Wednesday night, the three finalists for the principal’s job interviewed for the post.
The finalists are Milan Area Schools assistant superintendent Julie Helber, Hartland High School assistant principal Alice Lashbrook, and Plymouth High School assistant principal Tyrone Weeks. Weeks is a Detroit native who worked as part of the administrative team at Pioneer before moving to Plymouth. Helber began her career as a teacher in Milan and was assistant principal before becoming assistant superintendent. Lashbrook was a high school science teacher in Farmington before becoming assistant principal in Hartland.
The finalists were interviewed by the community, by administration and by teachers in three separate, simultaneous 40-minute sessions at the school.
Patch sat in on the public interview process. The finalists were asked questions which had been previously submitted to the Saline Area Schools Human Resources Director Curt Ellis. After all three candidates were questioned; the audience was surveyed for their opinions. The written surveys will be factored into the district’s decision making process. The selection is expected as early as this week.
Here are the questions and a portion of the answers.
What is the building administrator’s role in the development and implementation of IEP and 504 plans? How will you plan to set expectations for staff at such meetings?
Weeks: It’s our responsibility to make sure their needs are being met and quite frequently, in our larger schools, we have a large group of students whose needs go unmet. Historically, special education students were kind of locked away or put to the side. It’s the responsibility of school administrators to have a partnership with those teachers who are working collectively and bridging the environment so those students are a part of the classroom.
Helber: We need to make sure that we make accommodations for those students so they can have the same education everyone else receives. It’s very important to get involved as an administrator. Number one, it’s the law. We need to make sure we’re following the law. And we also need to make sure we are following the student’s IEP because that’s what is best for the student. If teachers are not following an IEP then we need to find out why. Sometimes there may be a lack of knowledge about the IEP and we can work with teachers to make sure they are equipped with the tools they need.
Lashbrook: In my position right now, I am the 504 coordinator, so I am extremely familiar with setting up 504 plans, creating accommodations, getting input from teachers, and from the parents and students. It’s vital for the building administrator that they play an integral role in figuring out what accommodations will work for an individual student. On the flipside, for IEPs, it’s my responsibility to make sure accommodations can be met. I don’t want to set up a student for failure by with accommodations we cannot meet.
There is a party where several students are caught drinking. One is a member of the recently crowned state championship team, one is the lead in the upcoming school play, one is the drum major and several others are not involved in extra-curricular activities. What consequences would you foresee for these students and why?
Weeks: We talk about culture in school and we talk about holding students accountable, and we talk about safety. On or off campus, the reality is that students are underage, so drinking is against the law. Regardless of whether it’s a drum major or student with a starring role on a team, they will be held to the same discipline measures. I prefer to have student discipline issues be teachable moments. We often learn when we are uncomfortable. So if it means they don’t get to play or go to an event, they have an opportunity to learn from that.
Helber: I would find out exactly what the board policy is on this infraction. I know, from being (a parent and resident) in the district, that we take a pretty hard stance on this kind of thing. In the past there has been discipline for students even attending the party because they were seen as condoning it. This is a conversation I would need to have the superintendent and assistant principals. If the police caught the students it would be a police matter and they would notify the school. Everyone gets due process. Students would come to the office and have a conversation about what happened. This is a decision that would be collectively decided upon by a group of people, especially as a first year principal, I would want to make sure I am following board policy.
Lashbrook: The consequences have to be fair regardless of who the students are. No matter who the student is, the consequence is going to the same. It might not seem equal but it has to be fair. It’s not just about giving a punishment; it’s about putting a kid in a position where they can learn from their actions.
Our financial resources are being stretched and the state has recently passed a number of mandates that have significantly impacted teacher morale. Do you believe teacher morale plays a significant role in student achievement and, if so, how would you improve teacher morale?
Weeks: Teachers are human beings and when they feel good about coming to work, they do a better job. Morale is important. Ideally we would be in a position where, regardless of what exterior factors are taking place, that teachers are teaching a rigorous curriculum that meets the needs of all of our students. But when people are downtrodden or feel they are not being respected or that their home life is being jeopardized, some of them might bring that to work. I would have conversations with teacher about maintaining a level of professionalism. There are so many things in the world we don’t have control of. But what we do have control of is the time we are working with students. We need to provide an outlet for teachers so they can be heard.
Helber: It’s important, given the changes to evaluation and tenure laws, that we talk about these things in the premise from which they came. Some of these changes come from a positive place, because we want the most highly qualified teachers in the classroom. It’s important to talk with our staff about the positives that can come out of it. Change can be difficult, but there’s always opportunity embedded in change. It’s important to stay positive and focus on student achievement.
Lashbrook: Teacher morale is extremely important in student achievement and here’s why. When teachers are satisfied in the classroom, the relationship between teacher and student is reflective of that. If they are not happy, it’s human nature to exhibit that unhappiness. So I need to make sure teacher morale is high. It’s going to sound really cheesy, but there are simple things I can do to make school more fun. This year, we held monthly breakfasts for our staff, where I was flipping pancakes for teachers, who were able to see teachers they normally don’t see during the day, and they talked about their families and it gave them time to bond as a unit.
The transition from eighth to ninth grade can be challenging for students. How do your foresee the high school and middle school working together with regard to this transition?
Weeks: In my first job as school administrator I worked as a ninth grade transition facilitator. That entailed surveying eighth grade students and talking to them about their interests and fears. At the high school, we developed programs to meet their needs. We worked with eighth graders to make sure they knew the expectations of high school. And when they got there we provided resources and outlets, like intramural sports and after school tutoring. At the school I am at we have Link Crew, where juniors and seniors with high academic standing partnered with incoming students and become big brothers and big sisters.
Helber: It’s imperative the middle school and high school work together to make sure the transition is vertically aligned for students. We also need to look at the social and emotional needs of students moving from eighth to ninth grade. I think Saline does a good job of this with the programs they currently have. The Link Crew program is a fantastic program that brings eighth graders into the high school and allows them to be comfortable before the school year starts. I also think it’s important that the principal get involved with the ninth grade transition and go speak to the eighth graders, so they see the person that will be here and they can make a connection.
Lashbrook: I know you all have implemented Link Crew here. In my building, we’ve done it for the last four years. In my view, it is an essential because it gives that connectedness before school even starts for our incoming ninth graders. On the adult level, it’s important for teachers and administrators to know who is coming to them. The communication between eighth and ninth grade staff is important. What worked for them in eighth grade? Maybe we can do that at the high school so the transition is cohesive. We want the students to feel like it’s a continuation.
How do you preserve high academic achievement and maintain staff morale in the midst of a collective bargaining process?
Weeks: In spite of what goes on in collective bargaining, we still have an obligation. Most teachers got into teaching, not because they wanted to become rich, but because they wanted to give back in a way that was given to them. As an administrator, you have to put careful planning into addressing the things that can impact from outside the classroom. It takes building a culture so that teachers buy into the philosophy of rigor, relevance and relationships
Helber: Every teacher got into teaching because of some passion for student learning or student achievement, not because of short hours or summers off. They work very hard, all year long. Teachers always want what’s best for students. Collective bargaining can sometimes get in the way of that. It’s important as leader of a building that we maintain focus on kids. It can be difficult in contract negotiations when teachers are looking at pay cuts as we ask them to do more and more everyday and we must support the staff. But we have to keep our eye on why we do this in the first place.
Lashbrook: You have to give your staff the sense that you are in it with them. I want them to know I understand what their concerns are. I know where their stresses area. They need to know I am taking the ride with them. If I can eliminate the "us vs. them" mentality that comes with collective bargaining, that will have an effect on staff morale. It maintains a positive atmosphere inside the classroom.
Within the context of providing “equal rights,” clarify whether you believe it is ever appropriate to selectively limit or block growth opportunities for some students to create a path for others.
Weeks: I have not had an instance in my career where I have been in a position to block the path of one student to benefit another. Morally, I don’t see myself being a person that could go to sleep at night knowing I blocked opportunity for some students to benefit others. I think utilizing the resources of schools we can open up doors and create opportunities for all students without blocking opportunities for others. I believe in equity. But I do not believe in diminishing the rights of certain people in order to advance the rights of others.
Helber: All students should have equal access and the opportunity to do whatever they want. Scheduling can prevent some of those things, but you need to work with students and parents and make sure you find mutually agreeable options. But we should not prevent anyone from pursuing what they want to pursue.
Lashbrook: I don’t know that I’ve ever blocked some students’ growth to attain other students’ growth. I’m not sure I agree with that statement. Student growth is an individual piece. We need to make sure we offer opportunities for students to go whichever way they want to go. I can give you an example of that. In this year’s schedule, we were able to offer AP Spanish. For next year we will not have the numbers to sustain a section. We’re going to come up with an alternative option. We’re creating an online class. There will be a teacher in the classroom. They can take AP Spanish online through Michigan Virtual High School. I don’t want to tell a student they can’t. So we find ways for them.
What sort of personal involvement will you have in the extra-curricular activities at Saline High School?
Weeks: I exercise with my students after school. They laugh, but I still do it. They see me in the school. They see me at the basketball games, at the plays, and at the musicals. When they see me there, they’re more likely to listen to me in the classrooms. Being a school administrator isn’t a 7-to-3 job. It’s important to convey that message to your family. If you can convey that message so your family comes in with you to school, to watch a basketball game or a play, then you can actually kill two birds with one stone.
Helber: You can probably think of teachers you love in this high school and the reason why you love them is because they have built some kind of relationship with you at a different level than just being a teacher. This is the key to building a culture in a school community. It’s important that the principal be involved in those things, too. While I have a family, and I know it’s important to balance my family life with attending events at school, it’s important for kids to see that you are there. The students recognize that. When you’re not there, they may not recognize that you aren’t there. But when you are there, they sure do recognize you’re there to support them. Obviously, you can’t be at every event, but as the principal of the high school, it’s important to be visible.
Lashbrook: I like to see things happen. I ran track in high school. I was in the band in high school. I was in the band in college. I played football for a year. Those experiences to me were important. I want to convey that message to the study body in my presence at their event. I want to be able to pat my students on the back and say, “Great job with that.” It’s important for students to know that we’re there to support them.
Our staff and students have worked hard to promote awareness of bullying. How will your promote this movement at the high school?
Weeks: It’s important to develop a climate and culture where students feel safe to talk to adults. We do a lot to redefine what bullying is. Typically students who bully exhibit that behavior because they are dealing with something themselves. What can we do as a school to help you figure out why you are demonstrating that behavior so it doesn’t happen again?
Helber: Somtimes we can’t do anything about bullying unless someone reports it. So it’s important to have at atmosphere where students or staff members feel comfortable enough to make sure somebody knows something is happening. If it’s happening to a student we want to make sure they are comfortable enough to go to an adult in the high school. It all comes back to this idea of getting teachers and all the staff members — support staff and cafeteria staff and custodians — to build relationships with kids so they feel safe and so they would tell someone if something is happening. The other component is to make sure that all of staff have their eyes wide open, and that they are watching and looking out for these things.
Lashbrook: There’s a program new to our high school that they’ve been doing in the middle school for a while. I think it addresses bullying from a tolerance/understanding piece. It’s called “Be the Change.” It’s a philosophy where they kids pledge to “Be the Change.” They are out there standing up for the kids who wouldn’t normally be stood up for. They are positive role models for the student body. I helped them find a class advisor and sponsor and got the ball rolling.
Given the economic constraints the district faces, what would be your plan in driving the high school forward in the areas such as online learning, use of new technologies and project-based learning?
Weeks: Online learning is a precursor to the college experience for a lot of students. It allows us to provide more learning opportunities to larger groups of students. Our teaching force is shrinking while classes get larger. By incorporating online learning, we are able to provide exposure for students and rigorous learning while decreasing building costs as it relates to teaching.
Helber: I am a proponent of innovation and project-based learning and using technologies available to student learning. That said, you have to be careful to make sure it’s the best possible situation for a student. If a student has exhausted all French curriculum and we don’t have a French 5, we can offer them a French 5 course online. I think it can be useful for a student who is really interested in a certain subject. In fact, I think it can be helpful in preparing a student for the college experience.
Project-based learning is an area I would like to see expanded. We’re working on a project in our district right now that is available only to seniors, who have largely completed their graduation requirements. We all know what the end of senior year is like for most kids. So this is a way to engage students. It’s a way to get kids around a project and use all the tools they have to creatively solve a problem.
Lashbrook: We have to recognize that a lot of kids come to school with the kind of technology that, in the past, we’ve provided. Why not harness some of that and utilize that within the school, rather than say, “You can’t have cell phones in the classroom.” We all know you’ve got the smart phones. Pull them out and do some research. With budget constraints and the cost of technology changeover, why not use what the community can provide?
It’s important for kids to have real-world experience while under the umbrella of the high school. Project-based learning allows students to experience those things while having the support to turn back to when they need it. It gives them the flavor of going out and contributing to the community.
What is your approach to student discipline (zero tolerance. three strikes and you’re out, etc)?
Weeks: I am a firm believer and supporter of positive behavior support systems. We do a disservice to students when we come down on them harshly to the point that they don’t learn from their behavior. Discipline in the public schools is not punitive, it’s progressive, so that students learn from their experiences. I’m a believer that we need to do more to recognize students who are behaving the right way.
Helber: It depends on the infraction. Students make bad choices for a reason. We need to find out why. If we immediately suspend kids, which might happen anyway, if there is no follow up or conversation about why it was wrong and how they might change their behavior in the future, then it’s likely it will happen again. I lean toward progressive discipline. The students at the high school who remember me are the ones who I suspended when they were in middle school. They come up and talk to me because we had open conversation about their behavior and understood it wasn’t about being punitive but about working with them to change.
Lashbrook: My approach to student discipline has always been that I need to be fair. Every kid comes with different experiences, baggage or different issues. I don’t think it would be fair to say, “you did this, and therefore you get this.” There is always a story behind why. I am not as interested in what they did as much why they did. If you skim the subject and say, “You did this so now you get this,” you are almost inviting the same behavior. So it’s important to ask why and find out what prompted the behavior. Then you can address the issue and get things turned around.
As you may know, Saline High School has a school resource officer from Pittsfield Township Police. Do you believe the school resource officer should carry a loaded gun in the building?
Weeks: We should support officers to uphold the law. I am not opposed to a school police officer carrying a firearm. They are trained to be responsible. They are trained to use force when needed. Along with sidearm, they carry other things as well. They recognize that a firearm is the last thing you want to discharge in a high school.
Helber: Yes. The school resource officer is there to protect the school building. They know how to use it. They’ve been trained to carry the weapon. I trust that the police department chose a person who knows how to use that weapon responsibly. That may be something that we need as a last resort, God forbid something like that happen.
Lashbrook: No. At Hartland we had a school resource officer before budget cuts and he was valuable to staff and he developed positive relationships with students. At no time did we feel he needed to carry a loaded weapon in school. His weapon was locked in a drawer in his office and he knew where he could find it if he needed it. If an officer carries a loaded weapon in school it creates a sense of fear. “Why is he carrying a loaded weapon? Should I be afraid?”
Saline High School is a rather large building. How will you come to understand the culture and get to know the students, staff and parents on an individual level?
Weeks: By having a series of meetings. First with staff, at staff meetings and breakfasts. We can have parent forums, where we bring in the community to learn from them and they can learn what’s happening at the high school. And also by walking these hallways. I believe in being in the classrooms and being visible in the hallways. I believe we do a disservice to the teaching environment when we are only in the classrooms during teacher evaluations. I believe in being a presence in the halls and classrooms so that teachers and students are comfortable coming to me with concerns, questions, advice or anything on their mind.
Helber: I am fortunate to know the district from the perspective as a parent. The first part of the year will be spent getting to know staff and students, and parents, members of the PTO who want to come in and have a coffee. Getting to know the needs of the students, staff and community is the basis for understanding the culture of the building. I would also like to send out perception surveys to students, staff and the community, so I can gain an understanding of the perception of the high school and learn about the concerns of parents and students.
Lashbrook: I like to get out there. One of the things I would do is meet with student groups like STRIVE. At Hartland, we have a lunch bunch where we invite students and provide lunch. We ask them what is working and what is not working. It’s one of the fun parts of the job. To get to know the kids, I’d be in the lunch room every day, meeting kids outside of the constraints of the office where you can talk and banter and get to know them. Staff-wise, I’d be in the classrooms getting to know them and developing relationships with casual conversation. It’s the same with the community. Currently I am active in the PTO at Hartland High School, and I sit in on all the meetings. It’s also important to be involved in the community, attending events and participating in organizations.