and what is our plan,” Lawson said. “We look at what are we going to do to meet the needs of the students.”
Manage construction projects
Construction projects are a summer staple and require careful management, because all the essentials must be in place before students walk in the door, said Todd Dain, principal of Shawnee Mission South High School in Overland Park, Kansas.
For six of his nine years as principal — including this summer — the school has had bond construction projects for repairs, upgrades and improvements, Dain said. “We have to make sure that work is scheduled over summer so it’s done on time.”
For example, this summer’s nearly $4 million project included renovated plumbing and bathrooms, the addition of gender-neutral stalls, a new Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant elevator, and work on the school’s fitness center.
“The bathrooms were our priority. Aug. 15 was the first day of school, and the bathrooms were completed the night before,” Dain said.
Lawson added it’s also important to coordinate with custodians and grounds staff who conduct a deep cleaning of all facilities and classrooms before the beginning of the school year.
Fill vacant positions
For Lawson, devoting time to interviews for vacant positions is a major priority so they are ideally filled by the new school year and no substitutes need to be hired, Lawson said.
A variety of staff members serve on the interview panels, so summer scheduling can be challenging with people taking time off and going on vacations, he said.
This summer was also much busier than previous ones due to a higher number of vacancies, which Lawson attributed to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, young people choosing different professional fields and baby boomers retiring.
Lay out professional development plans
At Bayside Sixth Grade Campus, administrators work during the summer on a “skill and will” chart that analyzes teachers’ strengths and areas ripe for improvement to craft professional development plans with individual and school-wide components, Bevel said.
For example, teachers this year are being asked to work on higher-level questioning strategies with the goal of improving students’ critical thinking, she said.
“Sometimes, it might not be formal professional development,” Bevel said. “It might just be having a few sessions of sitting down with teachers and going over some things.”
Set up schedules
Lawson said his school aims to finish sifting through course requests and setting up academic schedules by the end of July. That way, during the first week of August, counselors can begin looking at students’ specific needs and work on any schedule adjustments.
The sports games schedule for the academic year also must be finalized.
“It can be tricky,” Lawson said. “I coordinate a lot of things, and typically the athletic director builds that with athletic directors from different schools.”
Nurture staff morale and wellbeing
Administrators at Bayside Campus check in on teachers throughout the summer to ensure they are doing well, Bevel said.
“There is always a lot going on in their personal lives and with their families, so we just call them and ask them how they are doing,” she said. “And if we hear of any [distressing] news about them, we follow up with them and ask them if they need anything.”
Lawson said he devises a plan during the summer to encourage and inspire staff and students from the first day of school.
“As a site principal, your job is not just to be the manager of your facility or the leader of academic success. Your job is not about stuff — it’s about people. And for people to take action, you have to communicate the ‘why’ of what they are doing,” Lawson said. “They key thing I look at is, ‘What are actions I can take, the things I can say and do, that can help people be inspired to take action?’”
Update safety plans
Indio High administrators spend “a significant amount of time” during summer to update the school’s safety plan, Lawson said.
In addition to details like active shooter preparedness, school safety plans incorporate elements based on geographical location such as protocols for extreme cold or heat, natural disasters, or evacuation plans for schools close to potential rail derailments or highways with hazardous materials spills.
“There’s just more and more things we are having to adapt for and be prepared for,” Lawson said.
Focus on personal development
While the principals said they find time during summer to participate in professional training and development opportunities, they also stay mindful of balancing that with their own well-being and relaxation.
Bevel said she devotes time to quiet, personal reflection about her own growth as a leader. “I, too, have to sit down with my boss and look at my evaluation — where I did well, where I can improve and where maybe I need support.”
Lawson said he stays abreast of the latest education research and trends, and he looks to state and national associations as a resource. For example, he focused this summer on finding additional resources to improve student engagement, social-emotional learning and wellness.
Dain said he takes time to connect with colleagues throughout Kansas and elsewhere to find out what is working well in their schools. This summer, he learned about additional strategies to better assist students struggling with grades and attendance, he said.
It’s also great to connect with peers on a meaningful personal level, he added.
“That goes a long way — just to know we are all facing the same struggles together and we are here to support each other,” Dain said. “Sometimes, as a building leader, as an educational leader, you feel isolated, so it’s nice to be able to connect with folks who have that perspective.”