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A Principal Experience: Key Takeaways from Sennett Middle School

Last week I had the incredible opportunity to shadow a principal for Madison Metropolitan School District’s A Principal Experience Program. I spent my day at Sennett Middle School on the east side of Madison, Wisconsin where I shadowed Dr. Tremayne Clardy, a talented principal who viewed each and every student as a “Sennett Scholar” and was revered by both staff and students. By the end of my morning shift, I had concluded one thing: Sennett Middle School is a fantastic example of an inclusive school focused on college and career readiness, and I was inspired by the work they do. Below I’ve listed 4 groundbreaking ways in which Sennett Middle School is challenging the status quo in K12.

Starting the Day with a Focus

Dr. Clardy had us jump into our day quickly. First period was homeroom where students discussed and practiced team building, inclusion, and sportsmanship skills. A large component of Sennett Middle School’s focus is not only on academic achievement, but on the social-emotional health and success of students. Sennett is a Positive Behavioral Support school, which is a school that focuses on social and emotional learning, community building activities, and restorative practices for students.

The activity of the morning was playing Silent Ball, an activity that required students to stay quiet as a ball was passed sporadically between classmates in a circle. This activity stood out to me right away because it required students to be alert and ready to accept a pass from the other, but without the use of language. At a school where a third of the students are English language learners and 75% of students come from a minority, this activity allowed them to achieve a goal and complete tasks without a language or cultural barrier. And students took that task very seriously. Even as we peeked our heads in multiple classrooms in to say hello, not a word was peeped and not a single ball dropped.

An Emphasis on Technology and Usage

After the bell rang and students settled into their second period (which, by the way, was an incredible feat to see — 600 students transferring classes, sometimes up and down flights of stairs), I was taken to different classrooms to see lessons in math, English, and science. I noticed right away that each student had a Chromebook open on their desk, and lessons were pulled up on a projector at the front of the room. Every teacher had their projector on and were using some form of an outline for that lesson, a digital tool that children would be using that day, or notes. I noticed how well these teachers navigated the technology and how respectful and on-task the students were with their devices.

When I asked how long ago the rollout had been for the Chromebooks, Dr. Clardy told me it had only been a year. I was astounded — most technological rollouts in schools have taken years, but this timeline seemed almost unbelievable. I asked Dr. Clardy what his secret was, and he said practice. He told me that the school gave the students backpacks so they could practice walking around with their devices, as some of these students don’t have access to technology at home and were new to handling devices. The school also put a strong emphasis on professional development for staff on using the new technology and provided both school and district resources for teachers to learn new skills with their digital tools. It showed.

Inclusion and Immersion

After visiting a dozen classrooms, a teacher turned to me and pointed to a group of students working. “Did you know that over half of that group is ESL?” I looked at her incredulously as the students chatted with one another and pointed to different things on their Chromebook screens. She explained to me that Sennett Middle School was a Dual Language and ESL Immersion School. Over 30% of the students at Sennett are English Language Learners, and another 20% are students with disabilities. Sennett’s framework for the classroom doesn’t separate these learners and instead brings students together with the support of additional staff.

I had noticed there was more than one teacher in the classroom, but I realized quickly that the extra staff served a valuable purpose. One teacher signed the lesson that the main teacher was dictating to two students who were deaf, and another teacher worked closely with a group of students who were actively learning English. These students worked in groups, but weren’t separated by their unique situations, and instead were mixed in along with traditional students. What surprised me the most was that I never would have guessed if this teacher hadn’t told me. There were no distractions, no hold ups, and these students accepted one another’s diversity as the norm.

AVID, College Preparation and Career Readiness

College banners decorate the halls of Sennett Middle School, and although many students come from high-poverty families and parents who never had the opportunity to attend college themselves, preparing for the future is the standard. I heard Dr. Clardy ask a number of students if they had decided on a school yet or had considered what they’d want to study someday. I know when I was in middle school, I never had even considered college, but 6th grade students answered him with ease. Some students aspired to go to the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Others aspired to go to Madison Area Technical College. Dr. Clardy explained to me that even though their parents may not have had the opportunity to attend college, it didn’t mean that these students couldn’t go, and that each class was specifically designed to help prepare students for their future.

Another option that the school offered was AVID, a program that helps prepare for college and career readiness, especially for students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds. I learned that any student can apply to be in AVID, but the program is designed for students who come from homes where they may be the first to go to college in their families. I also learned that AVID was not a supplemental program. Students went through a rigorous application process, and if selected, had additional work on top of their main coursework to help prepare them for higher education. The payoff for students is huge, however, as they have the opportunity to tour multiple college campuses during the year and receive guidance from the program teachers on how to prepare their academic and extracurricular resume for college.

The Principal Experience program was one that I was grateful to undertake, as it allows me as an outsider to experience a typical day in K12 education. For us at Filament Games, it helps us understand how we can create the most effective game-based learning experiences and connect with students and teachers. Many districts across the US offer similar programs, so if you’re interested in working with schools in your community, contact your local school district to learn more.


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