Castle Dome principal in race for national award

Rodel Principal Winner

Amy Crawford/Yuma Sun

In her career, Castle Dome Middle School Principal Lori Sheffield says she has found teaching to be both art and science.

Sheffield, who has been named one of 15 Rodel Exemplary Principal Finalists for  2016 across the state, would know. Her 17-year education career spans teacher, school counselor, assistant principal and principal; she now oversees about 875 middle school students at Castle Dome.

Her journey has taken her across the continental United States – from upper New York state into Alaska, and down to Yuma.

“I’ve been in the coldest and the hottest,” she said.

The Rodel finalists were chosen from schools in “high-need communities,” according to a news release from the Rodel Foundation, and based on how they demonstrated their abilities to “inspire their staff to contribute to school-wide success and the development of a campus that is high-achieving, safe, orderly and welcoming.”

If Sheffield is chosen as a Rodel Exemplary Principal, she will be part of a cohort of administrators that provide professional development, field experience, and ongoing mentorship to a class of Rodel Aspiring Principals for two years for Arizona’s high-needs schools, the news release said.

Sheffied, a New York native, said she was “excited, honored, humbled,” to be nominated for the Rodel award among District One’s administrators.

“I know the principals that are here in my district – they’re amazing people doing amazing things,” Sheffield said. “Even just the district nomination was exciting. Then when I was a semifinalist, it was so humbling. I was like, ‘Oh wow!’”

On being nominated statewide, the seven-year principal said, “I was surprised I had actually advanced, and something about me earned their attention enough to have them come out and interview me and see my school.”

But Sheffield is quick to turn some of the praise back to her school community, and as she talks about her school and her passion for children and education shines through.

“I think that one of the things that makes Castle Dome such a special place is it’s a happy school. You walk through and it’s healthy. …It’s a feeling you get that you walk through and the kids are smiling and greet adults and each other alike. There’s a place for everyone to be part of something.”

One of the aspects of Sheffield’s approach to leading her school is that she tries to look after the whole child, she said, so students grow both academically, socially and emotionally.

“It’s not just the daily academics and the daily instruction, but that real true genuine focus on whole child. When I first got here, we helped write the mission statement that said we want — I want — students to excel academically, but I want them to also grow socially and emotionally.”

That means connecting kids with adults who can help them navigate the both difficult and wondrous middle school years, Sheffield said.

“One thing that I hope in this school with over 60 staff members that come and go and interact with students every day, I hope and pray that at least every child can at least find one person. That there’s at least one person that can find their ‘why,’ or figure them out, or help them grow in some manner. … That someone on this campus is going to identify that there’s a need in that child and make that connection; that’s very important.”

Nurturing the whole child, Sheffield said, helps middle-schoolers “become.” Helping those students “become” who they will be can’t happen without a welcoming atmosphere and role models, she reiterated.

“When they’re old enough to know right from wrong and they’re in the process of becoming. That’s who the role models need to be; that’s what we need to be for them. It’s time to explore into it safely. I think that’s what makes Castle Dome unique.”

Approaching each situation as unique, Sheffield believes, is a reflection of her leadership style.

“I think that’s an important leadership skill, to be able to figure out when you’re supposed to react and when you’re supposed to listen; when you’re supposed to mediate and when you’re supposed to resolve. There’s different actions and reactions each time depending on the people.”

Castle Dome is also unique in that its student population is always in flux, Sheffield said. About 20 percent of the students come from migrant families, while about 25 percent is military/federal, she noted.

“I would think that with kids moving in they would go up, but there’s just as even a wax as a wane.”

Yet Sheffield explained that both teachers and students strive to meet newcomers where they are.

“I think it’s a testament to the class structure and the teachers that we have that they have such an integrated class management system that they can let returning, continuing students continue on their way. They still have the time to develop the relationships with the brand new students every time they come in. That they make them feel welcome, especially on that first day and the next day and the next day no matter what time of year they come in. I think that’s another testament to the culture and the climate of our school. The kids matter.”

Rodel winners are expected to be announced in early January.