DU Alumni / Magazine Feature / People

DU alumna gets high marks for school leadership

So far in 2009, Shannon Hagerman has earned a PhD from DU, given birth to daughter Emmery and had the U.S. secretary of education stop by the school where she’s principal to say she’s doing a terrific job.

The doctorate was in educational administration, the daughter was her second and the visit by Arne Duncan was, well, a delightful shock.

“He said we need more schools like yours,” Hagerman recalls with a smile. “And to keep pushing on the system.”

Months later, she still is amazed that Duncan and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., picked Montclair Elementary for a high-profile visit back in April.

Maybe it was because Hagerman took a low-performing school and posted double-digit proficiency gains in at least two content areas for three straight years — one of only eight elementaries in Denver Public Schools to do so.

Maybe it was because she doubled enrollment, walked door-to-door in the neighborhood to listen to what the community wanted and fought to put it in place.

Maybe it was because she reinvolved parents, reinvigorated teachers, resisted pressure to conform to DPS “adminis-trivia” and refocused her classrooms on teaching that works.

Nothing flashy, she says shyly, “just slow and steady incremental, sustainable gains in student achievement over time.”

Not quite what you might expect from an educator out of Thunder Bay, Ontario, who once vowed never to become a school principal. That changed when she was plucked out of a Denver Public Schools tech program and entered DU’s Ritchie Program for School Leaders, where she was in the first group of fellows and the first to be appointed principal of a school after graduation.

“What I had been trained to do through Ritchie was so, so different than the other principals,” she says. “I felt like a fish out of water.”

That was fall 2004, after she leapfrogged into the principal’s seat at Montclair, a low-performing school in an upscale east Denver neighborhood.

“My first two years were miserable, because I was thinking ‘Ritchie’ and speaking ‘Ritchie’ and nobody else around me knew what that was,” she says. “Colleagues pushed back on me to the point that I got myself in a lot of hot water. A lot.”

Turning Schools Around

When Hagerman speaks of “Ritchie,” she’s talking about the Morgridge College of Education’s ambitious program for preparing principals, which was engineered about seven years ago by Associate Professor Ginger Maloney, then dean of Morgridge, and Jerry Wartgow (PhD ’72), then-DPS school superintendent.

The program was about training “instructional leaders” who could go into low-performing schools in Denver or elsewhere and work with the staff to turn things around.

“You start with the kids and what they know and what they need,” Hagerman says. “Then you craft your program and your instruction to meet those needs.”

It sounds simple, but in a profession where eager reformers hang new programs on every corner, it’s unusual. Instead, the Ritchie program blends course work with internship time in schools. The program also harnesses values, beliefs and leadership styles and integrates them with the day-to-day work of being a principal.

Paper-shuffling is low priority and data-driven instruction is high, which means continually looking at what kids already know so instructors don’t teach them the same things all over again. Using assessments to direct what principals do. Focusing on kids who show up and searching out ways to move them toward proficiency in reading, writing and math. It’s particularly important, she says, in schools where kids come and go frequently.

Hammer the basics, but don’t forget enrichment, Hagerman adds. Like the Wednesday afternoon sessions at Montclair, where kids study whatever they’re excited about: track and field, spies, chocolate, or cooking.

“Attendance is pretty good on those days,” she says.

But the challenge is still daunting.

“Some kids who come to us have refugee status and have never been in a school. I’ve got kids who have run from the Taliban and don’t know what it’s like to be in a school, or if they do, somebody killed their teacher in front of them. Then, I’ve got kids who live in the neighborhood and have very privileged lives.”

Aid from the Statehouse

Helping Hagerman turn Montclair around was “innovation status,” a device to exempt low-performing schools from district and union rules so principals have greater autonomy over budgeting, personnel and curriculum decisions. The exemptions were based on a 2008 state law championed in the Colorado General Assembly by two legislators with DU ties, former Senate President Peter Groff (JD ’92) and current House Speaker Terrance Carroll (JD ’05).

The freedom enabled Hagerman to ignore school district “programs du jour” and redesign Montclair as she thought best, which she believed should coincide with what the community wanted.

“They didn’t want anything fancy; no bells and whistles,” she says. “They just wanted a darn good school like they remembered from when they grew up. Good books, homework, art, PE, music all the time, smaller class sizes when you can manage it. Be a happy place when the kids come in, and let them leave happy at the end of the day.

“They didn’t want magic.”

What they wanted were changes in the classroom that could bring “slow, steady” improvement. Hagerman put a plan in place and Montclair began to show higher scores on CSAP tests, a barometer for measuring school achievement in Colorado. Other indicators appeared as well, such as the “Guys Read” book club and the “Montclair Mavens” club for girls.

“We’ve got kids who, given the choice of extra recess or time in the classroom reading, hands-down will pick reading,” she says.

The improvements attracted the attention of Duncan and Bennet. In April, they came all the way from Washington, D.C., to take a look Hagerman’s school and at similar innovations at Bruce Randolph School in northeast Denver that were introduced by another principal with DU ties, Kristin Waters (PhD ’06).

“When the secretary of education and the president of the United States tout the two best schools in Colorado, they’re ignoring the test scores,” former interim dean Wartgow points out. “What they’re saying is that here is a cohort of people in the neighborhood and a student body that people thought couldn’t succeed and they did succeed.

“What do they have in common? Two great principals. And what’s unique about those two great principals? They’re both graduates of Morgridge.”

Ed. Note: Look for a profile of Kristin Waters, former principal of Bruce Randolph School, in DU Today next week.

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