School & District Management Opinion

What Happens When an Education Researcher and a School Principal Connect, Part 2

By Urban Education Contributor — November 08, 2018 4 min read
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This post is by Michèle Foster, the co-director of the University of Louisville-Jefferson County Public Schools (UL-JCPS) partnership, and features Michelle Pennix, the principal of Mill Creek Elementary School in JCPS.

Today’s post is part two of a five-act account of their partnership work. Read Act I and Act II in Monday’s post: What Happens When an Education Researcher and a School Principal Connect, Part 1

Act III, Scene 1: Mill Creek Elementary School

Throughout the fall 2017 semester, I continued visiting Mill Creek Elementary, invited two of my colleagues to join me in the work, and in November 2017, applied for a small university grant to continue the work.

Act III, Scene 2: Virtual Space

In December, Ms. Pennix sent a letter to the University of Louisville interim president praising the work we had done together and revealing some of the concerns that had made her wary at first. She explained:

“Having been introduced to Dr. Foster through an email from Dr. Heuser, I must admit I was skeptical that maybe this was just another university person seeking to enlarge their own profile/resume. I was wrong. Sincerely wrong. Almost immediately, Dr. Foster demonstrated her willingness to get involved however needed to help our teachers grow professionally. She is an exceptional educator, and we have been fortunate to be on the receiving end.”

Ms. Pennix’s letter expressed how once she knew that she could count on our partnership, she grew to value my expertise:

“My experience with Dr. Foster has taught me there is still much to learn about bringing out the best in my students and capitalizing on their unique contributions as part of the African-American culture in influencing their language and learning. Her availability to me for questions and suggestions has led me to go deeper with making content relevant and more responsive.”

Ms. Pennix shares that she and her staff have come to trust and respect me just as I respect and value them. “She is humble, gracious, and respected by everyone. She has become a professional mentor and does an exceptional job of getting in where she fits in.”

I have even been able to expand our partnership by bringing in two of my colleagues to work with students in math and English. Ms. Pennix writes, “I am certain that with time, this investment will pay off by our students mentioning this as one of their favorite elementary [school] experiences.”

Act III, Scene 3: Deeper Learning Conference, Louisville Exhibition Center

In June, Ms. Pennix presented a workshop at Jefferson County Public Schools’ Deeper Learning Conference that was so well received she was asked to present it again by popular acclaim. The topic was, “How We Stopped Suspending Our Black Kids.” This presentation could not have been more timely given that JCPS is under fire for suspending a disproportionate number of black students. While I do not claim credit for Mill Creek’s success, I believe that the professional development on classroom management conducted for Mill Creek teachers was a contributing factor.

Act III, Scene 4: Mill Creek

This year, the work continues, and based on Ms. Pennix’s encouragement, I now talk with teachers about what I observe in their classrooms, not in an evaluative, but a consultative way. We had planned that I would hold more professional-development sessions with Mill Creek educators, but that has been placed on hold for now because of the many demands principals are forced to meet.


Act IV, Scene 1: In the Words of the Principal

Ms. Pennix on the value of the RPP between the university and her school:

“Relationships, relationships, relationships! From our first meeting, Dr. Foster demonstrated her willingness to start a relationship with Mill Creek, not just research or experiment with Mill Creek. She did this by making a connection with myself and our staff. She never forced an idea or thought upon us, but instead remained open to listening and learning our needs. While she thought gardening might be an entry point, we were beginning our exploration of cultural proficiency and wanted her time with us to be in that arena. There was never a debate, and it was an easy transition that showed a willingness to listen and learn from those she wanted to serve.

In order to build a relationship, you must invest time. And Dr. Foster has spent numerous hours in our building with our teachers and students. She walks the halls, goes into classrooms, and sits in on meetings. She is a part of the fabric of our school. As a result, everyone trusts her. And that is how relationships get started and grow.”


Act V, Scene 1: The Future

You might be wondering what lessons can be learned from this story. As I see it, there are many. First, it helps if university people hoping to effect change are invited to work in the school. When I was a teacher in Boston Public Schools in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, university faculty were often at my school offering one or more professiona- development ideas, the majority of which were something they valued dearly but had nothing to do with the issues I and my teacher colleagues faced. Second, in order to work in a school, it helps to develop relationships. We note the importance of relationships when we advise teachers of the importance of developing them with students, but often fail to acknowledge their importance in our own RPP work.These relationships are critical to withstanding the bureaucratic demands of both institutions—the school district and university—that often focus on their best interest rather than that of the individual schools, educators, and students. Third, It takes time, but a lot can happen when an education researcher and a school principal connect.

Image: Pablo

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