New School, New Pre-K Challenges

By Raphael Crawford
Principal, March/April 2013

I have always considered myself to be a transformational leader. So, I readily accepted the challenge when I was offered the opportu­nity to serve as the new principal of a well-established Montessori school with a pre-K program. The public school had performed well as a Montessori environment, but had not aligned its instructional practices with district curricular standards and benchmarks.

We needed to merge the Montessori curriculum with more traditional practices to meet district and state testing requirements. Additionally, I was tasked with providing pre-K students with a standards-based curriculum that would help them develop the necessary skills to master content by the time they reached kindergarten.

Before I could lead the school through any transformation, there would need to be a major paradigm shift. Little did I know that the first hurdle to overcome would be my own inexperience with Montessori and pre-K programs.

Learn the Ropes
My first step was to visit local, private Montessori schools and form a strong relationship with the local university that provided Montessori teacher training. I needed to learn as much as pos­sible about Montessori schools and their core beliefs. I initially struggled with having to rethink my own training as a teacher and principal to embrace a new way of learning and teaching.

I also met with state education officials responsible for pre-K instruction and day care regula­tion. Many of the operational guidelines and rules governing

pre-K programs, staffing formulas, playground equipment, and even applicable fire codes were different from those required for kindergar­ten and other elementary students. My most beneficial training came during my frequent visits to local day care centers that offered pre-K programs. There, I was able to see pre-K programs in practice and get useful information from professionals already doing the work.

Build Relationships
The next step was to build trusting relationships with all stakeholders. Montessori families are passion­ate about their schools and quickly rejected any suggestion that they do anything similar to traditional instructional practices. I made myself available to parents to discuss their concerns and to attempt to alleviate any fears. I brought in district leadership to assist with parent discussions, and invited parents into classrooms. I helped parents see that our merged curriculum was true to Montessori methods, while also meeting district curricular standards.

I also worked to assure parents of pre-K students that their children were in a safe and progressive learn­ing environment. Some parents questioned whether a male principal with experience in elementary and middle schools could relate to such young children. I had to let parents see me as a caring individual who had their children’s best interests at heart. For example, I immediately made a personal phone call to every parent to introduce myself and to share how excited I was to be the new principal. During the call, I invited parents to come meet me during a reception, and promised that I would be accessible and maintain an open door pol­icy, which I did. I also made it a point to be highly visible so that everyone could see my interactions with the children, greeting every child as they arrived at school every morning, for example. In addition, I held frequent, informal “principal chats” where par­ents could come talk with me about concerns and any ideas they had about our school.

Additionally, I spent time with the pre-K students in their learning circles and classrooms to build trusting rela­tionships with them. This was chal­lenging, because many students were not used to being nurtured by a man.

Assemble a Team
I established a leadership team that helped interview and select new teachers and staff. The team was comprised of representatives of our professional staff, support personnel, a parent from each grade level, two well-respected community members, and a couple of local business owners. We selected two fourth-grade students to serve on our leadership team as well. This mix ensured that every voice was being represented. This group also taught me basic Mon­tessori instructional practices and helped to develop the alignment of our Montessori curriculum with the district standards. Since the school had previously only offered a strict Montessori program, implementing the district’s standards-based instruc­tion was challenging. The teachers and I developed and modeled traditional and Montessori lessons during biweekly professional development sessions that helped us to align our curriculum with the district.

Upon reflection, I wish I had come into the position with experience working with pre-K students and pro­grams rather than having to search for answers. I advise other principals who will be leading pre-K programs for the first time to:

  • Make connections with officials and others who monitor and regulate pre-K programs, which will help save time, prevent a great deal of frustration, and make for a much smoother transition.
  • Spend time with pre-K-aged chil­dren prior to beginning the assignment. The time spent will provide a better understanding of their specific needs.
  • Listen to suggestions offered by parents and other stakeholders about new changes. Listening not only results in receiving their buy-in, but also provides invaluable feedback.

Together, we were able to transform the program into a more successful experience for children, which was most important at the end of the day.

Raphael Crawford, Principal, Maynard Elementary School, Knoxville, Tennessee.


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