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A Turn-Around Principal

When Dr. Michael Perry walked into Critzer Elementary in Pulaski, Virginia, on his first day as principal, he found one child up a tree cursing at his grandmother and an office full of kids who were already in trouble. This was all before the first bell.

That was four years ago, and those were the least of his problems. Critzer Elementary, a school of about 450 students, did not meet any academic standards—federal, state, or local. It had the highest number of reported disciplinary incidents and suspensions in the county. People called Critzer a rural, inner-city school.

Four years later, Critzer is profoundly transformed. The school is fully accredited, meeting and exceeding federal, state, and local standards. It ranks among the highest academic performing schools in its district, and half-way through this year there have only been two suspensions.

What happened between then and now? Teachers hit the academic mandate full force, a team of counselors helped at-risk children, and the entire school—teachers, support staff, and administration—supported a full implementation of PA.

The implementation was so successful because Perry ensured that the program aligned with three needs: time, a complete package, and scientific validity.

Time—“I’m really protective of my teachers’ time,” says Perry. A daily 15-minute period, called the morning meeting, was set aside to teach the PA lessons.

A Complete Package—Perry did not want to create extra work for his staff; everything had to be provided. PA was a complete year-long curriculum with all materials included.

Scientific Validity—The school board discovered a study that showed that a socially and emotionally safe environment was necessary for academic progress, and PA addressed those broad aims with proven results.

Once they chose PA, the school partnered with Pulaski County Schools and the New River Valley Community Services agency to receive a grant from the Virginia Tobacco Settlement Fund. Soon, the program was up and running, creating healthy, safe, positive classrooms where students could learn and thrive.

Although disciplinary incidents had already dropped dramatically in his first two years at the helm, Perry was pleased to see they were down by another 50 percent after the first year of PA, a feat he didn’t think possible. So, how did PA make it possible? “We are actively instilling the concept of self and mutual respect and caring. If a child needs a hug, they will get one at Critzer,” Perry explains.

Perry recently visited one of his classrooms, well-disguised as a banjo player called Mr. Tex. In a thick drawl, Mr. Tex told the children, “You are so smart. I wish I’d been so smart when I was a kid.” The children replied, “But Mr. Tex, you are smart and you can do anything.”

Their encouragement of another human being demonstrates that Critzer is well on its way to meeting its mission—“to build a community of lifelong learners who care about themselves and others.” It’s a real-world demonstration of PA at work!