Manager. Caregiver. Instructional coach. Mountain biker.
These are the parts that make the whole of Jenny Passchier, Colorado’s Principal of the Year.
Passchier, who was recognized last spring by the Colorado Association of School Executives, leads Aurora Public Schools’ Crawford Elementary in the Original Aurora neighborhood. When Passchier arrived at Crawford in 2013, the school had been on the state’s academic watch list for three years.
Last year, thanks in part to an improved culture and a focus on writing and other standards-based lessons, Crawford posted the highest gains on the state’s annual tests of any school in Aurora. And the school staved off state intervention.
In an interview last month, Chalkbeat spoke with Passchier about the evolving job description of a school principal, how she improved scores at Crawford, and the challenges of teaching refugee students — all while avoiding burnout. The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
What has changed about the role of the principal during the course of your career? Why has that shift happened?
There’s been a shift from a management role to that of an instructional leader. My job is to be with teachers in the classroom on a daily basis, helping them with plans, looking at student data. I really have a big role with instruction. I need to know where kids are at and know how I’m going to help build my staff’s content knowledge.
The role of the principal, it’s still the glue of the school. The principal really builds the mission and vision with the community and provides support for whatever the kids need, whatever the staff needs, whatever the community needs.
And the principal is so much more active in the community. For my staff, they really see me as a partner in their work. So they can come to me and I can help them with looking at data or planning a lesson. They don’t see me as a big authority — or at least, I hope they don’t see me that way.
With that shift can come burnout, and research shows that principals — especially those in turnaround schools — are leaving at faster and faster rates. You’ve been at Crawford for three years. That’s probably about average for Colorado. How do you maintain work-life balance?
That’s definitely a challenge. But we have to model a balance. It’s building the capacity of the staff. We all share the work. We know we have to be healthy people outside of school. If you’re not a healthy administrator or teacher you’re not going to be healthy for your kid.
We try to find creative ways to be more productive during the day so we’re not spending a lot of extra time. We try hard to be smart and strategic and focus so we’re not talking on a lot of extra stuff that doesn’t further our mission and vision.
I’m a big mountain biker. Recently, I’ve taken up paddleboarding. I walk the dog and run every morning at 5 a.m. to get the ideas going and stress down. That’s why I come to work sometime with bruises.
You were named principal of the year because of Crawford’s test scores and turnaround in culture. How did you do that work?
The first thing was creating a strong staff culture where they knew me. I took time to get to know the staff and for them to get to know me as well.
A strategic move that I didn’t think would have a lot of impact, but did, was we created this social contract as a staff. We talked about how we treat each other as professionals. We came up with commonalities. And we talked about what would happen if someone broke that social contract. And it’s really been a living document. The staff was really open to learning. But when you make big changes, sometimes conflict can arise. So we needed to have that contract to focus as a staff.
The second strategic move was having clearly defined goals. We were very transparent. We made sure all the learning we did as a staff and in the classroom was aligned to those goals. It kept teachers with a laser-like focus. We focused on math our first year. Teachers found the planning so helpful it automatically went to all the other content areas as well.
We also have a big cultural focus. Something new this year is community circles. That’s for kids to get to know their teacher and one another, to really build as a community. We have such a strong staff that builds such a strong relationship with our kids. We know our kids aren’t going to sit through a lesson if there is no relationship built. We have to build those relationships with kids so they’re going to want to perform for you and themselves.
Colorado classrooms have been required to follow new standards, which include the Common Core, since 2013. What does it mean for teaching to be “standards-based” and how have you helped your team to make the transition?
What we do is take standards and identify clearly what students need to know and be able to do. We talk about how do you facilitate that learning. We identify what proficiency looks like. We decide how we’re going to assess our students. And then we ask ourselves what are going to do if the kids didn’t get it. And if they did get it, how can we push them further?
The standards themselves can be pretty meaty. There’s a lot of learning in each. So we identify the verbs. That’s really going to tell you the level of rigor. “Identify” versus “analyze.” That really tells the teacher the level the student has to be at. Those two verbs mean different things. Then we look at the nouns. If you look at the standards holistically, you miss the little pieces.
We have the Common Core standards. But they don’t tell you how to teach. We like to take into consideration the kids’ interests and what motivates them around those standards. We can determine the context we put those standards in to motivate them.
What are you expecting from the release of PARCC data? And what have you done, if anything, to prepare your teachers for the lower scores that schools are likely to post?
Now that we’ve seen the PARCC, it’s good to know how those standards are going to be assessed. So, we’re making some changes in our instruction.
We’re hoping our proficiency maintains. And I think we’ll just continue to see gains now that students are getting used to taking tests on the computer.
When the data comes in, it is what it is. We’ve taught to the standards the best we knew how before we saw that assessment. The results are going to give us information about how to better our instruction to meet the levels of those standards. We’ll just be really transparent with it. If it comes in as a challenge, we’ll take it head on.
The work we’ve done around standards-based education would happen regardless if we had these high-stakes tests or not. We’re always going to want to know what students should know and be able to do at each grade level.
Crawford is likely to be one of the first schools to be part of Aurora’s first innovation zone. Why are you interested in innovation status, why is it a scary term to some who think it might be an excuse to weaken teachers unions or add more tests?
We’ve identified some barriers here at our school that we believe innovation would address. For example, we’re really interested at looking at our school day differently so our kids get more opportunities for learning. We have a different population and different needs. We’d like to do some out-of-the-box thinking to address those needs.
Our commitment is we won’t do anything that doesn’t align with our mission and vision. As a staff, we’ve identified our three major strategies. And we ask: In a perfect world what would help our major improvement strategies, help our students, help our community? Nothing has come up that has been controversial. We’re in this as a whole team. We’ve been in this as a whole team. I don’t think we’ll do anything to create [teacher] turnover. We don’t want to lose them. We just want some better structures in place to serve our kids better.
What is the biggest challenge that Crawford faces and that you face as its principal?
One thing I continue to learn as a principal is how to effectively involve your families especially when you work in a school where 33 different languages are spoken. They have to feel welcomed and supported.
We have a community meeting tomorrow. We have six different “big” languages. It used to just be English and Spanish. Now it’s English, Spanish, Burmese, Nepali, Somali, and Karenni. And we have had some French lately.
We really have to strengthen our instruction: How do you meet the needs of newcomers who may have come from a county who doesn’t use an alphabetic system? Some of our student have never been in a school setting before. How do we quickly help them learn about American schools and just function — where the bathroom is.
Policy makers should understand we serve a very unique population. Looking at our school day, our kids need more learning opportunities than some other kids do and funding for different staffing for the unique needs we have here. We have to translate everything. And when 25 percent of your students are refugees, they have unique social and emotional needs. Not all schools are the same. So, how do we differentiate that funding support?
What advice do you have for new principals that might be serving schools similar to Crawford?
No. 1: Take time to get to know your entire school community — the students, families, the staff.
Take an honest look at your data. And look at what are some of those high-leverage things to move the school.
For example, my first year we had three goals. And we stayed focused on those. As a new principal you may see lots of things, but you really need to stay strategic on what will move the students and staff the most.