When asked to open Haymon-Morris Middle School in Winder, GA, in 2005, Sheila Kahrs (right) accepted the offer without reservation and immediately got to work setting a bar of high expectations and even higher aspirations. She brought a vision of shared leadership on board as well as the belief that every student deserves a quality education, regardless of socioeconomic background. Over half of the school’s students receive free- or reduced-price lunch and the school has a high transient population. However, despite those considerable challenges, Haymon-Morris is consistently high-performing.
Kahrs’ astute belief in shared leadership drives her to engage teachers in every aspect of decision making. Teachers sit in on interviews and help make hiring decisions; experienced teachers mentor first-year teachers, which has improved retention; and a leadership team participates in weekly advisory group meetings to discuss curriculum, instruction, and assessment and make “value-driven, data-informed” decisions.
All major plans are discussed and shared with the advisory council of parents, business partners, and teachers at monthly advisory meetings. “The input from the council is valued and critical to our community outreach,” Kahrs notes, and the feedback received from those meetings is used to set and evaluate goals for the school.
In effect, the motivating force behind every decision made in the school is hinged on what’s best for the students. To support the strong bond necessary between students and teachers, Kahrs conducts an advisor/advisee program every month in which students explore age-appropriate topics with another adult who is not their teacher. The students loop with the teachers through their three years so they are well-known by at least one adult during that time. Add that to the school’s mentor program that pairs individual students with community members, parents, and business partners, and it’s easy to see why students feel closely connected to Haymon-Morris.
Clearly, Kahrs’ students are given every opportunity to succeed. All students are afforded 10 minute power-up recesses daily. To provide additional help in math and English, Kahrs organized a tutoring program, driven and taught by teachers, that takes place every morning before school. Students are further enriched by the school’s sustained silent reading program.
One of the most effective interventions spearheaded by Karhs are the one-on-one meetings she sets up with each student and their teacher who earns a 70 or below in any subject on a progress report or grading period. Those conversations have led to a marked increase in subjects passed by seventh- and eighth-grade students, in addition to schoolwide improvement in standardized tests.
To celebrate Haymon-Morris’s diverse student population, Kahrs deemed February Multicultural Learning Month, a time in which all cultures are represented with food and customs, and families are invited to join in on the celebration. World maps are highlighted throughout the school to help with student self-identity. To go one step further, the school purchases materials for parents in multiple languages to educate them about the unique middle school learner. Diversity is also celebrated in the classroom. One of the school’s core philosophies—to provide a curriculum that “reflects a commitment to equity, respects diversity, and elicits excellence from every student”—is proudly displayed on its Web site.
Kahrs knows that to offer the most rigorous and relevant education for her students, she has to challenge herself to grow on a daily basis. A lifelong learner, she stays abreast of the latest trends and research in education by reading journals and books and regularly attending and presenting at regional and national educational conferences. She is also an adjunct professor of Supervision and Curriculum in the Educational Leadership Department of the University of Georgia, a position that allows her to constantly brush up on her own leadership skills while sharing her experiences with up-and-coming leaders.
Kahrs is no stranger to paying it forward when it comes to the mentorship and support of others. Both of her former assistant principals are now leading their own schools, and several other teachers and staff are enrolled in leadership development programs. As one teacher put it, Kahrs is a “persistent proponent of professional growth.”
Staff members are guaranteed 90 minutes of common planning time each day and are required to meet daily as a team, meet with parents as a team, and structure all exams together so students have a common assessment in each subject per grade level. Kahrs designed the schoolwide leadership team around grade-level coordinators, which provided an ideal structure for vertical teaming.
To keep staff members connected to the latest research and education literature, Kahrs developed a shared reading program. During the summer, she assigns reading to staff members that is discussed and “acted on” in the fall. The writings are frequently quoted by the teachers, and the mantra often repeated by the staff, “Whatever it Takes” (DeFour, et al), emerged from one of those assignments. In fact, “whatever it takes” could be considered the foundation of Kahrs’ leadership style, as she often encourages her teachers to adopt the same no-frills, do-what’s-best-for-the-students attitude. NL
Photo by Mark Finkenstaedt.