WHAT I’VE LEARNED (so far) OPENING A NEW SCHOOL

The early hours of the day are important. I film the morning announcements in my office, send the link to the teachers, and walk outside toward the playground. I’m facing east, and the sun is peaking over the mountains. Light beams across the sky until the sun shows its full roundness. Water collects from the sprinklers on the grass, and these pools will fascinate the students. They’ll surround the tiny ponds until a yard aide says they must be careful or they’ll ruin their new shoes, and the children will laugh as they scatter.

The campus is brand new, and it’s these moments before students and adults arrive that I can think about what I’ve learned opening Highgate Elementary School as a principal. Below are twelve of those reflections. Of course, the year has just began. There will be triumphs and hard lessons learned, but there are already takeaways I can share that might be helpful to future leaders at brand new school sites.

1. Understand the implications of a blank slate.

As you can imagine, a new school is completely empty. Schools in existence for a year or more have historical knowledge embedded within them. When you’re a new principal at these established schools, you can spend your first year learning the answers to questions such as: Which gates are used for arrival and dismissal? How do parents approach the school? Where are the best places for them to park? How will the kindergarten students leave the cafeteria? Who will walk with them? What locations should the supervision aides monitor in the morning and afternoon?

And those are just logistics. At a new school you must develop answers to the above questions, but the blank slate includes so much more: supplies that haven’t yet arrived (thanks, COVID). Incomplete kindergarten cumulative files. Teams that must get to know each other and build trust. Parents with important questions. Students who have never stepped foot on the campus. Instructional systems that need to be implemented, executed, and monitored.

A blank slate is difficult because paralysis can set in. When you can do anything, where should you begin? What’s the best first step? Whose questions should be answered first? Which system is most important to establish right off the bat?

On the flip side, a blank slate means there are no bad habits. The culture hasn’t been built, so there’s neither a pre-established positive or negative culture. It’s all up to you and the team you’ve assembled.

2. You may have to work two jobs.

For a new school to open properly in the fall, the principal must at least be hired the previous January. Work for the new school begins immediately, but that doesn’t mean you cease leading your current school. The new school requires communication, a mascot, furniture orders, supply orders, hiring, etc. At the same time, the principal must take care of the responsibilities at the current school. This includes moving forward with the vision, supporting students and staff, putting out fires, and implementing directives that are received (instructionally and COVID-related).

This is part of the deal. Unless you’re given a year to open the new campus without school site leadership responsibilities–which is rare–you’re doing two jobs. You have to be ok with this.

3. Build a team by determining who will work well together.

The hiring of teachers and staff members must begin immediately. Since you’re still leading your current school site, the temptation will be to rush through interviews and cobble a team together because of the other responsibilities you’re facing–especially if the pandemic is still raging. This must be avoided at all costs.

The team you build will create the culture and ultimately determine what students will experience on the new campus. This hiring phase is the most critical, but it can easily be treated as perfunctory if you’re not careful.

Most importantly, you must hire people who will work well as a team. I’ve interviewed approximately 150 people for the new school, and there have been amazing candidates. It’s easy to determine who’s good; what’s hard is determining who will work well with each other. You’ll have to say “no” to great candidates–people you’ll hopefully work with in the future–because they unfortunately don’t fit well with the teams that are forming. Saying “no” to good people is difficult; it may be the most difficult part of opening a new school.

4. Don’t let anything distract you from establishing a strong culture and purpose.

Once the team is assembled, you’ll receive directives and be expected to lead instructionally. There will inevitably be stumbling blocks while establishing an edifying culture. Expectations will be thrust upon you, and the pressure to perform will build. You’ll feel like this must be implemented… and that. It wouldn’t be a school without this program, and the teachers must receive professional development for this strategy. The to-do list will quickly grow, and if you’re not careful, you’ll shift from leading to managing as you delegate, train, and share the burden of your stress.

At a new school, the culture–which is fragile and has not yet been established–will suffer if this happens. Even though people will tell you to spend time developing the culture, there will be precious little time. You must also contend with COVID, which makes meeting in person difficult as you keep people physically safe while at the same time building relationships. This isn’t an easy task.

It’s also important to establish the school’s purpose and tie everything back to that purpose. At Highgate Elementary School, the purpose is “Empowering all learners.” We’re careful to make sure that whatever we commit to empowers our learners: children and adults. This means students owning their learning and teachers building collective efficacy are high on our priority list.

Culture can’t be built without communication. Clarity needs to be established for the staff, and it’s also extremely important that communication occurs with the future students and families right away. Providing students with a voice in choosing the mascot, colors, and purpose statement of the school is extremely important. This will foster early buy-in and help everyone become excited to be part of opening a campus.

5. Supplies are difficult–doubly so because of the pandemic.

COVID has been devastating for many reasons, and one of those is the supply chain. It’s late September, and there are still supplies that haven’t arrived, but that didn’t mean we postponed the start date of school. The teachers are invested in doing a good job, so they’ve begun Donors Choose projects, Amazon Wish Lists, thought outside the box, and spent their own money to furnish classrooms and ensure students have what they need.

Because this is the first year of the school, there aren’t supplies remaining from previous years in the workroom. There are no extra dry erase markers or construction paper. Reams of paper aren’t stashed away, and you’ll pray the toner that comes with the new copy machine lasts long enough for the next shipment of toner to arrive.

Being a non-Title I school, you’ll have to contend with a budget that’s on the smaller side. Teachers from Title I schools will wonder why you’re being stingy, and teachers from schools that had a laissez faire approach to supplies will wonder why you’re such a Scrooge. They’ll become frustrated, but they may not say anything, which is why the next reflection is so important.

6. If there’s no conflict, someone’s voice isn’t being heard.

This sentiment was said to me years ago, and it has stuck with me ever since. As a principal, I’ve repeated it multiple times because I believe it to be true.

When things are quiet, that’s when I’m most worried as a principal. Oftentimes, when leaders aren’t hearing complaints, they believe they’re doing a good job, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Quiet can mean something is stewing. That’s why it’s important to build relationships and seek out people’s true feelings to know what they’re actually thinking.

I’m not sure if this is a good thing, but I operate under the assumption that everyone is disgruntled about something, and it’s my job to stay positive and solve problems. If I’m wrong and people are happy, then I can be pleasantly surprised. If I’m right and people are indeed upset about something, then I’m mentally prepared to deal with the issues at hand, which leads me to the next lesson.

7. Take care of students by taking care of your staff.

Often I hear leaders say we need to be in this profession for the students and not the adults. It is without question that student learning is the priority and why we exist as an organization. I would just add that it’s a false dichotomy to say you have to be either for students or adults. Principals are not in the classroom on a regular basis. Because of this, we don’t have the same effect on students as teachers do. It’s the teachers and support staff who spend the most time with students, and so it makes sense (to me, at least) that a principal who takes care of the school’s employees is taking care of the students. This ties back to four of the previous items I’ve shared: focus on the team, establish a strong culture and purpose, work on getting people the resources they need, and welcome healthy conflict. If you accomplish these things, you’re on your way to supporting the adults on campus who work the closest with students.

8. Say “yes” more than “no.”

Start with yes. This should be the default mindset. If you’re opening a new school, it’s important to not squash ideas. If people want something, try to find a win/win situation. If you can’t give people what they want, it’s important they know why and let them express their frustration. Sometimes staff members will feel more comfortable going to a grade level lead, academic coach, or assistant principal with a concern. This is totally fine, and when you hear concerns secondhand, it’s important to address the need.

9. Say “no” more than “yes.”

You need to start with yes when it comes to people, but you must start with no when it comes to new initiatives. Steve Jobs famously said there should be a thousand no’s for every yes. As a leader, it’s so easy to say “yes” to items that should receive a no. I try to keep things simple, and I fortunately am surrounded by people who tell me when we need to scale back, or they remind me to not get us involved in something that will take too much time and stress the system. When people tell you what they think, that means they’re empowered, and that’s a good thing.

Saying “no” helps you skate to where the puck is going as opposed to where it is. All school site leaders know state and district directions change, so it’s important to stay light on your feet and not bog teachers down with tasks when the landscape shifts.

10. You have to live there for a while before you can make certain decisions.

It’s important to accurately determine what you’ll need at the new school site as soon as possible, but when you’re still a principal at one school, and you’re trying your best to fill the classrooms and the office at the new school with furniture, your forecasting isn’t going to be perfect. Even though you have the blueprints and know the sizes of the rooms, you don’t know precisely the best way to furnish each room; especially when it comes to such things as: number of file cabinets, where people will eventually want the furniture, the best places to house technology, where to put copiers, and more. It might be good to have a few different lists: a preliminary list of items you’ll know you’ll need, a second list for items that will be purchased once you’re functioning on campus, and a third (smaller) list for all other items that are necessary.

11. Aesthetics matter.

Clip art, comic sans, and images made in Google Slides have their places, but the branding of a school is important, which includes the mascot, logo, colors, typeface, online presence, spirit wear, and more. It’s important to collect feedback from the future students, families, and staff, and you must employ professional help in order to create vector files and high resolution images, which will be helpful in the future for a variety of reasons.

12. As much as possible, turn off work when you step through the front door of your home in the evening.

Life is short. Health is fragile. Good times don’t last long enough. Building a new school is thrilling at times, but if you’re still leading another school while opening the new school, you have to protect yourself and ensure you have time with your family and friends. Even if you’re not doing double duty, opening a new school is stressful. You must prioritize your health, which includes exercise, eating well, and attending health appointments–something principals skip far too often.

Your health is the most important thing you have. If you’re not healthy, then you can’t help others.

In conclusion

I’m thankful I have a part in the genesis of something that will outlast me and affect the lives of students for decades to come. Opening Highgate Elementary School has been one of the highlights of my career, and I’m so thankful for the hardworking team I’m a part of that empowers all learners.

I’ve written two previous posts about being a principal: What I’ve Learned After One Year As a Principal and What I’ve Learned As a Principal After One Year of COVID.

8 thoughts on “WHAT I’VE LEARNED (so far) OPENING A NEW SCHOOL

  1. Steve,

    Great reflection and very well written. Thanks for sharing. I pray that our District understands and genuinely appreciates your service and dedication. They don’t make them like you anymore.

  2. Steve,

    You have shown exceptional leadership throughout the entire process of opening a new school. I love they way you involved all stakeholders when making decisions about the branding of Highgate. You achieved your goal of hiring people who are not only highly skilled but also work well together. I appreciate your insight regarding item 6 on your list – “If there’s no conflict, someone’s voice isn’t being heard.” Seeing smiling faces of the staff attests to the positive culture on campus. What I have appreciated the most throughout this process is that I know I am being heard and that you truly care about your staff. Thank you!

    1. Thank you, Dawn! I appreciate you and all the hard work you devote to the students every day. I’m so thankful for the team that’s been assembled to support all the students on campus.

  3. Well, how happy am I to be part of the team led by you! Your insight shows in your daily work. Your understanding of all the parts that make the whole is exceptional. Your care and concern for all of us, big and small, is endearing. Thank you for leading us but also for being YOU!

    1. Thank you for being YOU, Nicole! Your students are blessed to have you, and I’m grateful for you and the whole Highgate team. Teaching is not easy, and you, the first grade team, and the whole Highgate team are doing an incredible job.

  4. Steve,
    This was so thoughtfully written and gave such insight into the complexities of not only building a school facility but an empowered community. Thank you for sharing your heart. You have brought together a team of individuals who inspire me daily. I am so grateful for your leadership. Highgate is a truly special place to be!

    1. Thanks, Amy! Highgate is so special because of the staff we have taking care of the students and the strong collaboration with the community. Thank you for all your hard work… You and your team are doing an amazing job.

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