Awards

Honorable mention

Principal knows the key to success is believing in the kids

Melody McCloud, principal of Phillips Elementary, was honored Nov. 7 in Washington, D.C., with the National Distinguished Principal Award 2003 for the state of Virginia. McCloud won the award for her work at Moton Elementary in Hampton. Photo by Bob Ostermaier/Daily Press

Story by Peter Hull of the Daily Press, originally appearing on December 4th, 2003. Copyright 2003 Daily Press, Inc. Reproduced with permission.

When Melody T. McCloud walked into Robert R. Moton Elementary School in 1997 as the new principal, she knew immediately she had a job on her hands. Poor teacher morale, low student self-esteem and underachieving children all combined to create a negative atmosphere over this quiet area of Phoebus.

Something had to change.

Six years later, Moton Elementary had earned full accreditation under the state's rigorous Standards of Learning exams, and first-graders' literacy test scores ranked second in the state out of 915 schools with similar populations. But, perhaps most importantly, the teachers again believed the children could succeed. And, in turn, children began to enjoy learning again.

"You must believe in the children, " McCloud said. "If you believe in them, they'll be a success. If you don't believe, it's not going to happen."

But it did happen. And to recognize her hard work and dedication, McCloud was named 2003 National Distinguished Principal for Virginia earlier this year by the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

McCloud received her award from Dr. Jo Lynn DeMary, superintendent of Public Instruction for Virginia, at a Nov. 7 ceremony in Washington, D.C. She was one of 65 elementary and middle school principals from across the nation and from U.S. schools abroad to be honored by the NAESP.

Founded in 1921, the association serves as a professional organization for the more than 30,000 elementary and middle school educators throughout the country. The program began in 1984 to recognize public and private school principals who make superior contributions to their schools and communities.

Principals are nominated by their peers based on the high level of standards and commitment they demonstrate, the levels of excellence they achieve and their regard within the community. All nominees must be practicing principals.

Moton is a Title I school, with nearly 85 percent of its students coming from low-income households. Title I schools are those identified to receive additional funds to aid low-achieving children, especially in high-poverty schools. The aim of the program is to help disadvantaged students keep pace with those in more fortunate positions.

McCloud says she quickly realized she needed to educate herself, her staff and parents about the important differences involved with teaching children from low socio-economic backgrounds if the children were to have any chance at success.

The result, she says, was a series of initiatives that involved parents to a far greater extent, introduced teachers to a new, refreshing approach to teaching, and gave the children a better understanding of why there were there in the first place.

"I believe in trying to encourage teachers through personal growth and autonomy," McCloud said. "Teachers are so creative. They can all develop ways to make kids more successful."

McCloud said she embraced a strategy called "Developmental Assets" adopted by the Coalition for Youth, an organization dedicated to addressing youth issues in Hampton. The strategy says there are 40 critical factors in a young person's development &endash; things such as family support, a caring school environment, reading for pleasure and honesty &endash; which can be developed regardless of a student's financial background.

An increase in these assets helps protect children from a variety of problem behaviors, McCloud said. An increase in assets also promotes positive behaviors and attitudes, she said.

"The teachers ask, 'What is it we can do to make a difference for our children?'" McCloud said. "And the children feel we really value them, but not based on what they have or they don't have."

McCloud introduced a policy that may be regarded as controversial at many schools. But with the support of 90 percent of the parents, in 2001 children at Moton began to wear a school uniform, a move that proved a pivotal factor in the school's reversal of fortune.

"The children needed to be focused on the work they were doing, not what other kids were wearing," she said.

The school established local business partners to help pay for uniforms that some parents couldn't afford. And fellow parents, even teachers, made donations. It meant the children were less distracted and became more focused on the teacher, McCloud said.

With parents firmly on her side, McCloud seized upon their newfound enthusiasm and, recognizing the importance of parental involvement in a child's education, pulled them closer into the fold. At first, very few parents visited the school, she said. Soon, whole families were involved.

Teachers held evening workshops for parents to help them work more closely with their children at home, promoted the importance of reading with their child, and suggested ways to help them with their homework. Just providing a comfortable place at home for them to work can make all the difference, she said.

"The parent, actually, is the child's first teacher, so their role is critical," McCloud said. "Any time you get parents involved in the child's education, they can promote other things in the child's success."

"This school has overcome amazing odds," said Patricia Leary, the school division's regional director for elementary education. "When the nomination forms came out, I read through the criteria and her face came right to mind. She did so many things that were out of the box."

McCloud is now the principal at Phillips Elementary. As she reflects on her time at Moton and the success the school enjoyed, she's quick to share her award with everyone connected to the school.

"I was very fortunate to work with some wonderful people at Moton &endash; and I'm double lucky to be with even more here at Phillips," she said.

But she clearly values the needs of the children above all, with their parents, her teachers, and everyone else coming a very close second.

"I love what I do. I love the kids, the teachers and the parents," said McCloud. "We do it for our children."

 

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