Thursday, March 25, 2010

McGilvra’s new principal says ‘I’m loving it”

Though she’d only been on the job for seven weeks, I thought it was about time for me wander down to the old school and find out what the new principal has to say about her unanticipated mid-school-year assignment. Fortunately for me, Principal McShane was a good sport when I suggested it was time for us to have a chat. And when I sat down with her earlier this month to get her impressions, I found her to be engaging, energetic, and generous with her time. She was even candid, though I still did get an occasional admonishment: “please don’t put that in your blog.”

First of all, regarding the pronunciation of her first name, Birgit. “It’s pronounced as in birdJET,” she tells me, noting that the name (it’s Danish) was always a problem for her when she was in school. She arrived in America from Denmark when she was five and was sent off to school knowing little or no English. She’s a product of the Seattle Public Schools (Roosevelt High School) and lives in Ballard with her husband in a house they’ve owned for many years. She says she doesn’t mind the commute to Madison Park, but the getting up early to head off to work was a bit of a challenge in the first few days. She’d been retired for three years when the call came from the School District: ‘Would you be willing to come back and take on the principal’s role at McGilvra?’ She said yes, and she admits to no regrets so far.

Unsurprisingly, McShane was circumspect about the circumstances under which she learned that her days of sleeping in late were over. So I didn’t press her for an answer to exactly how long before her arrival at McGilvra on Monday, January 25, she knew she would be replacing DeWanda Cook-Weaver, who had vacated the principal‘s office the previous Friday. As we reported at the time, Cook-Weaver suddenly took an extended “leave of absence” only five months into the school year—with no public goodbyes. The issue was then (and still is) a “personnel matter” that the School District is unwilling for legal reasons to discuss.

McShane told me that she is a forward-looking person and doesn’t see any reason to focus on what may have happened before she arrived at McGilvra. The school is known for having strong parental involvement, and I wondered if McShane has found that at all disconcerting. Far from it, she told me. “Parental involvement is paramount to having a successful school. In fact I don’t know how you’d do it without that support.” She noted that her experience includes taking on the principal role at Daniel Bagley Elementary, a school that at the time had only a few active parents. She said she immediately began working to change that, and by end of her tenure there she felt that the school had one of the highest levels of participation by parents of any elementary school in the City.

As for McGilvra’s parents, she says she is pleased with them and hopes they’re as pleased with her. “I believe they are happy to have an experienced principal” in the interim role, she told me. “They’ve been wonderful, very welcoming.” She said that she’s had the same reception from the teachers and staff of the school.

But it’s the kids that she is enjoying the most, she told me. She says that one of the real fun parts of the principal’s job is taking on lunch and recess duty “because I get to be with the children.” On her first day in the lunchroom, however, she said it was difficult for her to communicate with her charges because of the noise level. She solved the problem with the introduction of a P.A. system, which has really helped with the interaction. “I have fun with it—and I hope that they are having fun with it as well.”

After seven weeks has she discovered anything that has shocked her about McGilvra? “Nothing at all,” she told me, adding “but I usually don’t get shocked.” She did say, however, that the intensity of parent involvement could have been shocking to someone who had not already experienced something like it in a previous position. She commented that she began her career as a Head Start teacher, and parents are highly involved with their children’s education under that model. With that background, she said, she’s developed a philosophy about being successful that starts with the idea that “parent involvement is not a threat.” What a teacher—or a principal—needs to do with parents, she noted, is “build trust.”

I asked PTA co-President Bob Steedman what the parents’ reaction to McShane is after her first few weeks on the job. “We’re enjoying her being here,” he said, noting that the parents have found her to be personable, professional, and very approachable. “She really took the bull by the horns” when she arrived, he told me. “She communicates well and has already resolved a lot of issues that we were having.”

Steedman reports that the teachers and staff of McGilvra seem to really like McShane, especially because she listens and then acts on their concerns. He also gives her solid marks on discipline. In his view, McShane knows how to lay down the law as principal, making the rules and expecting the students to follow them. “But the kids really respect her.”

Steedman’s bottom line on McShane: “She’s great, she really is. I wish she could stay.”

But that’s not in the cards. McShane is officially retired under the State teacher pension system and could not remain on “active duty” into the next school year. When she took on the “interim” principal role, McShane expected it might be an assignment of only a few weeks. Sometime before I interviewed her, however, she said she got a call from the School District in which “I was invited to stay” through the end of the school year. She said that she and the District agreed that she's a “good match” with McGilvra.

The process is now underway, however, to pick a principal for the new school year. A committee appointed by staff and the Building Leadership Team (BLT), composed of teachers, parents, and staff, will advise the District on the new hire. That role will include interviewing the candidates and recommending some of them to the Superintendent. McShane told me that while it is probably not impossible that a principal from another Seattle school could be a candidate, it is more likely that the candidates will be from outside the District or Seattle assistant principals or head teachers who hold principal credentials. The process is expected to last into April.
Will McShane be sad when it’s all over? She’s not saying, but I suspect it will be a regretful departure on both sides. “I love the action of being in school” she told me, “and I feel I can still offer something. McGilvra’s a wonderful place in which to work."

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