News-AZ Republic

Award-winning principal emphasizes parent interaction

By Mary Beth Faller, Arizona Republic – January 23, 2011

The principal can be the nerve center of a school – the leader who supports the teachers, students, parents and community members.

The Rodel Charitable Foundation of Arizona recognizes educators who make a difference with the Rodel Exemplary Principal award.

As the 2011 winners are revealed in the box below, The Republic talked with Debbie Hutson, principal at P.T. Coe Elementary School in the Isaac School District in west Phoenix, about how she engages parents in her school.

Hutson was a Rodel Exemplary Principal in 2008, when she was at Lela Alston Elementary School in the same district.

A principal for 19 years and a first-grade teacher before that, Hutson is in her first year at P.T. Coe, which has 890 students.

Question: Do parents have to wait until their child gets in trouble to schedule a meeting with you?

Answer: No! We encourage having parents on campus and coming to visit. We have a big group that comes into our “parenting room” and they not only see the school as a more family-friendly place, but they’ve made a lot of new relationships with the other parents. They chat, and we try to make coffee. It starts with the principal because we have to welcome parents and get the message out that it’s their school, too.

Q: Decades ago, the principal was a remote and scary disciplinarian. That’s not the image principals project today.

A: One of the big differences is that now there’s so much more emphasis on this being a community school and that parents are our customers as much as students. We want that parent involvement and want things to look different now than they looked 30 years ago.

Q: How do you reach out to parents who are too busy to come to school?

A: That is so hard. Often, those are the kids that we need to get to their parents for a variety of issues. We have a news bulletin that goes home once a month, which is minimal. Teachers have a “responsibility sheet” that goes home every day listing homework, and teachers put notes to parents, and there’s a box where parents can write back as well. It doesn’t take the place of coming in when we need them to. We try to have many activities in the evenings. When we had “Say It Straight,” a workshop helping parents deal with how to talk to kids, we had one in the day and one in the evening.

Q: What do you do when parents request that their child change teachers?

A: That happens occasionally, not a lot. Sometimes maybe it’s just a personality conflict. We never have a set policy. I traditionally try not to change kids to another class. If a parent says, “This teacher doesn’t like my child” or “This teacher isn’t teaching well,” we try to deal with that. We try hard to work it out because it’s usually not a good experience to change the child in the middle of the year. We want to build parents’ confidence that good things are going on here.

Q: What can parents do if they are unhappy about something?

A: Go immediately to the teacher. If they have tried the teacher, come to the principal’s office. We work hard to welcome them. Often, issues can be worked out much easier than parents think they can be. Often parents come with a perception about something going on in the classroom, and they’ve misunderstood and we can clear it up.

Q: What is one thing you do every day that might surprise parents?

A: I try to spend a chunk of my day in a classroom every day and reading to kids and teaching small groups. On a day that might be stressful for me or overloaded with minutia that has to be done, it’s so helpful for me to go for 20 minutes to visit a classroom and being involved with the kids instead of being in the office.

Q: Do you know the names of all your students?

A: This is my first year in this school, and I’m behind on that. At my other school, I knew probably 90 percent of the names. I got to know not only them but Mom and Dad, too. So here I told the kids, “When you see me on campus, come up and tell me your name.”

Q: How do you boost teacher morale?

A: We have lots of team-building activities in our staff meetings or as professional development, and there will be some treats or little gifts. Any time a new administrator comes into a school, there’s a change in that culture. I’ve worked hard to build a healthy, positive culture in this school. Part of that is making teachers feel validated and supported. I’m willing to get into that class and work side by side with them until we get something figured out.

Q: Not everyone realizes that principals work during the summer. What do you do?

A: That’s our busiest time. We set the schedule for the year – the art and music and special areas are scheduled. We’re hiring teachers. Replacing staff is key, and you want to do that as early in the summer as possible. I’m looking to see what needs to be repaired in the facility. It’s a lot of working with the maintenance team to make sure everything gets done. Bus schedules, registrations, planning professional development, planning orientation.

Q: What is it like that first day when the kids come back?

A: The teachers come the week before, and that’s the most critical week of the year, with really detailed planning stuff. Many summers we adopt a new curriculum, and training for teachers is that week. Hopefully, if it has been a good productive week and the classroom and teachers are ready to go, it’s a good week for the kids. Ninety-nine percent of them are so excited to come back to school.

One thing we started a few years ago makes a huge difference. Often, younger kids are scared, so we have “meet the teacher night” a week or two before school starts. They meet the teachers, see where they’re going to sit, we talk about the rules, and we eat ice cream. That helps the first day of school be a much more positive experience.