A Principal's 4,800-Mile Road Trip to Visit Other Schools. What Did He Learn?
When Eric Cardwell led the Michigan Elementary School Principals Association, one of the best things about that position was being able see other principals in action in their schools.
So, when Cardwell became president of the national association this summer, he took that mindset with him and decided to go on a national road trip to talk to principals about their challenges and successes.
Two and a half weeks. Forty-eight hundred miles. Rural, suburban, and urban schools. From Michigan's Upper Peninsula to Warner Robins, Ga.. From a district with 265 students to one with 165,000 students.
What was his biggest takeaway? Something he already believed: Relationships matter a whole lot.
"Everything is predicated on the relationships with our kids, our teachers, our greater school community," said Cardwell.
"With all of the pressures that exist on principals, I worry that to get the job done that those relationships might be compromised. After going on the road trip, I saw and heard from all of them that relationships are the most important part—because you can't have children reaching their potential if they don't feel that they are part of the family, the school family, the learning community."
That widely shared belief has left him feeling good about the profession and its future.
"When I heard time and time again that that was the most important thing for principals, it made me feel that we're in a good place in regard to education in the United States, that we'll deal with the pressures, but we'll also remain committed to what we see as the most essential," Cardwell said.
He saw principals and school leaders working diligently to expand opportunities for students with the resources they had, he said.
At Mary Todd Elementary School in Lexington, Ky., a school clinic was giving students there access to a physician's assistant, a dentist, and mental health professionals, he said.
"I've never seen that kind of one-stop shopping, but again, [it's a] high-poverty area," he said. "They know that they can give their students the services that they need right there at the school, [because] they might not be able to get them elsewhere."
He saw the steep toll of poverty in many communities that have not benefitted from the economic recovery—underscoring the need for schools like Mary Todd Elementary where an array of services is offered to support the well-being of children and families.
"We hear about an economic recovery that's going on in the nation, but yet what I saw in most of the communities, and what I heard, is that it's not trickling down to Main Street," he said. "The families are still struggling. We are still sitting at 21 percent child poverty in the United States, and I believe that statistic after what I saw."
Hitting the Road
Cardwell set off from Michigan in a Kia Sorento on Sept. 13, and made it to 28 elementary and middle schools in Georgia, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, Tennessee, and Wisconsin, according to his records.
His first stop was close to home, in Les Cheneaux Community Schools, in Cedarville, Mich., which has a single K-12 school of about 265 students. The elementary principal is part-time, and the district superintendent is also the high school principal.
Along the way, he visited Summit Environmental School in La Crosse, Wis., Cordova Elementary School in Cordova, Tenn., and Barrow Elementary School in Athens, Ga., to name a few.
He read to students in some schools. At one school, students interviewed him. He also interviewed principals and blogged about his experience along the way.
Cardwell learned something new in every community he visited, particularly how principals were adapting to the changing circumstances around them. In Les Cheneaux, which is on Lake Huron and has a boat-building school, the district was looking at partnerships with local marinas that would provide students with release time from school to learn about working on engines. Those opportunities and experiences would give students who do not go away to college a leg up for local jobs.
At Summit Environmental School, which is located on an island on the Mississippi River, the outdoors is an integral part of students' learning experience.
"They do migratory bird counts, they do water-quality testing, they raise some of their own food on site," he said. "Everything in the curriculum is tied around that outdoor theme."
At DuPont Hadley Middle School in Old Hickory, Tenn., he saw that students played a role in discipline procedures through a student court. Students are able apply for positions to serve on the court, he said. The student-judge led Cardwell on his tour through the school.
He said he saw "fascinating programs" in all the schools he visited
"Each school had something very unique to offer their students, but the one thing that they all shared was that passion for kids," he said. "And they were doing the absolute best that they can."
Cardwell wanted to see a cross-section of schools, in different settings. Beyond that, he didn't have a specific criteria for visiting schools. He had met some of the principals at national conferences; others he found online; others he met while on the road.
Of the nearly three weeks on the road, Cardwell spent about five nights in hotels, he said. Principals opened their homes to him on the other nights. And that generosity allowed him a glimpse into some of the districts that he would not have otherwise if he had visited the school and left at the end of the school day, he said.
In Jasper County, Ill., for example, he said he helped the high school and elementary school principals and some community members prepare bags with food for students that they could take home over the weekend.
"Just the amount of compassion that all of the communities demonstrated toward their students and families—it's just tremendous," he said.
Now that the trip is over, Cardwell plans to use what he's learned on the road in advocacy work during his tenure as president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals as the organization presses for funding for school leadership programs, schools serving large numbers of students in poverty, expansion of CTE opportunities, funding for schools working with large populations of English-learners and refugee students. He has first-hand, real-world examples to buttress the group's work, he said.
"I have said many times that I knew this was going to be a powerful thing," he said, "but professionally, it was the best thing that I've ever done in my career."
He's hoping to hit the road again later in the year.
Photo: Eric Cardwell, president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. Photo courtesy the NAESP.