L.A. educator earns national principal honor

Is it really possible to take an old neighborhood school in a tough urban/suburban area and turn it into a place of hope and learning? Can a staff really be brought together to close the achievement gap? Can one person’s relentless visionary leadership really serve as a calling to other educators to develop themselves as leaders? Can a group of people really come together and take a school with an API of 405 and lift it to 777, with expectations to move past 800 this spring?

Welcome to Plummer Elementary in North Hills, Los Angeles USD. This is a school of hope and sustained growth. Meet Angel Barrett, the principal of Plummer since 1999, and California’s 2009 National Distinguished Principal.

Now, imagine a surprise fire drill orchestrated by the district superintendent. Outside, on the playground, await community leaders, district board members and media. A thousand students who have benefited from countless academic and behavioral awards from Barrett cheer wildly when it is announced that their principal has received a very special recognition of her own. This is how LAUSD celebrates one of its own earning national honors.

Plummer is a school of just over 1,000 kids, all of whom receive free or reduced-price lunch. Almost 90 percent of the students are Latino, with a smattering of African American and Asian kids. Only 1 percent of the school population is Caucasian. In her NDP nomination papers, there is a recounting of how Barrett worked with the community a few years ago to help get rid of the “vendors” that created dangerous situations just outside the school fences.

Plummer’s trash and graffiti have been transformed into a nearly spotless campus by hundreds of community volunteers, with daily support by a great classified staff. One sees planting beds tended by students and beautiful flowering trees in colorful ceramic pots. Once an eyesore, Plummer is now a source of deep neighborhood pride.

And that’s only what one sees on the outside. Step into a classroom – any classroom – at Plummer and one finds attentive, engaged learners being served by dedicated professional educators who are members of a true professional learning community.

Since 1999, 21 teachers have studied for their administrative credential; 15 have become administrators at other district schools or at the district office. Plummer has become a place where leaders are grown and where everyone shares in the success of every student and every teacher.

This is no special magnet school. There is no special new funding. Plummer is the story of hard work by a committed group of professionals, of community-building, of dedication and visionary leadership, provided by Angel Barrett, who was determined to stay the course of growth using data, action research, and ample amounts of caring, strong values and positive attitude to get the job done.

Done? No. Part of Plummer’s success is Barrett’s cultural norm that says there is no “done.” Even today, Plummer is working to re-evaluate systems in place to sustain professional development and coaching support with budget cuts and working to structure new interventions for English learners. Is Barrett doing it alone? No, she says that she “loves to watch my staff and students grow and assume new responsibilities, and I enjoy how they brief me on their concerns and solutions as opposed to coming to me to solve a crisis.”

The National Distinguished Principal recognition program in California is co-sponsored by the Elementary Education Council of ACSA and the national affiliate, the National Association of Elementary School Principals. The annual selection of California’s K-8 NDP is made in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Education and the program’s corporate sponsor, AIG VALIC.

Since 1980, 29 principals have been honored in California as NDPs. Of these, nine are still active educational leaders. Five are still principals. Two are superintendents; one is an assistant superintendent; and one a member of the ACSA staff. All remain passionate about the principalship.

In fact, the most important qualifiers of NDP recipients is that they are outstanding examples of the very best in site leadership and that they are dedicated to the principalship. It is these past NDPs who gather each spring to select the new award winner. They know, better than anyone, what it takes to be an outstanding principal.

The task of selecting this year’s NDP for California was hard. In 2009 ACSA’s Elementary Education Council received some amazing NDP nominations. Many of the finalists were deserving, each representing a very different kind of elementary school that had soared to new heights in student achievement.

Each of these principals serves as a shining example that bright, dedicated leaders who share leadership, develop others and deeply believe in people are going to build and sustain successful schools. Angel Barrett is selected to represent them and all of California’s elementary principals in Washington, D.C. next fall, when she will receive her award from the U.S. secretary of education.