Perspectives: 6 Principals Share How They’re Preparing for the New School Year

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Verywell / Christian Alzate

For our Perspectives series, we are interviewing diverse principals from around the country on how they’re preparing for the 2021-2022 school year.

Heading back to school is always an exciting time, and even more so now that the 2021-2022 school year is shaping up to look different than previous years. Principals are just as excited to get back to "normal" as teachers, students, and parents are—and they have learned a few things regarding adaptability and flexibility in the last year.

We checked in with a diverse group of school principals from Georgia to Hawaii to see what their thoughts are as the new school year begins. They share what lessons they've learned and how they're planning on bringing joy into the 2021-2022 school year.

Jay Bland

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Verywell / Christian Alzate

Jay Bland

  • Title: Elementary school principal
  • Location: Atlanta, Georgia
  • District: Atlanta Public Schools
  • Age: 39

Do You Have a Different Mindset for the 2021–2022 School Year Than Before?

This year we are hitting restart. We learned many valuable lessons during the pandemic, one of which is that students can learn anywhere and can be successful with a computer, a solid connection, and a teacher who cares. We would be fools to collect our technology and return to the typical type of sit-and-get teaching.

This year, we are focused on personalized learning, ensuring all students are getting what they need, whether remediation for unfinished learning or acceleration for those who need it. Also, with events that have transpired across our nation within the past year and in Atlanta with regard to social justice, a greater emphasis must be placed on equity, empathy, and inclusion.

How Are You Implementing Things You Learned From the Previous Year?

We are implementing a one-to-one device model where students pre-K through fifth grade will all have individual devices. We also are starting a pre-K program. More and more studies have shown that pre-K through third grade are some of the most important years for students, primarily in regard to early learning.

We want to get our students in as young as possible to begin establishing a strong pre-K to kindergarten to third-grade continuum with aligned resources, practices and protocols. Furthermore, a continued emphasis on early literacy, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension through the O.G. multisensory approach to learning (visual, auditory, kinetic, tactile) will continue to be a focus in the 2021-22 school year.

How Are You Injecting Fun and Joy Into the School Year for Your Students and Teachers?

We are bringing back our HIVE rallies. All students are a part of a HIVE color (our mascot is the BEES!). They are given orange, green, yellow, and blue colors and work together with their colors across kindergarten through fifth grade to earn points and win the HIVE Award each quarter. We also will recognize high readers, attendance, and International Baccalaureate learner profile attributes.

Dr. Laquita Tate

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Verywell / Christian Alzate

Dr. Laquita Tate

  • Title: Elementary school principal
  • Location: Memphis, Tennessee
  • District: Shelby County Schools
  • Age: 45

Do You Have a Different Mindset for the 2021–2022 School Year Than Before?

This upcoming school year, there will be some conversations around the pandemic and how it has affected everyone. What we don't want to do is act like there wasn't some type of trauma that the world just went through. We want to acknowledge how people are feeling and address it so that we can move on to instruction.

We haven't had to do this in the past, because there hasn't been such an epidemic that has occurred since I have been in leadership. Ignoring this past school year while in a pandemic was a challenge for all, so we don't want to ignore that fact. It affected people deeply, and that has to be addressed to clear up everyone's mental capacity to move forward.

How Are You Implementing Things You Learned From the Previous Year?

My approach to 2021-22 is to just be more sensitive to the needs of my staff and families. I have a deep understanding of how this past year affected people's lives, so I want to be that understanding leader while also helping teachers stay in the work of educating children.

The subset of children that I represent is some of the more poverty-stricken neighborhoods in Memphis. They definitely face some inequalities like lack of healthcare, family dynamics, and some educational hardships. These children were already lagging behind, and then the pandemic just further widened that gap, specifically for Black and Brown children.

Our approach this year has to be very granular and focused on closing that gap within this one new school year. We have to take an all-hands-on-deck approach in order to see some upward trajectory for our scholars. We will individualize plans for each student so that we can specifically target their loss of learning. Each child will have their own intervention plan so that we can provide targeted support.

How Are You Injecting Fun and Joy Into the School Year for Your Students and Teachers?

Our school is the second state-of-the-art 21st Century School in Tennessee. A 21st Century School is an intentionally designed learning environment that is focused on the physical environment, social/emotional environment, and academic environment. The school opened during the pandemic, so we definitely have many things planned to spark joy and fun throughout the school year.

We're excited to start the school year with a block party in the next couple of weeks to get the party started. Throughout the year, scholars will earn Eagle bucks for doing the right things. Also, kids and staff will be invited to dress up in uniforms based on themes during literacy week, which will include contests for best attire.

We will have several clubs that the scholars will be allowed to participate in twice a month plus a drama club that will put on two plays for the school year. We'll also hold a pep rally put on by our majorettes and drummers, musical assemblies by our fifth-grade choir, and an end-of-year field day, plus much more!

Winston Sakurai, Ed.D

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Verywell / Christian Alzate

Winston Sakurai, Ed.D

  • Title: Upper school principal
  • Location: Kailua, Hawaii
  • District: Hawaii Department of Education
  • Age: 48

Do You Have a Different Mindset for the 2021–2022 School Year Than Before?

Yes and no. We continue to learn from our past, be hopeful for the future, and strive for the highest. Yes, we focus more on self-care, mental wellness, and compassion for others because of the pandemic.

How Are You Implementing Things You Learned From the Previous Year?

We are continuing to use new educational technologies to help students learn inside and outside of the classroom and to communicate and collaborate with our school community.

How Are You Injecting Fun and Joy Into the School Year for Your Students and Teachers?

We have done family drive-in movie nights and cohorted fun activity days. We will begin the school year with team-building activities and a trip to our local kalo [taro] patch to do a community clean-up in the mud.

Bobby Dodd 

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Verywell / Christian Alzate

Bobby Dodd

  • Title: High school principal
  • Location: Mason, Ohio
  • District: Mason City Schools
  • Age: 48

Do you have a different mindset for the 2021-2022 school year than before?

Yes. After the last school year, I know we can do things differently and offer instruction and assessments in a different way. Before last year, I wasn't sure these types of things were possible. But with the year of professional learning and development, we have been able to see changes and adjust on the fly to help teaching and learning.

How Are You Implementing Things You Learned From the Previous Year?

We are finding the benefits of it from the previous year and manipulating it so it helps this year as well. We find the benefits of the change and share with staff why we are going to continue to use it.

How Are You Injecting Fun and Joy Into the School Year for Your Students and Teachers?

We have a "Freshmen Party" for our incoming freshmen. Our first staff meeting will be a celebration with games, swag, and food. The administration creates videos to share pertinent information with staff instead of having a "traditional" staff meeting to begin the year.

Marcus Belin 

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Verywell / Christian Alzate

Marcus Belin

  • Title: High school principal
  • Location: Huntley, Illinois
  • District: Huntley Community School District
  • Age: 33

Do You Have a Different Mindset for the 2021–2022 School Year Than Before?

The pandemic has created a sense of urgency to make necessary changes to education. This is an opportunity for us to look at the positive outcomes from a pandemic year and see what we can do to move past the pandemic and into the next school year. I am excited about the opportunities we have to reset school culture, connect students back to the building, and engage in meaningful time in the learning environments that we have created.

How Are You Implementing Things You Learned From the Previous Year?

What we have learned is how important technology is to our ability to connect students and families to the school. We can Zoom with parents when needed, as opposed to just phone calls or emails to speak about students, their academics, and their social-emotional well-being. These conversations can happen more often and frequently. We also have live-streamed sports, activities, theatrical events, and more that have connected families all over the world. More families can now see the growth of their high school students even in a virtual setting.

From an academic side, we have reviewed the curriculum to make sure we are teaching what is necessary and essential for students to move to the next level. We will go deeper into the essential and necessary material. This is critical to education and helpful to kids to know what they need to learn and why.

Lastly, I have learned the importance of how grateful we need to be and how much self-care is important for all school leaders and educators. During the pandemic, it was always "go-time." Emails kept coming and changes kept happening. It was important to do what we could to recognize the mental health of staff during this time. There were many activities and random positive acts that help keep staff motivated and engaged. We highlighted the saying "You Matter," which has taken on a new spirit and is something that defines our school culture. This will live on.

How Are You Injecting Fun and Joy Into the School Year for Your Students and Teachers?

The mission is to create the best learning experience and environment for students and staff. We will continue to recognize the support that is available in the building. We will be taking time to intentionally check in on others with different activities throughout the building. This includes school assemblies that bring our school community together to celebrate accomplishments and continue to grow a strong community where all students are seen.

Dr. Tracy Vik

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Verywell / Christian Alzate

Dr. Tracy Vik

  • Title: Elementary School Principal
  • Location: Sioux Falls, S.D.
  • District: Sioux Falls School District


Do You Have a Different Mindset for the 2021–2022 School Year Than Before?

Absolutely! There were some practices that we had in place that we were doing simply because we had always done them that way. The pandemic made us rethink many processes and procedures.

How Are You Implementing Things You Learned From the Previous Year?

In the past we had students wait on the playground until the first bell rang at 7:55 a.m. when they would line up and wait for their teacher to lead them in. We had several instances of misbehavior with 650 students on the playground at one time.

This year, we opened the doors to the school at 7:30 a.m., and students could come directly in and go straight to their classrooms. The reduction in office referrals was substantial. For 2021-2022, we will open the doors at 7:40 a.m. and the students will come directly to their classrooms.

How Are You Injecting Fun and Joy Into the School Year for Your Students and Teachers?

We always start the year with a pep rally on the playground on the first day. Staff sing, play instruments, and dance to Madre Tierra. Families are welcome to join in on the fun. We missed this last year and cannot wait to bring it back!

We also have a sound system in our lunchroom and break out in song and dance often. Lunch should be a social time for the students, not a quiet time. We have a Summer Reading Challenge for students. Those who complete it get to throw water balloons at the principals, their classroom teacher, and the librarian. We try to have fun every day in a variety of different ways! I want our school to be a place that children cannot wait to go to every day!

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