An Education Professor Becomes Principal for a Day in Dallas ISD

Dr. Candace Walkington

As a professor whose days are spent at a computer analyzing data and writing articles, the life of a principal seems both mysterious and intriguing. What do these people who wield such power over students’ educational futures in Dallas ISD actually do with their days? What are their challenges and successes? As part of Dallas ISD’s “Principal for a Day” program, I got to find out this week.

Candace blog1I shadowed Principal Nicole Niewinski (left) from Marsh Middle School, which is in the North Dallas High feeder pattern. Marsh Middle School serves predominantly Hispanic students, the majority of whom are classified as economically disadvantaged. Nicole has been principal at the school for two years, and I met her because Marsh was recently one of eight Dallas ISD schools who received Gates Foundation funding for “personalized learning” initiatives.

Nicole’s typical day is a whirlwind – on the day I shadowed her, she arrived early in the morning to rehearse for a “Dance Off” challenge between school staff members and the Marsh dance team. From there, she walked the school, greeting students and staff and facilitating getting students through security checkpoints. After the morning announcements, Nicole called a meeting with her Assistant Principals. The semester is already in full swing, and they discussed how they would observe and mentor their teachers. Next Nicole brought me to see the home of Marsh’s Junior ROTC Leadership Cadet Corps, who are led by former marine Cpl. Miriam Gayton. One third of all Marsh students are part of this program, and Marsh houses a community-supported military museum (below).

Candace blog2Nicole then brought me to observe each of her mathematics teachers. Math instruction was the focus of my visit because I am planning to conduct a research study on personalized learning in 7th and 8th  grade mathematics classes at Marsh. The math classes are short – just 45 minutes – and the school has recently adopted a textbook series that focuses on basic skills. Some of the teachers are complementing their textbooks with projects – the seventh grade students are doing a “Mini-Me” project focusing on proportions.

The remainder of Nicole’s day was filled with short, outcome-focused meetings with students, staff like her Community Outreach liaison, and department heads. However, Nicole says that her favorite part of being principal is talking with students and supporting teachers in their professional development. Nicole and I finished our day with a swanky reception at the W Hotel in downtown Dallas.

Candace blog3Initiatives like “Principal for a Day” offer unique opportunities to build trust between administrators and community stakeholders like educational researchers. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to walk in Nicole’s shoes for a day, and look forward to working with her school to help Marsh students build better futures.

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