Oregon is in the midst of a wholesale realignment of its education system. A big goal: high school completion for all kids, starting with the Class of 2025. That class is now in first grade.
Last year, OPB connected with the Class of 2025 at a school in outer Southeast Portland: Earl Boyles Elementary.
The latest story in OPB’s “Class of 2025” project introduces the school’s principal Ericka Guynes. She happens to be Oregon’s newly crowned elementary principal of the year.
Principals are responsible for a lot. They supervise teachers and evaluate instruction. They’re responsible for following improvement plans and enacting reforms. And they have many other little jobs, as Earl Boyles second grader, Diana Gomez, explains, “She’s like the principal, and she — if there’s a fire drill, and there’s somebody missing, then she can help them.”
Earl Boyles is improving. Over the last two years, reading scores rose by four percent, and a focus on math led to a ten percent increase. Researchers familiar with Earl Boyles openly wonder how much the improvements are a result of an “Ericka Guynes effect.”
Guynes tends to dodge the praise. She points to the importance of teachers, staff, and parents. She has an exercise she does with kindergarten parents, to emphasize how important they are to keeping their kids focused on school work.
“Pretend you’re your child. You’re here every day with your child every day, on time. If you as a child decide to go to Disneyland for a week, I want you to take five steps back. If you are going to be here and be involved in your child, and work with them on reading and math, then take three steps forward. And then take a look at where you’re at. This is the gap that it creates for you,” Guynes explains.
A month after that interview last spring, Guynes was named Oregon’s elementary principal of the year. Last month, the National Association of Elementary School Principals honored her and 60 other principals in Washington, D.C. Guynes also traveled to a conference in Bend, to address new principals.
Motivational speeches aren’t really Guynes’ thing. She was happier at a table comparing notes with fellow principals.
Guynes says year 21 of her education career was her toughest. Another principal asked if that was because of the big changes in education coming from the state?
“Not the initiatives themselves because I think they’re really great - it’s because they’ve come all at the same time. And in our staff, we have varying levels of expertise - as a leader, I feel ineffective sometimes, because I don’t have the expertise. I feel like when people come and ask me, I’m saying a lot of ‘well, I’m not sure, and I’ll find out’ - and that’s ok, I think that’s alright, but this year, I’ve had some of my best teachers in tears, and they’re in tears because they feel ineffective,” Guynes says.
Guynes and her teachers came up with a response aimed at relieving the anxiety.
“Give yourself permission to be on a learning journey , this year - and it’s OK.”
Like many elementary school leaders, Guynes doesn’t have an assistant or vice principal. She compensates for that with structure: she has teacher teams for specific issues. She holds informal “cafe” meetings with parents. And the “learning journey” turned into a video project, about how students are doing with the new Common Core state standards.
“So, I went in and I video-taped some of these lessons, and kids interacting with this high-level Common Core - and I played them at a staff meeting and said ‘good things are happening for kids.’ “
But principals can’t always be conciliatory. Last month, state superintendent Rob Saxton raised eyebrows with remarks he made to school leaders. He said a principal has be a “S.O.B. with a kindly manner.”
“Because if you’re not kind of an SOB about it, underneath that kindly manner - you can not get it done,” Saxton said.
Guynes wasn’t at that meeting, but she gets the point that Saxton was trying to make about the role of a principal.
“There are decisions we will make collectively, together, collaboratively. There’s decisions we make in small teams. But then there are decisions I will make individually, because that’s the direction I know the vision has to go. And I’m usually not going to sway from that.”
Back at Earl Boyles, students seem to understand that the woman they describe as “really nice,” can also be strict.
There’s one common theme that underlies what students, parents, and teachers are learning from Ericka Guynes: that perseverance will be rewarded.
Diane Tarbet has been a teacher for more than twenty years. She now teaches first grade at Earl Boyles. Tarbet says Guynes won her over a few years ago, when the principal began treatment for breast cancer.
Tarbet says Guynes didn’t hide her hair loss. She used it for motivation.
“So she gave the whole school a challenge — that if we could read so many minutes, that she would shave her head, knowing what was coming,” Tarbet recalls.
Guynes’ hair started falling out before the students reached the goal. She had her head shaved — but filmed it, and then briefly hid her bald head under a wig, to keep the surprise.
“And then they showed that movie at our reward awards assembly. And that just overwhelmed me. I could not believe that somebody could use such a tragedy to reward a school. And that’s an example of her leadership.”
Ericka Guynes was back in a wig last month, for the school’s “crazy hair day” assembly. It was the day before Halloween. Students and whole classes got awards for attendance, collaboration, effort, and recycling.
And the exuberant voices of students, teachers, and more than a few parents, were so loud, that they probably reached all the way to the principal’s office.