News-AZ Republic

Rodel Foundation of Arizona honors inspiring principals

By Amy Wang, Arizona Republic – January 21, 2012

It is barely 9 a.m. on a Thursday, and already Christine Hollingsworth, the principal of Acacia Elementary School in Phoenix, has seemingly exuded more energy than her 600 or so students combined.

“Nickelback? Are the lyrics OK?” she asks a group of sixth-graders as they select music to run with the televised morning announcements.

“Yee-haw, way to read!” she says, minutes later, high-fiving a fifth-grader as she hands her a prize for reading.

“Hey, can I get a smile?” she asks a sleepy-looking first-grader. He obliges her.

Later, Hollingsworth pops into the classrooms, often stopping to accept hugs in the hallway. She knows which vocabulary words the second-graders are learning; that the kindergartners have made lions out of paper plates and yarn; and that an English-language learner has just made a major breakthrough that week.

“She’s just so positive,” said Audra Bailey, interim program coach at the school.

Today, Hollingsworth and nine others statewide are being named Exemplary Principals by the Rodel Foundation of Arizona. Seven others were named finalists, part of a program that officials say honors principals who are “the total package.”

“It’s just not all data,” said Jim Rice, the foundation’s program administrator, on how Exemplary Principals are chosen. “How do they connect with their community? How do they set their staff up for collaboration?”

And, more than ever, the group looks to see how principals partner with local businesses and organizations as well. Steep budget cuts to education in recent years have meant that it is increasingly important for schools to reach outside for help.

“A lot of times business partners provide extracurriculars not available in the budget,” Rice said.

At Acacia, the Accelerated Reader program, which rewards students for reaching certain reading goals, is funded entirely by outside companies. Three pairs of donated brand-new bicycles — the ultimate reading prizes — flank the school’s library. Throughout the day, parent volunteers can be seen checking in and out of the office, waving hello to the staff. A church group is scheduled to come in over the weekend to paint some classrooms.

“She pulls in the community really well,” said John Treacy, a father of two Acacia students who has volunteered regularly at the school since 2006. “It’s always going to be about the kids first.”

Hollingsworth credits her success to this community, as well as to her staff and the Washington Elementary School District.

To be nominated, principals must be from schools that receive federal Title I funds, which support programs for low-income students. Many are from schools like Acacia, where nearly 80 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and where the halls are filled with native speakers of Spanish, Vietnamese, Bosnian and Arabic.

Hollingsworth, a native of Green Bay, Wis., startled her family by announcing that she was moving to Yuma to teach right after college. She recalls that none of the students in her kindergarten class spoke English, but she persevered out of a love for kids and because of several mentors who guided her. Before long, she found herself recruited to become principal of her school.

Her experience is typical, the other winners say. Almost all joked that they never intended to become principals. However, all were already involved in their schools and had mentors who pushed them. And all love what they do now, they say.

The role of a principal has evolved since the days when he or she might have been thought of as simply the chief disciplinarian, said Jackie Norton, president and CEO of the Rodel Foundation.

“To me, the principal was always the person you avoided,” said Norton, who grew up in the Scottsdale Unified School District.

“All these years later, I had to learn that the principal is really … the lead teacher.”

A principal’s ability to inspire the rest of his or her team is what can make or break a school, Rice said.

“I’ve never seen an effective school without an effective principal,” said Rice said. “They just need to have that good leader in front.”

This is the fifth year of Rodel’s principals program.

Exemplary Principals receive $2,500 each and agree to mentor three aspiring principals for two years. The idea is that the lessons and qualities of good leadership can be passed along to other schools with high needs.

“We have a real sense of urgency right now in public education in Arizona,” Rice said. In the past, principals were often thrown into their roles with “not a lot of prep but a lot of encouragement.”

Now, they cannot afford to be as lax, he said.

“We have got to make certain that we are putting principals in our schools that have been trained already,” Rice said.

Valley winners of 2012 Exemplary Principal

Chad Caudle, Hohokam Traditional School, Scottsdale Unified School District

Becky Henderson, Harris Elementary School, Gilbert Unified School District

Christine Hollingsworth, Acacia Elementary School, Washington Elementary School District

Darlene J. Johnson, Holmes Elementary School, Mesa Public Schools

Jennifer Murrieta, Desert Willow Elementary School, Casa Grand Elementary School District

Carrie Prielipp, Sunset Ridge Elementary School, Pendergast Elementary School District

Alexis Wilson, Griffith Elementary School, Balsz Elementary School District