This is the second article in a four-part series on high-achieving local elementary schools and the principals who manage them. Reporter Diana Matthews spent a day observing and asking questions on each of four campuses. The first article covered Janet Hedrick, principal of Acme/Delco Elementary School. Jared Worthington of Edgewood Elementary School is featured today. Future stories will introduce Dale Norris of Guideway Elementary School and Ronna Gore at Old Dock.
“Being a principal is like opening 1,047 tabs on the internet at one time,” says Jared Worthington of Whiteville’s Edgewood Elementary School.
“The toughest part is that I get pulled in lots of directions putting out fires. You can lose the big picture that way.”
Like all of the outstanding principals interviewed for this series, Worthington praises his “awesome teacher leaders,” many of whom have been at the school much longer than he has.
“When teachers come to Edgewood, they stay. They learn how the school breathes, and they’re the ones who keep its pulse going. Mrs. Parker’s been at Edgewood since October 2, 1982.
“Now, I’m supposedly her boss, but am I going to interfere with what’s been working all that time? No, my job is to get out of her way, and get rid of anything that’s prohibiting her, and let her be the master teacher she is. That’s when good things happen in the classroom.”
End-of-grade tests showed EES students making significant growth between 2016 and 2017. At the school board meeting where those results were announced, Worthington gave credit not only to his school’s hard-working teachers but also to the teachers at Whiteville Primary School. Unlike the three county schools featured in this series, Edgewood comprises only grades three through five, not kindergarten (or pre-K) through five.
PUTTING OUT FIRES
On Monday, Dec. 4, EES third graders are taking another test, observed by outside visitors from the state Department of Public Instruction. Worthington has ordered biscuits and orange juice for the teachers and helpers. They gather to receive instructions in a classroom while Worthington directs traffic at the front of the school with coach Todd Burney.
“Hey, Buddy,” Worthington greets a boy, offering him a high five. When the cars are no longer standing in a line, Worthington heads to his office to make morning announcements.
He tells the students to “be sure and wish a happy birthday to our transportation coordinator Brandon Southern, who turns 137 years old today!”
Pam Gore, school secretary, tells Worthington that a mother has arrived saying she has an 8:15 appointment.
“I told her to call this morning and make an appointment,” Worthington says, “but I can see her now if that’s what she wants.”
After a few minutes with the visitor, Worthington gets his hands on a cup of coffee just in time for the first major crisis of the day. A teacher calls him about a student with a history of emotional disturbances. Worthington has to carry the crying child part of the way from the classroom to the front office.
There he talks calmly to the student but is unable to get him calm enough to re-enter the classroom. After a while the child’s mother arrives to take him home. Worthington encourages her. “These things are happening less than they did last year.”
Columbus County DREAM Center director Carol Caldwell arrives for a meeting and waits until Worthington is free. Caldwell says, “I love this school. It’s awesome.” Caldwell, a teacher herself, appreciates “the interpersonal relationships with students, parents and community organizations.”
She is there to talk about using EES as a satellite location for the “Powerful Parenting Program” that she and her staff have taught at the DREAM Center and churches in Chadbourn and Bolton. The 14-week class series helps families improve communication and behavior at home.
TEACHING IS A SKILL
Worthington tells Caldwell, “Tell me what you have in mind.”
She describes the tangible and intangible rewards of PPP. Parents learn to give directions, solve problems and express emotion without resorting to “screaming and yelling mode.” She tells him that PPP helps reduce truancy.
“That’s a big deal with me,” Worthington says. He agrees to provide space for the evening classes and actively recruit families that he knows are struggling.
By 10 a.m., Worthington is ready to get away from his desk. He takes a walk around the school, paying 15-minute visits to three classrooms. He reads B.J. Novak’s The Book with no Pictures to Amy Greene’s and Bambi Cribbs’ third-grade classes; in Rachel Williams’ fifth-grade math class he observes students solving a word problem. He steps in just long enough to say hello in half a dozen other rooms.
Several teachers have divided their students into small groups to work on different assignments, based on who needs most “intervention,” according to the previous week’s progress test.
Multitasking requires “good classroom management,” Worthington says. “Veteran teachers have it. New teachers are learning.”
Worthington recalls his own early teaching days. “I did the least I could get by with and not get fired,” he says. “I was lazy. I handed out a worksheet and sat down.
“Finally my mentoring teacher told me, ‘If you’re going to be the teacher you say you want to be, you can’t teach that way.’”
Last year, EES had 469 students; 550 are enrolled this year. Due to that increase, Worthington has four first-year teachers, all “doing a good job transitioning from college to career,” he says. “They listen to the veteran teachers because those teachers can tell them, ‘This is where you’re about to mess up.’ You’re not going through your first year of anything without taking some heat.”
By lunchtime, Worthington has handled four bus discipline issues, called one grandparent about a concern, and held a quiet talk with a boy who has been evicted from his classroom due to what the boy himself calls “a tantrum.” This isn’t the first time the student has gone out of control because of a misunderstanding with a classmate.
“You’re smarter than that,” Worthington tells him. “You can’t control what other people do and say. You can only control you.”
In the cafeteria, Worthington socializes with students at different tables, cleans up a spill and helps sell fruit slushies. The time he spends befriending students pays off in higher student motivation, he says.
REACHING THE HEART
Worthington has his own slant on a theme that is common to all the outstanding principals interviewed: Relationships are key to his calling as an educator.
He sees Edgewood as “a family” in which “we invest time in the person who needs support.” Sometimes that’s a student; sometimes it’s a staff member or parent.
For some students, school may be the only part of the day when they feel cared about, Worthington said.
“If their school day sucks, then the whole day was bad. I want them to know somebody on this campus cares. If we haven’t demonstrated that by the time a student finishes here, then we’ve failed. They may have made straight A’s, but that’s just paper filler if you don’t reach their heart.
“We teach students to survive and create a better life. If that’s not the heart you have, you don’t need to work at Edgewood.”
Two boys need to be given a talking-to about a fracas in the bathroom. “You know how my school runs. What were you thinking?” Worthington demands to know, then sends them to the outer room while he calls their parents.
Both are good kids who had “a bad moment” in an otherwise good year, he tells the parents. They will spend some time in the office the next day and then put the episode behind them.
A teacher calls about whether or not to let a disruptive student go on a field trip that his foster mother has already paid for. Worthington isn’t sure there is enough documentation proving that the boy has lost his privileges, but he agrees to re-read the records.
A first-year teacher comes in on her planning time to discuss a child who is not getting his work done. “At the end of the day, I want (him) to be successful.” Worthington agrees with a new strategy she wants to put in place.
Having checked discipline records, he realizes that the teacher who called earlier is right to exclude the disruptive boy from her class’s field trip. He has to call the foster mother and explain the decision.
“These calls are never fun to make,” he says. R’s foster mother understands that Worthington is thinking about the good of the other students as well as R. “It’s a tough spot for you,” he sympathizes. “You’re dealing with things now so you won’t have to when he’s in high school.” He invites the family to the upcoming parenting classes.
Worthington is relieved to have those calls behind him. There are times when, he says, “I hate sitting here.”
A GOOD DOER
Another painful confrontation is yet to come, however. Worthington calls R’s classroom and summons him to the office so he can tell him face-to-face about the field trip decision. This turns out to be the same boy who had the tantrum earlier.
“R, I’ve been reviewing your record. You’ve been written up repeatedly for getting out of your seat, talking in class, being rough with an iPad, rolling your eyes at the teacher, no homework, disrespectful language to a substitute, throwing trash on the ground and refusing to pick it up, talking during a test and being loud in the hallway.
“I’ve seen your good and your bad for two and a half years. I’ve defended you. But there aren’t any more excuses. It’s shameful that you put your mother through this, and it’s offensive to me. You’re bright. You can make a difference with your life. The problem is, you’re making a negative difference.”
Worthington tells him that he’s not going on the trip with the rest of the class. After that, “we have six months” until the end of fifth grade. Worthington challenges the boy to make those six months a more positive time.
“If I stayed in this office with the door closed and watched Netflix, the school would still operate. We have great teachers. But the person leading has to be part of the process. I have to be willing to teach math, mop the floor, mow and trim the grass, do PE, do art. A good leader is a good doer.
“I love (my job). Even on a tough day, it’s never made me want to find something else to do. I get 300 high fives and hugs every day. That’s the part that makes you keep coming back. It’s easy to do a job you love.”
Unfortunately, high fives and hugs are not always enough to reach the heart of a child.
“Teaching is acting,” Worthington says. Sometimes he has to overcome his own sympathetic feelings and summon up extra-forceful words and tone to remind students that they are responsible for their actions. Worthington does not neglect the hard parts of his job.
Veteran music teacher Leslie “Gus” Cothern (“Mr. C”) has worked with seven principals at EES. He says Worthington “inspires his staff to give their best” and “always strives to put a positive view on any situation. I think it is more difficult to work with adults than children. He is able to do both.”