This article is the fourth in a year-long series on the experiences of a new principal in the Prince George’s County Public Schools. Read past installments here.
David Brown anticipated a variety of challenges he might face during his first year as principal at Hillcrest Heights Elementary School in Temple Hills, Maryland, such as implementing curriculum changes, improving attendance and earning the trust of parents.
A worldwide pandemic forcing the schools to close was not one of them.
Since March 16, he’s been leading the school from home, and his efforts to strengthen relationships among staff members and build a supportive school culture have shifted to a virtual environment.
“Part of my job as a principal is to always make sure that you are looking out for those individuals that are giving their best every day for children,” says Brown. “I feel responsible for them.”
Helping administrators find what they’re best at — and where they need to grow — is one aspect of how the Prince George’s County Public Schools prepares them for leadership. Some in the district have been certified as coaches in the Gallup CliftonStrengths program, which helps people identify from a list of 34 talents which ones they naturally possess and which they need help to develop.
In February, Brown participated in a training to become a coach. But before the closure, he was wondering how he would ever get the chance to work individually with all 40 members of the school’s staff. Now he has the time. He’s been scheduling three to four videoconference coaching sessions a day.
“We frame it around their strengths to move the culture needed at the school, and how we can leverage those to enhance student performance” he says.
But the calls are also a chance to see how they’re handling the drastic disruption to normal life.
“A lot of the concerns that teachers are giving me are the same [that] parents have shared,” he says. “The uncertainty of it all is what is so alarming.”
In the ‘position for a reason’
When Hillcrest Heights was chosen as one of 25 PGCPS grab-and-go meal sites, Brown asked how he could help. But he was told to avoid the school — a rarity for a school leader, he says. “That’s not something we ever hear.”
The sites are also being used to distribute academic enrichment packets this week, and the instructional team at the school, he says, is looking at other ways to provide remote lessons during this time. The district has also posted grade-level packets of activities online.
But Brown knows internet access is uneven among his school’s families. “We’re getting to the point where the internet almost needs to be a basic need,” he says.
While Brown could not have envisioned a crisis of this nature a year ago when he was preparing to become a principal, having routines and structures in place have made the transition to virtual staff meetings and principal induction sessions smoother.
“Things have changed very quickly, but I’ve still gotten the sense that it’s business as usual,” he says. When he comes together with other first-year principals, they talk about how they are engaging with their staff members and communicating with families.
And now he can read a story to the whole school at one time. On Monday, he read "Rainbow Fish" by Marcus Pfister over a live-streaming app.
“You walk through it the best way you can,” he says about this phase. “The county put you in this position for a reason.”