Elementary school principal inspires others, leads with passion

Leadership takes on many forms, but inspiring others to do their best is one of the most valuable qualities in an effective leader.

Garry Grotke, principal at James Madison Elementary School in San Leandro Unified School District, is such a leader. Grotke says inspiring others – students, teachers and parents – is one of the best parts of the job.

Garry Grotke is principal of James Madison Elementary School.

Garry Grotke is principal of James Madison Elementary School.

“I love watching children and teachers become inspired as they learn, and I become inspired as well,” he said. “I love seeing children perform, on stage, in the class, on the field and as they move on from elementary school. I love looking at the faces of the families as they see their children shine. I really enjoy supporting and empowering parents to advocate for their children. I love helping inspire teachers to help children discover their passion for learning – and recess!”

Grotke, who has been named Elementary Principal of the Year by the Association of California School Administrators, said he feels lucky to work with such a great staff and community of learners at James Madison. He said the award is really a recognition of the entire school community, and he is proud to be a part of it.

“When principals dream of what schools can be, they are dreaming of our school,” he said. “It is a great honor to see our work become appreciated at the state level. To have staff, families and students come together and make a vision into reality is the most rewarding experience a leader can have. It is a great privilege to have our school and my work honored with the Elementary Principal of the Year Award.”

Grotke said the secret to his success as an elementary leader is vision and creativity. He said his staff operates with integrity and passion, which is clearly reflected in the school culture.

“The teachers have been outstanding and continually are seeking to improve what they can do for children,” he said. “Teachers have fun teaching, and students know it. Laughter is a big part of the sounds you hear in our school. Everyone thinks about what could be and then looks at what they can do.”

I am so lucky to be in a profession where I get to give back every day.
— Garry Grotke

In fact, the entire school community has a shared vision of success for students. School staff, students, parents and the community at large – every player knows success is possible.

“At James Madison, we believe every child wants to be successful. Every family wants success for their children. Every employee, from the principal to the paraprofessional, is here to ensure success. Success is defined individually and is always possible,” Grotke said.

Grotke said when he started at Madison in 2002 he knew he and his staff needed to develop a common understanding of success. He set out to define success so that it could be obtained by everyone. Staff looked at student success through the lens of Attitudes, Skills and Knowledge. ASK for success allows opportunities for all students and parents to see what attributes are helping or hindering students from reaching their potential, and staff then meet and create multiple pathways for students to succeed.

“We know that success begins with a safe school for all families and staff,” he said. “Success is not limited to a test score. The diversity of the human experience contributes to a successful school and society. We are just as interested in how well students do when they move on from our school as we are for their success while they are at Madison.”

Like all education leaders, Grotke has his share of challenges: budget cuts, school construction, missing children, even a fire. But Grotke said they’re just part of the job.

“There are always challenges and people who want to challenge what you do,” Grotke said. “I strive to find ways to harness multiple perspectives to support overcoming a range of challenges.”

Grotke said ensuring equal opportunities for academic success has been one of his biggest challenges at school, and is an issue that hits close to home.

“The greatest challenge in public education is the racial disparity of student success,” he said. “We have looked at the definitions of success and how they may limit the abilities of all children to be equitably successful. Being a champion of public education means being a champion for our most challenged students. As a parent of two beautiful Haitian daughters and three uniquely brilliant sons, I know first-hand the challenges of advocating and navigating the school system to support children with different needs.”

Grotke said he entered education to prove that he could make a difference. He had many ideas of how to make learning fun, how to motivate and empower disenfranchised youth, and how to run a summer school program that paid for itself. And people often told him he couldn’t carry them out.

“I became an administrator to remind people you can,” he said. “I have always dreamed to work in a profession that allows you to make a difference for people every day. I never thought I would be able to impact so many so profoundly.”

Grotke said he has had many educators throughout his life who supported him and encouraged him to succeed. His sixth-grade teacher, Barbara Wells, took the time to nurture him and find the success hidden deeply away.

“She showed me that there was success in everyone, even me, which is sometimes difficult for a young person to believe,” he said. “She never let the system keep from supporting the learner.

“Throughout my life I have had visionary mentors inspiring me as a learner and leader. People took time and invested in me as a person and as an educator. I have learned from these mentors that there are many ways to become successful. I always remember that someone helped me every step of the way, and I am so lucky to be in a profession where I get to give back every day.”

Originally appeared in EdCal, www.acsa.org

A principal's legacy of serving underrepresented kids

For many, a life serving others is a calling. For some, it is a legacy.

Nicole Anderson

Nicole Anderson

Such is the case with Nicole Anderson, principal of Highland Elementary School in the Vallejo City Unified School District. Anderson’s grandfather was Jesse Bethel, the first African American to serve on the Vallejo School Board, a position he held for nearly two decades. 

“He had a passion for education,” Anderson said. “He was a real advocate for kids of color.”

Anderson follows in her grandfather’s footsteps and is proud to continue his tradition of public service. She took over the 630-plus student Highland Elementary School in 2011. The K-5 school in the San Francisco Bay Area has a 35 percent English learner rate and 84 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

The importance of education was instilled in Anderson at a very early age.

“It was not an option not to go to school,” she said. “A part of growing up was knowing education was important.”

But Anderson wasn’t always sure she would become an educator herself. She began her studies at Oregon State University as a business major. And, although offered a basketball scholarship, Anderson’s grandfather reminded her that her studies should be her No. 1 priority.

“I didn’t realize it then, but looking back, I see the seed my grandfather planted,” she said.

Basketball was always her passion. After college, Anderson set out to turn that passion into a profession, and got a job as a basketball coach.

“I love working with kids, and I love coaching,” she said.

Her principal saw her potential as an educator, and encouraged her to pursue a teaching credential. As soon as she stepped into the classroom, she knew she was on the right track.

“I loved it right away,” she said, adding that now, as an education leader, there is no doubt she made the right choice.

Education never ends. There’s no retiring in education. There are so many ways to support other educators.
— Nicole Anderson

Anderson’s strength as a leader comes from her ability to empower others. Rather than top-down leadership, she gives her staff duties that use their personal skills and provide them with a sense of ownership in the outcome. She also believes strongly in creating a team, and includes all stakeholders in the process – from teachers to students to parents.

Creating an engaging, powerful learning environment for all students is one of Anderson’s highest priorities. Budget cuts mean fewer resources for professional learning, so Anderson must come up with creative ways to strengthen teaching and learning.

“We try to make time to reflect and share best practices on how to effectively reach all kids,” she said.

Another priority is ensuring parents feel connected to the school. Language barriers and economic limitations can sometimes make parental involvement tough, but Anderson counters this by making use of technology, hosting special events such as family reading and art nights, and making personal phone calls home, in both English and Spanish, which she does herself.

As a parent of young children, Anderson said she can relate to parents and help them support their own children’s endeavors at school.

“I can take off my principal hat and put on my parent hat,” she said. “I can shift gears and think, ‘what would my own third grader need?’”

Finding balance in her work is a constant demand. As a school principal, she is both instructional leader and manager, and it can often be difficult to find time to do both. This is especially difficult in light of the state budget cuts to public education, which means reductions in key staff members who otherwise would take on tasks such as discipline or facilities.

On a recent school day, Anderson visited a handful of classrooms to observe and guide the learning that is taking place. Like most principals, she does this on a daily basis. Her visits were derailed on several occasions as she single-handedly addressed several issues unrelated to learning: a squabble among fifth-grade girls, a student talking in class, and a flooded boys’ restroom.

“These kinds of discipline issues take time away from my work as an instructional leader,” Anderson said. “I don’t have a vice principal.”

Her work promoting diversity echoes the work of her grandfather. She focuses on the student achievement gap and the need to provide students of color with the resources they need to succeed academically.

“Equity is probably the biggest elephant in the room,” she said. “I’m having those conversations like my granddad did. I ask the same question: ‘How do we address that?’”

Anderson said she hopes to continue the legacy her grandfather began by staying active in the field of education and supporting those who, like her, feel the draw to public service.

“I want to take what I’ve learned and help other young administrators,” she said. “Education never ends. There’s no retiring in education. There are so many ways to support other educators.”

Originally appeared in EdCal, www.acsa.org

Middle school leader promotes academic excellence

Middle school leaders are often faced with the unique challenge of educating students who are caught between two worlds. They are not yet teenagers, but are no longer young children.

Providing quality education to students in this transitional period can be tough, but not for Crechena Wise, principal of Tetzlaff Accelerated Learning Academy in the ABC Unified School District.

Crechena Wise, center, is honored for her successful turnaround of Tetzlaff Accelerated Learning Academy.

Crechena Wise, center, is honored for her successful turnaround of Tetzlaff Accelerated Learning Academy.

Wise, who has been named the Association of California School Administrator’s Middle Grades Leader of the Year, said middle school is her passion, and she is proud to have the opportunity to nurture the whole child. She has only ever taught at the middle grades level and is dedicated to her chosen field.

“I really enjoy the age and being a part of their growth – social, emotional and academic,” she said. “It’s interesting to watch them transform from childhood to adolescence.”

Wise, who has been principal at Tetzlaff since 2008, has focused strategically on closing the achievement gap and increasing academic performance, especially among African American and Latino boys.

“My goal is to create a great team to efficiently run the operations of our school and ensure the best education for all students. I am very fortunate to work on an exceptional team,” she said.

Wise said the biggest change in student achievement has resulted from the implementation of a high-quality curriculum. Tetzlaff is the only school in the ABC district to use SpringBoard, the pre-Advanced Placement curriculum offered by the College Board.

Since SpringBoard’s implementation, Tetzlaff has seen great results. The school was named a National Demonstration School – the only one in the state. In addition, the school’s Academic Performance Index rating increased from 789 in 2007-08 to 858 in 2012-13. As a result of these strides, the school was named a California Distinguished School in 2013.

The turnaround extended far beyond test scores; the entire school climate improved.

“With the curriculum and student collaboration, kids learned self-efficacy and how to collaborate with each other in the learning environment,” Wise said.

I want to make a difference in my community. My family moved from poverty to the middle class, and I want that for my students. I know what the end results look like, and I push them to do the best they can.
— Crechena Wise

Tetzlaff also received a Schools-to-Watch designation in 2014, and uses the STW rubric to promote academic excellence. Wise called the rubric a powerful tool that covers academic excellence, developmental responsiveness, social equity, and organizational support and processes.

As much as she loves her profession, Wise admits it is not without its challenges. While money isn’t the root of all problems, it does impact her ability to deliver the services and resources her students need.

“I’m passionate about addressing the needs of students and tapping into resources from our community to ensure funding is never an issue that keeps us from providing opportunities,” she said.

Wise said the importance of education was instilled in her from a very young age. It all began with her grandmother, who, working as a maid in Alabama, wanted more for her own children. Knowing her options as an African-American female were limited, she opened a small business and saved every penny to send her granddaughters to school.

“Teaching and education is in my blood,” Wise said. “I want to make a difference in my community. My family moved from poverty to the middle class, and I want that for my students. I know what the end results look like, and I push them to do the best they can.”

Wise is known as an education leader who is undaunted in her mission to provide high-quality instruction to all students. She is a collaborator who is able to rally the entire school community to work toward the common goal of preparing all students for high school, college and beyond.

“Crechena’s leadership has transformed Tetzlaff Middle School from a school without a vision to an award-winning model of exemplary middle school education,” said ABC Unified Director of Schools Cheryl Bodger. “Crechena is a dedicated educator who is committed to the vision of equity and opportunity for all students.”

Wise said she wouldn’t be where she is without the strong women who came before her, especially her mother, who was her first teacher. She was also mentored by her first and third grade teachers, as well as her superintendent, ACSA leader Mary Sieu. “She is so inspirational and one of the smartest women I know,” Wise said.

ACSA has also played a great role in Wise’s success, providing quality professional development and camaraderie through her service on the state Middle Grades Council.

“ACSA is committed to serving students and is a catalyst for change,” she said.

Originally appeared in EdCal, www.acsa.org