How I Lead

This Denver assistant principal builds relationships and heads off misbehavior with bow ties

PHOTO: Paul Hudson/Creative Commons
Fernando Branch

Today, we launch a new series called “How I Lead,” which features principals and assistant principals from across Colorado who have been recognized for their work. It is a companion to our popular “How I Teach” series, in which distinguished teachers tell us how they approach their jobs.

Fernando Branch, high school assistant principal at Denver’s Noel Community Arts School, still remembers Ms. Mannis.

When he was in sixth grade, the teacher worked with him on spelling and grammar every day after school, driving 45 minutes across Memphis to drop him off at home afterwards. Eventually, the extra help landed him on the honor roll for the first time.

Branch says Ms. Mannis’ commitment helped him overcome the dyslexia that haunted him throughout elementary school. It also helped shape a philosophy ingrained in him today: “There’s no such thing as a child who can’t learn.”

Branch is one of five principals and assistant principals selected for the 2016-17 Colorado Educator Voice Fellowship, an initiative of the national nonprofit America Achieves. The program aims to get educators involved in policy conversations and decisions.

We asked Branch how he thinks about leadership, what he’s learned from evaluating teachers, and why he’s so into bow ties. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?
I ran from the field of education at first. That all changed when I was working as a management trainee at Cintas and started coaching fifth grade boys basketball in Maumelle, Arkansas. From that moment on, I became a servant to the profession and have never looked back.

My first education job was at Sheffield High School in Memphis, Tennessee as a geography teacher. I walked in, mid-year right before Christmas break and before I knew it, eight years had flown by.

Fill in the blank. My day at school isn’t complete unless I ____________ . Why?
Walk the entire building at least one time. Building positive relationships with students, teachers and support staff takes time. It’s my experience that having an organic routine that gives you a chance to talk, laugh, reflect, and discover helps support a positive school culture.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom? The best way to get to know students is first by respecting students. Once students know you’re socially cognitive about the school and students’ voice, seek out opportunities to engage in authentic conversations.

One way that I have done this is by starting a Bowtie Tuesday Club at every school I’ve been in. The voluntary activity — where students dress up and wear bowties or bows — is a conversation-starter and heads off misbehavior, too. It’s amazing how a school culture can change when students start wearing bows and bow ties.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?
There was this one time that a teacher and I disagreed on the professionalism rating they received. I try really hard to be more of a coach rather than a evaluator, but in this particular situation, the teacher scored themselves distinguished in every area of focus. This simply was not true nor did the collected evidence support this rating. In the end, we agreed to disagree, but I learned a very important lesson from that: In the future, I should build in checkpoints to talk about professionalism over the course of the year.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?
Our recruitment effort — being strategic about marketing and branding. We created student shadow days where students and parents visit the school. Also, our arts team does art tours to showcase our work to feeder middle schools. High school enrollment projections are up in every grade level. We are bringing in one of the largest freshman classes to date and are attracting 49 percent of new ninth-grade artists from outside of our school, which serves grades six through 12.

The second thing I’m most proud of is the frequent feedback we hear from students, teachers, parents and district partners about the drastic change in school culture. When behavior incidents are down 90 percent, attendance goes up, and the creative flair of an arts school began to blossom into a colorful canvas of school pride and purpose.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?
There is no such thing as a bad child. We have to meet children where they are and build them up to where they need to be. I use a social emotional support system that teaches students to own their mistakes and change their thinking habits.

When the event is too great for a restorative coaching session, tough love plays an important role in teaching our students that there are real consequences for your actions as a young adult. After the consequence has been addressed, students will revisit the type of thinking that caused the event to happen in the first place. This is where true learning happens.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?
Leading an art school carries an additional financial burden. The per-pupil cost at my school is often more expensive because of the type of programming art schools support. I’m paying close attention to TABOR, Gallagher and Title II funding because each has the potential to harm or drastically improve the state of my school.

What is the hardest part of your job?
The hardest part is shutting it off so that my two daughters and wife see daddy and a good husband who tries to cook during his assigned week. A Mr. Branch that is not taking care of business at home is no good at school either.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I remember meeting with [a parent] about her son, Mohammed, who was one of my outstanding students and athletes. Mohammed had earned a full scholarship to college in his senior year but was not his usual positive self. When asked what was going on, he told me that he couldn’t attend college because he was just told by his mother that he wasn’t a U.S. citizen and was in the country illegally.

I was blown away that this young man did everything right since first grade and was not able to receive the award he earned. I worked tirelessly to ensure he got his chance at a post-secondary education. Mohammed graduated from college three years ago and still carries true grit in his work ethic.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
“Top 20 Parents: Raising Happy, Responsible and Socially Healthy Children” and “Why Students Disengage in American Schools And What We Can Do About It,” both by Paul Bernabei.

How I Lead

Meet Colorado’s distinguished elementary school principal of the year

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here and pieces in our sister series “How I Teach” here.

Tobey Bassoff, principal of Ryan Elementary in Lafayette, knows a lot of thought goes into decisions about how students are placed in different classrooms. But when she met with an upset father whose child had been assigned to a new teacher, she realized that parents were in the dark about the process.

It was an experience that prompted her to improve communication with parents about all the considerations that go into student placement. Meanwhile, the man’s son stayed in his assigned class and had the best year of his elementary school career.

Bassoff talked to Chalkbeat about how she gets to know students and families, why social and emotional learning is important, and who gave her the best advice she’s ever received.

Bassoff was named the 2017 National Distinguished Principal of the Year for Colorado, an award sponsored by the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Tobey Bassoff, principal of Ryan Elementary School in Lafayette, with students.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?
I received my first education “jobs” in fourth grade when Mrs. Jackson allowed me to sit next to Joseph when I noticed he was struggling with school work and whom I knew I could lend a hand to help. That same year, my principal, Mr. Van Schoonhoven, created a job for me to call bus routes over the public address system when I came to him with that solution to support students safely boarding buses at the end of the day. The educators in my life nurtured my belief in making a positive difference in my community and they created opportunities for me to do so.

Fill in the blank. My day at school isn’t complete unless I _________.
Connect with students, staff and families because they are the heart of what I do every day.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?

Golly! I’m just everywhere! I try to be out and about before school and after school, at recess, and in classrooms. I create opportunities for students and families to engage in learning after school through learning symposiums and on the weekend through service learning activities where we work together to take care of our community. I also show up at students’ soccer games and dance recitals.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?
I could say that I am most proud of being the first school in my district to support a one-in-one-out gender neutral bathroom policy, or that I’m proud of being a part of the effort that brought a $2.8 million grant to our community, or that I founded numerous community partnerships to help support our STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Math) focus. However, I would say that I am most proud of the everyday ways that I help build capacity in our educators, students and community members to believe in the power of their ideas to positively impact the lives of children and work with them to make them a reality.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?
I view discipline as an opportunity to get to know students better. Behavior indicates need and it’s my responsibility to identify the need and help each child, and the adults supporting them, see incidents as learning opportunities from which we grow.

What is the hardest part of your job?
The most challenging aspect of the job is time management. It just seems that there are always a million things I want to do and a minute to do them.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

One memorable interaction I had with a student’s family happened when a dad insisted that his son have a veteran teacher even though he had been placed with a newer teacher at the beginning of the year. Prior to this meeting, I held firm that our staff invests a lot of energy in developing class lists, so class placements were not up for discussion. However, as the parent pushed, I realized that perhaps I hadn’t effectively communicated all of the components that went into classroom placement decisions. After speaking with him, I implemented additional ways for parents to learn about the classroom placement and class list development process. His son stayed in that class and had the best year he had ever had, and I was able to strengthen home/school communication throughout our learning community.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?
Fostering social emotional learning is a federal expectation of public schools and it continues to have a big impact on schools. Students enter the school system with a wide range of skills and talents, as well as emotions that support or distract them from learning. I am fortunate to work for a district that just approved hiring counselors at the elementary school level, which is greatly supporting our efforts to address this policy. In addition, we intentionally teach students social skills through a schoolwide program and we teach and model respectful ways to engage in productive discourse.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I am currently reading “Solve for Happy” by Mo Gawdat.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Wow. No pressure. Advice is “best” because it is delivered when you need to hear it most. For me, the best advice I received at an early age was from my mother who said, “If it is to be, it is up to me.” It was what I needed to hear to believe that I can make a positive difference in this world by the smallest deed if I only believe in my ability to do so. The advice was about believing in my ability to start a conversation, spark an idea or change someone’s day just by offering a smile or a listening ear. It’s as much about transforming a school by synergizing a community to believe in their collective capacity as it is about making time for a 4-year-old to tell you everything he knows about electricity.

How I Lead

This Colorado Springs principal takes an all-hands-on-deck approach to leadership

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here and pieces in our sister series “How I Teach” here.

Manuel Ramsey, principal of Bristol Elementary in Colorado Springs, is not the kind of leader who holes up in his office all day. He leads a fourth-grade reading group almost daily, a fifth-grade math group once a week and often eats lunch with students — especially those who need extra help with their behavior.

Principal Manuel Ramsey

It’s these kinds of duties and “lots of little conversations” with kids that help him connect with students and understand the workaday lives of his teachers.

Under Ramsey’s leadership, Bristol Elementary won the Excellence in STEM Education award at the inaugural Succeeds Prize event earlier this month. The Succeeds Prize is a partnership between 9NEWS, Colorado Succeeds, a nonprofit that advocates for education reform on behalf of the business community, and mindSpark Learning, a nonprofit dedicated to improving teaching and learning.

Ramsay talked to Chalkbeat about what he looks for in prospective teachers, why lawmakers should talk to successful principals and how he became more courageous when meeting with parents.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?
I began my career as an elementary physical education teacher in Anchorage, Alaska, in 1985. It was a great teaching job, as I loved sports and working with kids. I guess I had such good teachers when I was growing up that I wanted to be a teacher. I remember one day — it must have been my second or third year teaching — another teacher told me I would be a principal one day. Sixteen years later it happened.

Fill in the blank. My day at school isn’t complete unless I ________. Why?
Help a staff member and make a student smile. As a principal, my primary job is to be a helper — helping teachers and staff succeed at their jobs and letting kids know we are there for them.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?
I am in classrooms, on the playground and in the cafeteria every day. I interact with students throughout the day in lots of little conversations. I teach in classrooms when there is no sub and I cover classrooms so that my teachers can observe others or leave early for appointments. Students also come to my office regularly to have lunch.

Being in the classroom really helps me understand what my teachers go through on a daily basis. I also teach a fourth grade reading group four days a week and a fifth grade math group on Fridays. This is a great way to connect with kids and demonstrate to the staff that all hands are on deck.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?
Teacher evaluations are always interesting because people receive information differently. Some receive suggestions and coaching well and some get defensive. A number of years ago, one evaluation was actually for a teacher with very solid scores on the evaluation rubric. There was only one identified area to work on for the coming year. As I presented the information, the teacher started crying. I felt like I was presenting the information in a non-critical way, but the reaction was surprising. It was an interesting experience and helped me realize that approach is important and that people react differently.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?
The most important thing I do as a principal is recruit and retain the best staff. When I interview for a staff position, I have a team of people help. I’m always trying to get a feel for the applicant’s demeanor, especially related to having a positive attitude. I’ve had the best luck with staff that are detail-oriented because the job is so complicated and there are so many moving pieces.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?
We have an amazing Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, or PBIS, system and we use it to recognize students who are working hard and leaning throughout the day. Over 80 percent of our students never get a referral. When a student does get in trouble, I work with the teacher to identify the cause and appropriate consequences to help the student make better choices.

At Bristol, it is more about coaching a student to make good choices than about punishment. We have a very structured system of response to discipline issues and it has helped us reduce referrals by 70 percent. If students continue to get in trouble, they will be invited to join the Bear 5 Academy at lunch — where I can work with them personally to help them understand the importance of learning and making good choices.

What is the hardest part of your job?
This is such a high energy job. It is nonstop from the minute I walk in the door. The hardest part is just keeping up with the million tasks that must get done in order to have a high-performing school. I try to be very involved in the instructional piece and in supporting my staff so that they just focus on the kids. Sometimes the emails and paperwork don’t get done like they could.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I have sat through so many meeting with parents and grandparents where the child is not getting the care and attention all students deserve. I have been an administrator for more than 20 years and when I began meeting with families I tended to keep my opinion to myself. However, after seeing so many heartbreaking situations, I have become more courageous in my conversations.

I began to realize that I may be one of only a few adults in a student’s life that could speak directly and provide direction to their family with some of the issues they are experiencing. I didn’t want to look back on my career and wish I would have spoken more openly and compassionately.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now?
Honestly, I don’t think too much about what is happening in the policy realm. I have my hands full with helping kids learn as much as possible each and every day. That is my primary job and I stay focused on that 99 percent of the time. The other 1 percent, I wish legislators would stop legislating without asking successful principals for input.

How are you addressing it?
I have presented to the state House Education Committee and stood before the State Board of Education. I have also hosted legislators at my school.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I have been reading about the Great Alaska Earthquake. It was a 9.2 magnitude and last four and a half minutes. I lived in Alaska from 1967 to 1989.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Be quick to listen and slow to speak. Also, Have courage and be kind