Denise L. Kelly

Sterling Elementary School
Kenai Peninsula Borough School District
Sterling, Alaska

As principal of Sterling Elementary School, Denise Kelly strives to ensure that all students leave “understanding and representing responsible citizenship within the school and the greater community.” In her eight-year tenure, Kelly has implemented a variety of programs toward this end, cultivating a unique culture that centers student ownership of learning and community wellbeing. By introducing the Caring School Community curriculum, for example, Sterling emphasizes social and emotional learning through a class meetings framework that builds community between staff and students as a foundation for shared problem-solving and restorative approaches to conflict resolution. This structure has increased students’ sense of belonging and allowed teachers to avoid excessive disciplinary referrals by approaching behavioral issues directly. Sterling has also taken strides toward being a zero waste school under Kelly’s leadership, with students participating in a school-wide recycling program that repurposes food waste to support community farmers and hunters. Driven by her belief that “the crux of leadership is motivating people,” Kelly fiercely advocates for the personal and professional development of staff through a variety of community building, professional skill sharing, and wellness initiatives. Kelly holds a bachelor’s degree in Elementary and Special Education from Northern Arizona University, a Master of Arts in Educational Administration and Supervision from the University of Phoenix, and a graduate certificate from the International Institute of Restorative Practices.