How I Lead

This Denver assistant principal builds relationships and heads off misbehavior with bow ties

PHOTO: Paul Hudson/Creative Commons
Fernando Branch

Today, we launch a new series called “How I Lead,” which features principals and assistant principals from across Colorado who have been recognized for their work. It is a companion to our popular “How I Teach” series, in which distinguished teachers tell us how they approach their jobs.

Fernando Branch, high school assistant principal at Denver’s Noel Community Arts School, still remembers Ms. Mannis.

When he was in sixth grade, the teacher worked with him on spelling and grammar every day after school, driving 45 minutes across Memphis to drop him off at home afterwards. Eventually, the extra help landed him on the honor roll for the first time.

Branch says Ms. Mannis’ commitment helped him overcome the dyslexia that haunted him throughout elementary school. It also helped shape a philosophy ingrained in him today: “There’s no such thing as a child who can’t learn.”

Branch is one of five principals and assistant principals selected for the 2016-17 Colorado Educator Voice Fellowship, an initiative of the national nonprofit America Achieves. The program aims to get educators involved in policy conversations and decisions.

We asked Branch how he thinks about leadership, what he’s learned from evaluating teachers, and why he’s so into bow ties. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?
I ran from the field of education at first. That all changed when I was working as a management trainee at Cintas and started coaching fifth grade boys basketball in Maumelle, Arkansas. From that moment on, I became a servant to the profession and have never looked back.

My first education job was at Sheffield High School in Memphis, Tennessee as a geography teacher. I walked in, mid-year right before Christmas break and before I knew it, eight years had flown by.

Fill in the blank. My day at school isn’t complete unless I ____________ . Why?
Walk the entire building at least one time. Building positive relationships with students, teachers and support staff takes time. It’s my experience that having an organic routine that gives you a chance to talk, laugh, reflect, and discover helps support a positive school culture.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom? The best way to get to know students is first by respecting students. Once students know you’re socially cognitive about the school and students’ voice, seek out opportunities to engage in authentic conversations.

One way that I have done this is by starting a Bowtie Tuesday Club at every school I’ve been in. The voluntary activity — where students dress up and wear bowties or bows — is a conversation-starter and heads off misbehavior, too. It’s amazing how a school culture can change when students start wearing bows and bow ties.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?
There was this one time that a teacher and I disagreed on the professionalism rating they received. I try really hard to be more of a coach rather than a evaluator, but in this particular situation, the teacher scored themselves distinguished in every area of focus. This simply was not true nor did the collected evidence support this rating. In the end, we agreed to disagree, but I learned a very important lesson from that: In the future, I should build in checkpoints to talk about professionalism over the course of the year.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?
Our recruitment effort — being strategic about marketing and branding. We created student shadow days where students and parents visit the school. Also, our arts team does art tours to showcase our work to feeder middle schools. High school enrollment projections are up in every grade level. We are bringing in one of the largest freshman classes to date and are attracting 49 percent of new ninth-grade artists from outside of our school, which serves grades six through 12.

The second thing I’m most proud of is the frequent feedback we hear from students, teachers, parents and district partners about the drastic change in school culture. When behavior incidents are down 90 percent, attendance goes up, and the creative flair of an arts school began to blossom into a colorful canvas of school pride and purpose.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?
There is no such thing as a bad child. We have to meet children where they are and build them up to where they need to be. I use a social emotional support system that teaches students to own their mistakes and change their thinking habits.

When the event is too great for a restorative coaching session, tough love plays an important role in teaching our students that there are real consequences for your actions as a young adult. After the consequence has been addressed, students will revisit the type of thinking that caused the event to happen in the first place. This is where true learning happens.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?
Leading an art school carries an additional financial burden. The per-pupil cost at my school is often more expensive because of the type of programming art schools support. I’m paying close attention to TABOR, Gallagher and Title II funding because each has the potential to harm or drastically improve the state of my school.

What is the hardest part of your job?
The hardest part is shutting it off so that my two daughters and wife see daddy and a good husband who tries to cook during his assigned week. A Mr. Branch that is not taking care of business at home is no good at school either.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I remember meeting with [a parent] about her son, Mohammed, who was one of my outstanding students and athletes. Mohammed had earned a full scholarship to college in his senior year but was not his usual positive self. When asked what was going on, he told me that he couldn’t attend college because he was just told by his mother that he wasn’t a U.S. citizen and was in the country illegally.

I was blown away that this young man did everything right since first grade and was not able to receive the award he earned. I worked tirelessly to ensure he got his chance at a post-secondary education. Mohammed graduated from college three years ago and still carries true grit in his work ethic.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
“Top 20 Parents: Raising Happy, Responsible and Socially Healthy Children” and “Why Students Disengage in American Schools And What We Can Do About It,” both by Paul Bernabei.

How I Lead

Meditation and mindfulness: How a Harlem principal solves conflict in her community

Dawn DeCosta, the principal of Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Dawn DeCosta, Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School’s principal of seven years, never pictured herself leading a school.

Originally a fine arts major and art teacher, she was inspired to be a community leader when she took a summer leadership course at Columbia University’s Teachers College. The program helped her widen her impact to outside the classroom by teaching her how to find personal self awareness and mindfulness.

For the past four years she has taught the students, teachers, and parents in her school’s community how to solve conflict constructively through the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence’s RULER program — a social-emotional learning program that brings together many of the tools that she learned at Columbia. While describing these new practices and techniques, DeCosta reflected on the specific impact they have had on her community.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What is the Yale RULER program?

It’s more of a process, not a script or curriculum. An approach that has these four anchors: the mood meter, the charter, the meta-moment, and the blueprint. We use the mood meter to describe feelings, because a lot of times we’ll just hear “I feel happy” or “I feel sad.” You want them to be able to better pinpoint how they feel, and the mood meter is a square with these quadrants that are different colors and show how much energy a student has at a given moment and how pleasant they’re feeling. The charter is an agreement to the class. It replaces “don’t hit, don’t kick” with “how do we want to feel, what are we going to do to feel that way, what will we do if we have a conflict.” The meta-moment are six steps on how to deal with a stressful situation, and the blueprint is a plan to serve a longer-term conflict between two people- to solve an ongoing conflict that we need a plan for, that’s not just in the moment. We integrate all four components throughout the day, throughout the week, throughout the year.

What changes did you make to it to make it work for your community, and what are the specific strategies you use?

We do it with teachers, students, staff, and supplement it with a culturally relevant approach. We have 100 percent black and brown children, so this means using culturally relevant texts, since we want students learning about leaders and artists who look like them. We want them to see models of excellence in themselves and see success too in themselves in order to combat some of the negative images they see in the media or even in their neighborhoods. This is a beautiful place but there’s also a lot going on in terms of poverty and violence, which have an impact on their lives, how they feel, how they live, how they see things. We’ve incorporated meditation, mindfulness, brain breaks, yoga, and arts into our curriculum. We’ve put all the different pieces together to tap into what makes kids want to go to school and makes them love to be here. We want to use these in every grade, so that we give students a common language and kids can move from one grade to the next easily. Student ownership is a big piece, because what happens when the teachers aren’t there? Do you know how to use this in less structured environments, at home with your siblings at home?

How do you make sure vulnerable students are getting emotional support and give time for that reflection and self growth but also provide a rigorous education that meets your school’s standards?

The work that we are doing is ensuring that the kids have academic improvement and success. Because they feel cared for and comfortable, ultimately students feel successful, and when you feel successful you will apply yourself more. Right now, learning is rigorous. It’s not what it was 10 years ago. So we ask kids to think very deeply to be critical thinkers. The text that they have to read is more rigorous, ones that require problem solving [and] for kids to think for themselves. And so that by itself is taxing. And that kind of work can be really stressful. A lot of the work we’ve done is around test anxiety. We want kids to know that this is just a piece of information, you need to know where you’re doing well, where you’re struggling so that they can address areas of challenge with a little more positivity. But we see the effects of it in our academic performance.

How have you measured the success of the program?

When I first became principal it wasn’t like we were having emergencies necessarily, but we were putting out a lot of fires. Kids were just coming in with issues, getting into fights, things like that. We also wanted to bring in more of the parents, because there were some that we wanted to be more engaged. We have seen an increase in test scores, but I use personal growth stories as my data–that’s how I know that this works. When I have those success stories, when I see students that really needed it, use it and feel a change, that is the data. We didn’t actually see real, big changes until last year, when we were three years into using this new style of learning. There’s always work to be done, it’s an ongoing thing.

In your own words, what is emotional intelligence and why is it important to have?

To me, it means that you are aware of what you may be feeling at a certain moment and of how your feelings impact interactions with others. It’s about how self aware you are, how are you thinking about what you’re going to say or do before you do it, and about how you show compassion for others who are also thinking and feeling just like you. It’s about how you listen to others, how you see and recognize what others are giving you, and how you support others. We’ve been told that all we can do is control ourselves, and that we’re not responsible for other people. But I think through emotional intelligence, we are responsible for how we make people feel.

In what ways do you help take this learning outside of the classroom?

We send home activities for students to do with their families, for over vacation. It will be like, “check in with your family members on their moods for the week and on how everybody is feeling this week,” or “what was one time when you and your parents had a conflict and what did you do well or not do well.” We keep finding the means to engage the parents at home with it by having them come in and do stress relief workshops. I have students ask, “Can I have a mood meter for my mom? I think it will help her because she feels really stressed.” So that home/school piece is a really important part of what makes everything successful. We’re all supporting the kids, we’re raising them together.

In what other ways do you help the parents learn as well, and what does that look like?

We trained a group of parent leaders in RULER, who helped us train other parents. Parents like hearing from other parents, so we wanted to make sure that it was presented to them as something they could relate to. I think that sometimes as educators we are guilty of using a lot of acronyms and indigestible words when we’re talking to families, and what we’ve decided to do is breaking it down to talking about how do they deal with stress. Kind of how we brought it to the parents is that we brought to the kids strategies on how to deal with stress. We did some yoga with them, breathing techniques, and then we just started talking to them about what kinds of emotion they go through in a day. They talk about getting kids ready, making trains, dealing with family members, and really getting out what they were dealing with as parents–all that stuff that nobody really asked them about before. Honestly, they were the most receptive group. I think talking to each other, in a place where we’re all supporting each other, creates that space that we need.

Describe a specific instance or an anecdote that you think is reflective of the changes that have happened since you have implemented these new practices. How did you see the impact?

A boy came to us in the second grade, and he had been on a safety transfer, which means that he had been in a situation that may not be safe for a child. They’re either in violent conflict with others, or they’re being bullied, or something’s happening where they need to be removed from where they are. At first we had a lot of emotional difficulties and poor relationships with his teachers, and even though he was only six or seven he had been suspended several times. His family had also shut down from the school connection because since they were constantly hearing negative information. The principal basically said “Look, there’s nothing you can do with him. It’s just too much, he’s violent, he bites, it’s just too much.” But he came to the school, and just through engaging him through some of the new practices he was able to self regulate. It impacted his focus and changed his ability to relate to others. The changes didn’t make him perfect or change who he is, but it gave him some tools to be successful and work with others. Once he had love and compassion and felt accepted in our community, all of those behaviors just disappeared. His family became more supportive and trusting and he graduated last year.

How I Lead

This Colorado principal saved a student’s life by paying attention at the right time

PHOTO: japatino | Getty Images
Imaginary friend

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Joe Simo, principal of Centennial Middle School in Montrose, was stunned when a former student thanked him for saving his life. At first, Simo had no idea what the newly minted high school graduate was talking about.

But the young man explained that Simo’s interest in him years before, and his suggestion that he go out for basketball, helped him survive trying times.

Simo said that heartfelt moment of gratitude meant the world to him.

Named the 2018 Middle School Principal of the Year by the Colorado Association of School Executives and the Colorado Association of Secondary School Principals, Simo recounted the conversation he shared with the student, the teachers who inspired him to go into education, and the importance of a positive school culture.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?

My first education job was teaching elementary special education on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico.

I grew up in Flagstaff, Arizona. During that time, I became an Eagle Scout and experienced amazing opportunities in the community. That started my thinking about community service and giving back to youth. I think about my scout leader and all the time he gave to me through scouting. I also had a great experience in my school career and had two amazing teachers and coaches. The commitment they made, and the extra time they put in during my education, is a major reason I became an educator.

Fill in the blank. My day at school isn’t complete unless I ___________ Why?

I believe that being visible as a principal to students and staff is important and my goal is to visit each classroom for a few minutes every day. It helps me have a pulse on the building and I get to see the great things that are going on.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?

During an evaluation of a master teacher in my building the teacher asked me if there was an area he/she could work on. I had to think for a minute and we discussed an area that was very minor. The next day, the teacher came into my office with a letter of resignation saying he/she took offense at having to work on anything. We discussed that he/she had asked for an area of improvement, so I found one. The next day the teacher came back and decided not to resign. During our next year’s evaluation, he/she admitted that he/she had focused on the area of improvement from the year before and thought it made a difference.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?

I am very proud of Centennial for becoming an innovation school. As a building we worked for a year to design an innovation plan, which we presented to the State Board of Education for approval. This has given Centennial amazing opportunities to improve our instruction and our students’ growth.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?

I make it a learning opportunity by first allowing the students to reflect on why they were sent to the office by completing a “think sheet.” Then we discuss their thoughts and I provide guidance on how they can make it right. I also mention that it is human to make mistakes, but I want them to learn from the mistake. We also then discuss our school community and what role they play in making it a great place to learn. This process has been powerful because students come up with solutions and normally are tougher on themselves than I would have been.

What is the hardest part of your job?

I look at myself as a teacher and my role is to help improve my staff’s instruction to improve student learning. I would like to spend more time in classrooms observing teaching and modeling best practices in instruction than dealing with adult conflict.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

A few years ago, after high school graduation a student walked up to me and thanked me for saving his life. I was surprised – because I didn’t recall an emergency that included an ambulance or me providing lifesaving treatment to the student. He must have seen my reaction because he explained to me that during middle school he had a hard time. He said my interest in him and recommendation that he go out for basketball changed his life and ultimately saved him. That meant the world to me.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?

Currently, the most important education policy that is affecting our school is being able to hire highly qualified teachers. I am addressing the issue by communicating our needs to our state representatives and the Colorado Department of Education.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

Having a positive school culture is the most important thing a principal can work towards. Change in education is hard and if the culture of the school is poor – nothing can be accomplished.