What A Principal Does When He Can’t Micromanage
It’s 4:03 p.m. School’s out, and the halls are quiet. Still, the principal with the freshly undone tie is stationed in his leather chair. Dozens of documents are strewn across his desk. Three disciplinary action slips sit on the top of the pile awaiting his signature. With his bottle of water in his right hand and its top being twirled around his left-hand fingers, he looks at his ringing office phone.
“Unless this is my wife, I’m not answering,” he said.
It wasn’t his wife, but he answered. He and the person on the phone began discussing the Powerpoint to be presented at the next staff meeting. Clearly, Dr. Robbie Hooker days as Clarke Central High School’s principal do not end at the sound of the last bell.
Hooker’s addition to Clarke Central has led to noticeable improvements over his five-year tenure. Since 2008, Clarke Central’s academic performance, graduation rates, AP offerings, and attendance rates have improved. The school has also gained national attention and respect. And most recently in February, Dr. Hooker received the Principal of The Year Award, an honor given by the Georgia Association of Secondary School Principals. However, Dr. Hooker refuses to take responsibility for all or even most of the school’s recovery. He says the teachers did it. What he takes credit for is teaching the teachers how to teach students.
“I am a person who is about empowering teachers,” he said. “I do not micromanage. I can’t micromanage. I try to empower teachers so they can empower students.”
Tactics he uses to empower teachers include telling them to be creative and to reevaluate lesson plans if the students are not engaged. He pushes teachers to take responsibility for the outcome of their classrooms, a process he admits took time and hardness on his part.
“I’m hard. And I admit to that, but now I have the right people here teaching,” he said. They no longer come here thinking it’s going to be an easy job; because they’re working with poor kids, they can just do what they want to. They know they have to challenge students.”
What he is referring to when he says “they no longer come here” are the six to eight teachers that left during Hooker’s first two years. He came with a new perspective and morale that he wanted to be implemented immediately: “Teach to all students.”
“The stats will show that only the AP students were getting the education. The on-level students were not being challenged, they were given worksheets to do,” he said. “We’ve got to educate and cater to all students no matter what their address says, no matter if they live in the hood or in Five Points; we must treat them all the same.”
Hooker became proactive in obtaining new teachers. He changed the hiring and evaluation process for faculty. Before, teachers were hired after application and an interview during the summer. Now, teachers apply, interview during the summer, observe classes, and present lessons to staff members.
Hooker explains that this technique helps him find worthy teaching candidates. “When you interview in the summer, there’s nobody in the building,” he said. “We can tell you the demographics but we want you to walk the halls and see what our schools are like before you come so three days later you won’t walk out the door and say ‘I can’t do this.’”
The end result of such changes is a staff that collaborates to do what is best for the students, a staff that comes ready to work with a population that is 58 percent African American, 20 percent white, 17 percent Hispanic, and 76 percent free and reduced lunch.
It only helped that Hooker previously taught at and served as an administrator at a feeder middle school, so he knew a huge population of the students before they came. He said they knew his expectations and that he tolerated no nonsense. So what has visually changed over the years?
In the past years and before someone could walk in a class and see five or six heads down on the desk while a teacher’s lecturing. No one would see that anymore because his teachers do not tolerate it. Moreover, he does not tolerate it from his teachers.
“A lot of time if you have behavioral problems in a class it’s because you don’t have a lesson plan. So they’re gonna sit there and play because you don’t engage them,” he said. “You have to have a lesson plan and if that one doesn’t work then try something different.”
Another technique he uses for his teachers is to show them their class data, making them evaluate and assess themselves before he does. He wants them to know that if 60 percent of the students are failing, then it is not the students’ fault.
Bill Ruma, Principal of Commerce Middle School and District L Coordinator for GASSP agrees that such practices by Hooker led Clarke Central to their success.
“It takes a team of committed individuals to positively move a school forward, one individual cannot do it,” he said. A leader is able to focus the vision for the school, move people to follow this path, and remove the obstacles that will arise during the change process. Dr. Hooker has done this.
But exactly has what Dr. Hooker done? In the recent years, the top awards amongst Clarke Central’s many earned were a ranking by The Washington Post as a top 7 percent high school, Advanced Placement Honor School distinction, and an honor as one of the 10 Breakthrough High Schools nationally.
When asked which honor he is most proud of, Hooker said the Breakthrough Award, an award that recognizes 10 middle and high schools that serve a large population of students living in poverty but are still high-achieving.
“Now, other folks across the nation are seeing that even though our students are impoverished, they can still learn,” he said in reference to the award.
Despite all his successes, there are still problems that cannot be denied amongst the Clarke Central family. The school did not make AYP, a measure of yearly progress, last year because they failed their second indicator and lacked a noticeable increase in graduation rates from 2010 to 2011.
When asked about the biggest challenges he faces, Hooker said it would have to be the freshman and their apathy. However, this apathy is better described as a false sense of reality. “They think they can come in from middle school to high school and do the same thing. They think they can come in at the last minute of the semester and turn in 40 missing assignments and that a teacher will grade it. That’s not going to happen,” Hooker said.
Taylor McClain, a junior at Clarke Central attests to Hooker’s claims. She says she most regrets her Freshmen days.
“I didn’t get organized right away. I missed a lot of assignments. Tried to skip class. I earned 3 C’s Freshman year and failed a class,” McClain said.
McClain has not failed a class since Freshman year, but still experiences backlash from those bad grades. “They bring my GPA down. Like, without those grades my GPA would be high enough for me to do dual enrollment at UGA, but now I can’t,” she said. “And I probably won’t even apply to Georgia because of my GPA.”
Hooker said that in fixing this Freshman issue he encourages teachers to build bonds with students. When the students trusts the teachers and see that teachers care about them, they are more prompt to do as teachers ask and advise. After this trust is gained, the staff can began pushing students to challenge themselves. An example Hooker used was how he challenges his African-American males to apply to UGA. He believes such motivation has helped Clarke Central’s four African-American males were accepted into UGA this year.
McClain explained how she made a turnaround from her failing Freshman year. “I started listening more to what others were saying. Teachers saw potential in me and pushed me until I got it together,” she said.
This push is what Hooker is striving to make consistent in his school. He says that he measures his success partly through the bonds he witnesses form between his staff and students—relationships that he considers key to success.
The rest of his success is measured, not through his most recent honor, but instead through the potential he watches expand in his student body.
“To watch a child come in with a troubled mind that just doesn’t care and four years later watch him walk across the stage—that’s the meaning behind it all,” Hooker said. “To see students not give up and to see them challenge themselves. That’s great!”