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Key Lessons From a 2020 Principal of the Year

Karensa Wing.jpg

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Kerensa Wing was named last week as the 2020 National Association of Secondary School Principals Principal of the Year. She's been principal of Collins Hill High School in Georgia's Gwinnett County school district since 2014. 

Wing's school is big—about 3,000 students—and really diverse. They speak 36 languages, and about 45 percent of them qualify for the federal meals programs.

In interviews with Education Week, Wing and some key people in her school talk about what she's doing as a leader.

Developing People: Wing believes in helping everyone in the building to become better, said Kim Nichols, the assistant principal for student leadership and professional learning at Collins Hill.

"She is really driven by the desire to develop people, and I think that's developing everybody in the building—from all of your faculty, your staff, and your students," Nichols said. "It's not just developing the students. It's developing the faculty and staff so we could better help our students." 

At Collins Hill, one of Wing's main strategies is using professional learning communities to grow and strengthen teacher expertise. Wing respects teachers as the content experts, but also provides multiple opportunities for them to deepen that expertise, said Heather Childs, the assistant principal for curriculum and instruction.

Teachers and academic leads meet weekly to deconstruct academic standards, review lessons to make sure they are aligned to the level of rigor on assessments, and ensure that teaching staff is looking at data to figure out how to support students who are not where they should be.

Wing changed the schedule to allow teachers to meet in professional learning communities during the school day, so they would not have to come in early or stay later for those sessions, Childs said.

"To be able to create the space and the time for the teams to meet and to discuss—that was sort of revolutionary here at Collins Hill, and that was a priority," Childs said. 

The school's nine assistant principals receive training to help teacher-leaders work with teachers.  And there are multiple layers of support for new teachers when they arrive on campus, including an instructional mentor and a buddy teacher, Nichols said. 

Childs said Wing is a "say yes" person—but not in the way one would think.

"A yes person as in, 'Is it good for the students, is it good for the adults? By all means go for it,' " said Childs, citing as an example in 2014 when teachers at the school approached Wing about starting a STEM program at the school. 

That focus also extends to growing leaders in the building, providing them with training and support to move up the ladder, and allowing them to explore their passions.

"Creating opportunities and growing leaders—that really is what she is about," said Childs. "I didn't just want to be an AP. I wanted to be an AP for Kerensa Wing. She just inspires that in you."

Prioritizing Equity (with a focus on staff diversity): Collins Hill is a diverse school, with 31 percent of the students identifying as Hispanic, 30 percent as African American, 22 percent as Caucasian, 13 percent as Asian and 5 percent as multi-racial. Currently, 28 percent of the staff is a person of color, Wing said.

Wing wants the school's staff to reflect the student diversity and she has made some inroads. While she looks for teaching and content knowledge expertise, she also pays attention to the details on résumés, including whether candidates are bilingual. Wing and the hiring team also look for indications of how teacher-candidates would work with their diverse student body.

She spots potential future teachers among the minority staff already working in the school. If African-American coaches express an interest in teaching, for example, she asks them to sign up for substitute teaching positions and steers them toward becoming certified.  

Her school is also trying to steer students of color toward the teaching profession. Some students assist teachers in the lower schools, building connections with younger students, and getting a chance to explore whether they would be interested in the profession.

Wing's priority on equity extends to her students as well. Concerned the school was not doing enough to reach immigrant teens and those whose first language is not English, Wing plans to start meeting with those students to find out how the school is currently serving them and what they can do better.

Empowering Students: Many school leaders talk about giving students a voice, but Wing actively encourages students to not only speak about issues in school but also come to her with solutions.

"We are here to serve students," Wing said. "They really are our customers."

The school has a leadership council, which meets with her weekly. Students have weighed in on policies on cell phone use and school safety. Two big school initiatives recently came directly from student input. One was the development of a "care closet," where students who do not have enough food or clothing at home can discreetly pick up essential items. Another was a culture night, which has grown into an annual event.

After the school was defaced with racist graffiti in 2016, students organized a culture night to showcase the cuisine, dress, and cultures of their or their parents' native countries. Students were involved in every step of the process. Chemistry teachers stepped into to show discuss scientific discoveries from those countries. More than 800 people attended that first year, and the event is now held annually.

After every event, students debrief on what they could have done differently and how they can do better in the future. There's also a robust peer mentoring program.

"If they feel like their voice is valued, they will give their time to help," Wing said.

McKinsey Shorter, a 17-year-old senior and student leader, has worked with Wing on a number of initiatives, including a revamped student pep rally to address lagging school spirit.

Shorter said students feel comfortable approaching the principal about issues and concerns. "She is very open to allowing students to take ownership in their school and how it runs," Shorter said. "We are able to go to her for anything."

And she appreciates being able to wade into big issues, especially the school safety discussion after the Parkland shooting when students were concerned about access to campus. Some of the measures that were later implemented came from those discussions with parents, the community, and students, Wing said.

"As students, we don't always know 'the why' behind why polices are in place," Shorter said.

"I am not just a club president, I get to be involved in things that are greater than the senior class, things that are schoolwide," she said. "That's the thing that I really admire... We directly influence the culture and climate of our school as students, and that's something that's really important."

Image: Kerensa Wing, principal of Collins Hill High School in Suwanee, Ga., was named the 2020 National Association of Secondary Schools Principal of the Year. Photo by Lifetouch Photography. 

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