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Building Administrators Making a Difference for Public Education in Georgia - Elizabeth Anderson

    Dr. Anderson received a letter last week from one of her 4th graders.  Shyla wrote “I think that now we are under new leadership we should have a new fierce mascot, like something that describes a warrior’s bravery.  What I had in mind was Timberwolves...I know that Timberwolves would suit the school and the Warrior Way.  Timberwolves would represent our school by letting everyone know that we are all in a pack, just like wolves. We’re all in this together.  No one stands alone in this school!...(Timberwolves) are fast learners.  So are our little warriors.”
    Don’t think for a minute that kids don’t notice what happens when the culture in a school begins to change.  They usually know it before the adults do. W.L. Swain Elementary is in the little town of Plainville in Gordon County in northwestern Georgia.  The population of the town is 313, and students come from the town and the surrounding area.  There are 500 students in grades Pre-K through 5, and 73% of them participate in the Free/Reduced Lunch program.  Swain has 65 faculty and staff members.  Elizabeth Anderson was recruited 23 years ago by Superintendent David McCloud after she graduated from Georgia Southern with a degree in Early Childhood Education and has been in Gordon County ever since.  She initially taught Special Education at Ashworth Middle, earned a Master’s Degree in 1999 and an Educational Specialist degree in Leadership in 2004. Elizabeth was transferred to Belwood Elementary in 2000 and was named the school’s Teacher of the Year and Gordon County’s Teacher of the Year in 2004.  She served as AP at Red Bud Elementary and Sonoraville, completed her Ed. D. in Educational Administration and was named Principal of Sonoraville Elementary in 2010.  Dr. Susan Remillard, Superintendent of Gordon County Schools, transferred Elizabeth to Swain Elementary to serve as Principal in 2013.  She said “Dr. Anderson saw a school in need of direction; a school with so much potential; a school filled with eager, intelligent minds waiting for a chance to shine.  With all of her ambition, drive, heart and soul she jumped in with both feet, and W. L. Swain set its course to become a place “Where Learning Shapes Extraordinary Students.”  I knew without a doubt that she would be successful in leading Swain on a path to success.  She is a change agent with a vision for the how and why.  She is an advocate for all children.  She places value on professional growth opportunities designed to improve teacher efficacy and raise achievement while advancing the mission of the system.  She is an extraordinary educator who achieves amazing results.”
    Teachers and parents agree that Dr. Anderson is making a difference in the culture of the school.  Teacher Beverly Holland noted “Dr. Anderson has taken us from a culture of teachers working individually but not united.  She has visually improved the school using volunteers (including her own family) and teachers to make it a more welcoming atmosphere for stakeholders and students.  Teachers have a protected, collaborative planning time, in-house professional development, thought-out scheduling for every event, an explicit emergency plan that is practiced faithfully, incentives for students, unique fund raising events and, most importantly, the security of knowing we have a knowledgeable captain in charge of the ship.”  Parent Amy Holmes stated “Dr. Anderson is a visible administrator that provides strong leadership, structure and a celebration of student and teacher successes.  She has invited the community to be a part of the school and started a reading bowl that involved students and parents from all over the county.  She sends out a parent link every Sunday afternoon informing parents of the activities for the coming week, started a soccer camp for our kids run by high school students and has made it clear that parents and people from the town are welcome at Swain Elementary.  She has found new resources for technology, the curriculum and even found a way to buy new music for the chorus.”  Teacher Noreen Queen noted “Teachers know now that the expectations and the focus are on students and instruction.  We are receiving professional learning regularly and are expected to implement what we learn.  We know that she will be in every classroom every day, she knows every student’s name and parents are starting to make requests to move their children to Swain from other schools.  Wow!  I’ve never seen that in the 23 years I have been teaching here.”
    The PAGE High School Redesign Initiative also includes elementary schools, and focuses on teaching teachers to move away from the traditional emphasis on student conformity, lecture and worksheets and toward the goal of providing challenging work that engages students in the learning process.  The program is provided free of charge to participating schools with no requirements for membership in PAGE for participants, and teaches teachers to share what they learn with their colleagues within their own schools and within their school system.  Ricky Clemmons is the Director of HSRI, and said “My first thought about Dr. Anderson is 'class.'  She has it and you can spot it a mile away.  She is committed to doing the right thing for students, and the things she does an an administrator begin and end with doing what is best for students.  She is the lead learner for her faculty, and has a true understanding of what it means to transform a school, build capacity with her staff, develop and nurture teachers, build community support and provide a clear direction and focus for all who are served by her school.  Her ego never gets in the way of doing what is best for kids.”  Assistant HSRI Director Judy Henry agrees.  “Elizabeth is not a warm and fuzzy Principal who joins arms, sways and sings Kum-Ba-Yah with others.  She is goal oriented and has the communication skills to encourage others to stretch beyond what they believe they can do.  Returning classroom decisions to teachers is one of her secrets to success.  In Elizabeth’s school a tremendous amount of vertical and horizontal communication needed to be established.  She said that her work at Sonoraville Elementary prepared her for what needed to be done at Swain.  A wise woman, indeed.”
    Elizabeth hires new teachers based on character.  “I craft questions that will draw out their character in the interview.  You can teach a willing person with a dedicated curriculum, but it’s difficult to instill character in an adult.  I want teachers who have a passion to be the best and intrinsically raise the bar for themselves.  Those are the teachers that will do professional learning on their own and challenge themselves to be the best.”  She believes that effective administration requires vision, strong communication skills, excellent listening skills, solid instructional practices and trustworthiness.  “In order for a school to grow there must be a vision of where we will be in 5 years.  You have to be able to communicate that vision to stakeholders and a wide variety of groups.  Principals must also be a part of professional learning and understand solid instructional practices in order to have meaningful conversations and provide targeted feedback.  Our stakeholders must know without a doubt that we have our students’ best interests in all of our actions.”  She also mentioned that leaders should never ask teachers to do anything they wouldn’t do themselves.  “I have morning and afternoon duty right along with them” she said.  “I am extremely organized and always let them know what is coming in advance.  I make sure teachers have time to teach and not get bogged down with duties and activities.  I create an atmosphere where teachers can teach and students can learn.”
    Dr. Anderson suggests that the current evaluation instrument for Georgia teachers be modified.  “I wish it didn’t mandate I be in the best teachers’ classrooms as much as those of teachers that struggle and need more support.  The current instrument is basically a one-size-fits-all, and there is just not enough time to get in there and support those that need it most.  It is frustrating.”  She also said she would like to sit down with Governor Deal and Arne Duncan and tell them that educators are not the problem and blaming educators is not the solution.  “Politicians need to listen to educators and put funding back into our schools for our students.  I would enjoy the opportunity to sit at a table with them to help focus on solutions and not on blaming teachers.”  She likes the fact that her school is the heart of the Plainville community.  “Our school has struggled in the past.  This year our school has seen incredible growth.  The community support for our school has been tremendous, and I believe they are cheering for us.  I am planted in my community and believe in the students I serve.  I do not want limits on them because they are from a small town.  I want them to bloom and achieve what they set their minds to do.  The sky's the limit.”
    Her favorite story is that of the starfish, where a man walking along the beach notices his friend picking up starfish stranded by a receding tide and throwing them one by one back into the ocean.  “What are you doing?” the man asked his friend.  “Throwing starfish back into the ocean” was his reply.  “The sun is coming up and the tide is going out.  If I don’t throw them back in they’ll die.”  The man said “don’t you realize there are thousands and thousands of starfish on the miles and miles of this beach?  You can’t possibly make a difference.”  His friend picked up another starfish and threw it into the water.  “I made a difference for that one” he said.  The man learned a valuable lesson that day, and began helping his friend throw starfish back into the ocean, making a difference for those that he could.  Elizabeth Anderson is making a difference for kids and for the community in Plainville at W.L.Swain Elementary School.  I hope they take Shyla’s advice.  I think Timberwolves would be a wonderful mascot for a school that is teaching kids to learn fast and to help each other succeed.  Dr. Anderson is making a difference for the students and community at W.L. Swain Elementary.  She would be the perfect Leader of the Pack.

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