Successful school leadership means setting high standards and ensuring every child has the opportunity to excel. One leader who sets that vision for her entire school community is Michele Derus, ACSA’s 2012 Elementary Co-Administrator of the Year.
“It is my vision that high expectations are set, not only for me but for my entire staff and for our students,” she said. “It is my belief that all students can succeed no matter what economic or emotional difficulties have befallen them, and I see it as my duty that this goal is met. Students are my first priority and the educational opportunities that are offered to all students are of the highest standards possible.”
Derus, who had been assistant principal at Eastvale Elementary School in Corona-Norco USD since 2008 and was just named principal, said it is her responsibility and duty to model actions that put students first. She said living core values of being a servant leader and modeling it on a daily basis is key to a successful school system.
“Personal excellence is a bar that has been set not only for me but for the students and school community,” she said. “Everyone is responsible for academic and social growth – school, child and family.”
In fact, Derus said her favorite part of this job is being able to interact with all of the students, teachers and parents. She said knowing she can make a difference in the lives of students gives her a great sense of accomplishment and pride.
“It doesn’t matter what kind of mood I am in on my way to work. When I arrive on our campus and students come up to me and say, ‘Good morning’ or ‘Hello Mrs. Derus,’ I can’t help but feel good and smile while shaking their hands. That feeling that I am where I need to be and where my talents are best put to use is very rewarding.”
Derus said she is always looking for ways to meet the needs of students and find creative ways to increase their levels of learning. For example, Eastvale is located next to an intermediate and high school, so Derus launched a cross-age peer tutoring program. In just three years, the number of participants more than doubled, and many teachers feel the tutors are vital to reaching struggling students.
“Being able to take advantage of older students mentoring our students has been invaluable,” Derus said.
Derus’ efforts have paid off, as the school reached a 926 API last year and is the highest-achieving school in the district. In addition, the district was nominated for the Broad Prize for Urban Education, which honors school districts working hard to close the achievement gap.
“A school doesn’t get that kind of success unless everyone is committed to excellence,” Derus said. “The teachers I work with are so dedicated and really care about the success of each student.”
Like most school administrators, Derus said one of the greatest challenges to the job is dealing with massive budget cuts. The district and school have been forced to make sacrifices due to having less to spend on education, with the goal of keeping those cuts as far away from the classroom as possible, a mission that isn’t sustainable long-term.
“Teachers are stressed about teaching all the standards in a shorter amount of time since we have had to take furlough days, and parents worry that class sizes will continue to increase, limiting the individual attention their children will have,” Derus said. “We live in stressful times, but I feel that I must stay positive and assure them that we can still provide an excellent education for all of our students.”
Amy Shainman, principal of Norco Elementary School, said Derus is known as a natural leader and child advocate who supports the school team to ensure high student achievement.
“Whatever the need, Mrs. Derus takes the initiative to assist all stakeholders in identification of the opportunity or challenge, and teachers are responsive to her side-by-side leadership style that propels the group forward – and forward together,” she wrote in a nomination letter.
Derus said there was little doubt she would end up in education, and she spent 25 years in the classroom before taking her first administrative position in 2006. She said she truly enjoys being around children and working with them to not only help them grow in learning but to feel good about themselves. She said she wanted to be that one constant in their lives when many times their worlds were falling apart, and remembers the teachers she had as a child who made a difference in her life.
“My goal has always been to be able to reach and touch many people’s lives and have a bigger impact in the field of education,” she said. “As an administrator I can lead change in school culture to make our school a place where all children have value, feel safe and can learn. To me that is the best job in the world.”
Derus will be honored along with all of ACSA’s 2012 Administrators of the Year during the Leadership Summit, Nov. 8-10 in San Diego. To register, visit www.acsa.org/leadershipsummit. Access photos of award recipient at www.flickr.com/photos/acsaevents.