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Building Administrators Making a Difference in Public Education in Georgia - Gina Linder

Building Administrators Making a Difference in Public Education in Georgia - Gina Linder

    In the hall just outside the Main Office of Murray County High School, in a long glass display case, is a row of eight graduation gowns.  Each gown represents a different school year and each is covered with the signatures of the students representing the Senior class for that year.  Gina Linder conducts a ceremony for every grade level at the beginning of each year emphasizing the importance of graduation, but the Senior meeting is special.  At the end of that meeting, each member of the Senior Class gets to sign the green graduation gown.  The gown, with the signatures in silver ink, goes on display in the hall and serves as a daily reminder to MCHS Seniors of their commitment to graduation.  Gina wears the gown to the graduation ceremony and gets to spend at least an hour before the event posing for pictures with Seniors pointing to their signature on the garment.  Afterwards she returns it to the permanent display in the hall to continue to serve as a testament to the graduating class and as a reminder for other classes of the commitment to graduation..  
    Murray County High School is in Chatsworth GA.  The 2010 census counted 4,299 residents, and the town serves as the county seat.  It sits on the western edge of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest in the mountains of north Georgia, and is less than 12 miles from Dalton.  The school serves grades 9-12, has 835 students, is 21% Hispanic, has an economically disadvantaged student rate of 74%, has 61 certified staff including teachers, administrators and counselors and 19 classified employees.  The leading employers in the area are the public education system and the carpet mills.  Every year, MCHS has a number of first generation graduates and many families struggle to make financial ends meet.  MCHS students spend countless hours volunteering their time and efforts to assist with the Community Christmas program, several canned food drives throughout the year and the “Saturday Sacks” program that provides sack lunches for students to take home when they leave school on Fridays.  Students volunteer in raising money for a Child Abuse Awareness program and Relay for Life. The school also has a free summer lunch program for students from disadvantaged families.
    When Gina Linder was appointed Principal, her first goal was to change the culture of MCHS.  The graduation rate was 57%, test scores were below state averages, the school was on the “Needs Improvement” list for the 3rd consecutive year and, even more troubling, averaged almost 1000 discipline referrals per school year.  “There were distinct feelings of frustration and negativity from students, parents and teachers” Gina remembered, “and my first day I made our school motto ‘Graduation is Our Goal.’  Students hear that every morning and afternoon now as part of the announcements.”  She also decided the Student Council and  a teacher led Leadership Team would become key elements in the decision making process.  “Both are active participants in academic and social aspects of our school,” Gina said, “and develop strategic goals, analyze data and present new strategies for each school year.”  One of the student contributions is the PRIDE model that became the foundation of the school culture.  “Model Responsibility, Commit to Graduation, Have Self Control and Show Respect.  The MCHS model encompasses our school culture” Gina said.
    “We have overcome the obstacles created by budget cuts” she noted, “including our 160 day school calendar.  Our graduation rate has increased significantly, and has been over 90% for the last three years.  Our students’ scores on standardized tests have been consistently above the state average and we now average less than 250 discipline referrals per year.  We offer 8 college courses on our campus, and have about 150 of our Juniors and Seniors enrolled in the college program.  Our state CCRPI scores are among the highest in the northwest Georgia area.  Our school is the focal point of our small community” Gina continued, “and the academic success and climate of the high school is one of the first things people look at when deciding to move into a community or start a business here.  The school and the community have to be partners in ensuring that students become responsible citizens.  A high school is a direct reflection of the community in which it resides, and a community, in turn, is a direct reflection of its high school.”
    Gina went to college on a basketball scholarship, and graduated with a degree in ELA and a desire to coach girls basketball.  She taught and coached for 12 years before accepting a position as a middle school assistant principal.  She was named MS Principal the following year and asked to become Principal at MCHS in February of 2007.  “Coaching helped develop my already competitive nature” she said, “and even though I knew I had a lot to learn, I loved the idea of taking on the challenges at MCHS.”  
    The Superintendent of Murray County Schools is Vickie Reed.  She observed “Gina has successfully developed a positive culture where all staff and students are held to high expectations.  Her hands-on approach of using data to inform and monitor instruction when meeting with teachers and staff has led to higher academic achievement for all students.  Mrs. Linder exemplifies the term instructional leader.”  Andrea Morrow, Curriculum and Instruction Facilitator at MCHS agrees.  “I have been working with Gina for over 10 years.  She is my mentor and role model.  Mrs. Linder has created a caring and positive school culture, but that’s only part of it.  She believes that academics, relationships and communication with parents are crucial components for helping students achieve success.  She is innovative and values the thoughts and ideas of her stakeholders.  She has taught us that success is not an isolated accomplishment nor is it achievable without consistency and hard work.  Teachers and students work hard to meet her expectations because they know they have her support and loyalty.  Our teachers believe in Gina Linder because she believes in us..  She creates and supports opportunities for growth, and is a visionary.  She knows that as teachers grow and learn student learning increases, teachers feel empowered by her support and become leaders and teachers stay at MCHS because of her leadership.”
    “I look for teaching strategies and personality when hiring teachers” said Mrs. Linder.  “A person can be an expert in content knowledge, but if they aren’t energetic, can’t build relationships with students, aren’t enthusiastic about teaching and don’t have the ability to actively engage students in learning through a variety of solid teaching strategies then they will not be a successful teacher.”  Gina expects teachers to engage in bell to bell instruction, expects every teacher in every classroom to use writing and SAT vocabulary, use lexile data to differentiate instruction and to use “depth of knowledge” activities to help prepare students for life after high school.  “I think teachers appreciate the fact that I am open and honest with them.  Most of them also know I was a very dedicated teacher who understands the challenges they face.  My administrators and I have an open door policy, and I think teachers appreciate the fact they can come into our offices and share both professional and personal issues with us.”  
    Timothy is a 2012 graduate of MCHS, and believes strongly that MCHS is a special place and that Mrs. Linder makes a positive difference in the lives of her students.  “The lesson I learned there is that happiness comes from service” he said.  “The teachers are accessible and go out of their way to help students.  I always felt I was an individual there instead of just another student.”  The involvement of community members and business leaders also made an impression on him.  “They led experiences for students that included filling out college applications, career days and Leadership Murray, where business leaders helped bridge a gap between students and those who make the county work.”  
    Gina observed that being a high school administrator is a rewarding career, but can be stressful and challenging.  “I focus on being proactive” she said, “and always try to be fair, firm and consistent with students, teachers and parents.  Our students need us and depend on us to provide a safe and rigorous learning environment, and their future has to be our first priority in every decision.  I laugh when I say this, but being an administrator also includes all of those things I tried to avoid as a teacher; lunch duty every day, bus duty every day, hall duty every day, 15 hour days every day...the list goes on.”  She also says her parents prepared her for the challenges of administration by teaching her independence, morals, values, determination, a positive work ethic and self-confidence.  “They taught me that mistakes are to be embraced and that people should be valued and cherished.  They helped me understand that there is a difference in thinking you are a leader and in earning the respect required to be a successful leader.”  Gina also learned from Danny Dunn, the Principal that hired her for her first teaching job.  “He involved teachers in decision making, and walked us through the process.  He also taught me that just because we thought something was a great idea doesn’t mean it would turn out great in practice, and that admitting those things to teachers was a strength and not a weakness.”  She also admires her Superintendent, Dr. Vickie Reed.  “Dr. Reed leads by example and sets high expectations for herself and for those that work for her.  She helps me stay focused on the important aspects of being an administrator, and has given me the opportunity to implement new initiatives and help make positive changes at MCHS.”
    Gina’s leadership led MCHS to be the first high school in Georgia to be named as a National Model High School for the Commit to Graduate program, an AP Honors School in 2014 and a Title I Reward School for progress, also in 2014.  She presented at the National CASE conference and the Georgia “Turnaround Schools” Conference, serves as the 2nd Vice President of the Georgia Association for Secondary School Principals, serves on the Superintendent’s Action Team for her system and has completed training as a Principal’s Coach for the Georgia School Superintendents Association.  
    Mrs. Linder feels one of her most important duties is to mentor teachers.  She plans meaningful professional learning activities for the faculty that she also attends.  “Great teachers are leaving our profession” she observed, “and many of them because of the amount of time we spend testing students and the misplaced emphasis on the results of those tests.  Between overtesting and unfunded mandates, a teacher’s job has become exponentially harder over the last several years.  A good administrator can never forget what it’s like to be a teacher, and has to truly care about her faculty professionally and personally and about her students.”  Andrea Morrow sees this commitment from Gina daily, and remarked “when I look back at my career after thirty years, I will remember her as the person who made sure I stayed in the teaching profession and who helped me determine what type of educator I would become.  She is that rare breed of administrator who maintains utter professionalism while still cultivating an element of approachability that allows us to respect her as much as we lean on her.”
    There is no higher praise.  Gina Linder is indeed making a difference in Murray County.

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