School & District Management

3 Lessons From a National Principal of the Year

By Denisa R. Superville — November 16, 2022 4 min read
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How does one lead a school to a National Blue Ribbon Award and then become National Principal of the Year?

Through a lot of listening to students and teachers, making tough decisions based on what data and students are saying, and nurturing a familial school culture and climate, according to Donna Hayward, the 2023 National Principal of the Year.

Hayward sat down with Education Week a few days after she received the award from the National Association of Secondary School Principals to discuss some of what led to her and her school’s successes.

Pay attention to data and act on what you see

One of the first things Hayward did when she arrived at Haddam-Killingworth High School in Higganum, Conn., in 2014 was to review the school’s data with staff.

Those who lead schools, she said, must possess “a willingness to look very carefully—with your eyes wide open—at what is the truth in that moment.”

“Specifically, what does the data tell you about how your kids are doing, how your school is performing, where the greatest need is—because the data doesn’t lie, typically,” Hayward said.

She found that special education students were being left behind academically at her new school. It wasn’t that teachers weren’t trying, she said. “It’s that sometimes, educators, all of us, are working really hard every day hammering the wrong nail,” she said.

Special education teachers in the special education resource room were trying to address all the students’ needs, in an approach Hayward described as a Whac-A-Mole approach.

She worked with teachers to develop a targeted intervention model, where subject-area trained teachers worked with special education students in five specific areas: reading, writing, math, executive functioning, and social-emotional well-being to address behavioral concerns.

Donna Hayward, principal, Haddam Killingworth High School, Higganum, Conn.

In the new model, an expert math teacher worked with a student who needed help in math; same with reading.

“So instead of playing Whac-A-Mole in the resource room and putting out just the fires set for today, and tomorrow there is a whole new set of fires, we started preventing the fires by purposefully teaching to fill the gap areas,” she said.

The results? The academic gap in English Language Arts between special education and regular education students closed by 10 percent at the end of the first year. It narrowed by 17 percent in math in the second year, and the exit rate from special education for students increased from about 7 percent to 15 percent. The school has maintained an exit rate of close to 15 percent since, Hayward said, a rate that is considered successful in this area.

Listen to students and teachers

The Haddam-Killingworth High School has added more than 10 courses during Hayward’s tenure. Ideas come from listening to students and teachers, she said.

“My teachers have wonderful ideas all the time,” she said. “They are just fantastic, creative people, and someone would come to me, almost every year, with an idea for a new course. They’ll lay it out for me. It’s like ‘Yes, let’s try it.’ So we prepare it, we plan for it, we launch it to the kids.”

One teacher, for example, proposed “modern novel,” a course that uses contemporary titles to grapple with social issues, such as racism and sexism.

“She talks through thematic units on various layers of the human struggle, and you use contemporary high-interest titles that are attractive to teens to engage kids in this conversation,” Hayward said of the teacher who runs the class.

One of the books was Audrey Wells’ 2017 book, The Hate U Give. The course “is a great new addition” and an “incredibly popular class” among students, Hayward said.

Students also have been asking for more computer options, so the school is launching a new Project Lead The Way course. An AP math addition also came from students. Students were “knocking it out of the park” on the highest level of math the school offered, but there were no other courses to continue to challenge them, she said.

“So then, offer an AP option, because our kids are clearly capable of doing that,” Hayward said.

“We pitch almost everything that’s reasonable, and kids grab on to the things they are most attracted to, and that’s what we run with,” she said.

Nurture an affirming, supportive school culture and climate

The Haddam-Killingworth High School community has suffered a “disproportionate” share of tragedy during Hayward’s tenure—from unexpected deaths to diseases, suicides, and accidents.

The school’s caring, familial culture is what sustained it through those difficult times and the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hayward said.

“We’ve had to rely on what we call the ‘HK Family,’ which we really, really mean,” Hayward said.

“Everyone in that building is deeply committed to kids, each other, the sense of community, the health and well-being of our school. If it weren’t for that, I don’t know what would have happened to us. That’s what’s sustained us and helped us make it through.”

That culture, she said, “truly seems to be HK’s superpower.”

“I’ve tried to feed it, tried to protect it, nurture it, keep it going, remind us of it when we have been challenged, especially through the losses, through COVID,” Hayward said. “It’s kind of the first part of almost every message I send to the larger community.”

Hayward didn’t create that culture, but she helped put a name to something that already existed—a culture where adults in the building would do anything to help students succeed.

“It was something that was just there, our teachers would do absolutely anything to get kids across the stage, they’re thinking-outside-the-box-people, they are personalized-learning-people, they are whatever-it-takes-people,” she said.

“The first thing is to recognize when you have a positive school culture, and, I hope, understand how important it is,” Hayward said. “It is fundamental to the success of a school and the success of a school family.”

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