Felicia Usher: Building Community

This principal helps everyone belong in a school where kids speak 26 languages.

Topics: Principal Leadership

Felicia Usher is a firm believer in teamwork and collective action. So, when more than 50 principals descended on Weyanoke Elementary in Alexandria, Virginia, as part of a volunteer community service project held alongside NAESP’s 2023 Pre-K–8 Principals Conference and made possible by NAESP partner Landscape Structures, she was ready with a laundry list of jobs to get her school in top shape for the new school year.

About half pitched in to construct new playground equipment. Another group scrubbed dirt from the
midcentury building’s tile, some participants weeded an overgrown courtyard, and another group overhauled the staff lounge with new furniture and bulletin boards. “It gave me ideas for more things to do, which was fabulous,” Usher says. “I couldn’t believe they got all of this done.”

Principal magazine recently asked Usher how she builds collaboration and community daily at her school—a multicultural institution just outside Washington, D.C., that hosts more than 550 students from 59 countries—and about other topics. Here’s what she said:

What are some of the ways Weyanoke empowers students and encourages belonging?

We’re a responsive classroom school, so we empower students to think about the type of school community they want to have. Using discussion and group activities, children come up with their own rules and goals, creating a sense of ownership. Our school has a high mobility rate, so it’s important to build community.

What’s one thing that has helped you build student achievement?

Collaboration! No one person has the answer to all of the situations we encounter. It’s the collective contribution of a staff with diverse backgrounds and life experiences that produces the best possible outcomes. And it isn’t just the teachers; it’s also the instructional assistants, the custodians, the office assistants, the parents, the children—everyone.

What is the best leadership moment you’ve had since becoming a principal?

It’s often assumed that caregivers do not engage with schools for multiple reasons. I made it a priority to collaborate with school stakeholders to explore new ways to engage with our caregivers. As a result, our family events are at capacity. Additionally, we’ve developed ways to engage in meaningful two-way communication, which allows us to use caregivers’ feedback to positively
impact our practices. 

What are a few goals you have for your school that drive how you approach the job?

I’m about helping students understand that every opportunity is meant for them. Our job is to help them reach their goals and see what they need so that we can support them academically, socially, and emotionally. We need to do everything we can to contribute to that success.

What is your favorite part of the school day as the principal?

My favorite part of the school day is lunch. I get to walk in, sit down, and just start talking with students. It throws them off at the beginning—you know, someone must be in trouble, because the principal is there. I really enjoy being able to connect with students in an unstructured way.

What is the weekly Woodchuck dance party?

Our technology specialist, Erin Dewey, announces a song for the month, and any student or staff member can use Flip to record themselves dancing to it. They can do it from home, or sometimes they do it at school and get the whole room dancing. Sometimes, it’s me dancing with the school mascot. [Erin] takes all of the footage and splices it together to create a video.