Sowing the seeds of Normal Park Museum Magnet School

Sowing the seeds of Normal Park Museum Magnet School

November 20th, 2012 by Kevin Hardy in News

Blake Freeman stops to say hello to students in a social studies class Friday morning. Freeman, who is in his first year as principal at Soddy-Daisy Middle School, was formerly an assistant principal at Normal Park. Normal Park is being used as a training ground for area principals and Freeman is one of three former assistant principals who have moved into principal positions in other schools.

Photo by Jake Daniels /Times Free Press.

To build community buy-in, Blake Freeman organized a parent work day at the end of summer to help spruce up the campus of Soddy-Daisy Middle School.

Justin Robertson started a quarterly principal's coffee for parents to meet with him shortly after he began as principal at Red Bank High.

And adding an art teacher was one of Haley Brown's first changes when she took the helm at Red Bank Elementary this fall.

Though not extraordinary in and of themselves, each of those moves was inspired, at least in part, by lessons learned at Normal Park Museum Magnet School.

For years critics have asked why the successes of Normal Park and other high-performing schools weren't being replicated across the county. If it worked there, why couldn't it work somewhere else?

And if Normal Park's Principal Jill Levine had been able to build the program from scratch, why couldn't she go to a school in need and do it again?

But in a way, the leadership and ideas there are spreading throughout the district. Hamilton County Schools administrators say teachers and principals who have worked at Normal Park are taking pieces of what makes it successful into other schools.

And Normal Park, and other successful schools, are serving as a training ground for future school leaders.

"It's definitely true that good leadership will develop other good leaders," said Superintendent Rick Smith.

He said other schools and principals are serving in similar roles as Normal Park's Levine to mentor up-and-coming principals and replicate successes across the district.

Normal Park is known for its high level of parental involvement, community and business support and for being one of the county's highest-performing schools. The school's North Chattanooga attendance zone is highly sought after, pushing up the price of housing there.

For years, school officials from across the country visited Normal Park to learn about its practices. Some have even crafted whole schools modeled on Normal Park.

"The question is how do we share that locally," Levine said. "People ask us all the time, 'Why can't every school be like this?'"

While teachers often visit from other Hamilton County schools, little has been done to fully reproduce the model here. But Levine said she views part of her role as preparing future principals. So she pushes her leadership values, instructional tools and curriculum pointers when working with her teachers and assistant principals.

"I feel like the good practices we have here are spreading to other places," she said.

Freeman, who served as a Normal Park assistant principal last year, said he learned the importance of community and parent support. Community members came together and invested millions to revamp both the upper and lower campuses there. So he took a piece of that to Soddy-Daisy, where volunteers planted new landscaping, cleaned out the trophy cases and repainted.

"I saw the importance of that because I had seen the success of having parents that are buying into your school," Freeman said. "They're participating."

To better communicate with parents he started a weekly "Monday Memo" and planned a principal's coffee.

And instead of viewing his job as just a building manager or troubleshooter, Freeman said he's learned that a principal's role is to lead instruction across the building.

Clara Sale-Davis, director of the Benwood Initiative for the Public Education Foundation, said it makes sense to train principals under those who have proven effective. The Benwood Initiative works in 16 inner-city elementary schools, including Red Bank Elementary, where Haley Brown has just taken over after a decade at Normal Park.

"Jill Levine is a highly effective, high-performing principal," Sale-Davis said. "I would think that Haley Brown has learned a lot of best practices from Jill as far as leadership."

Sale-Davis did point out that moving from Normal Park to a more urban school like Red Bank could have some additional challenges because of a more diverse and poorer student population.

But Normal Park veterans say the tools they learned there work well in all educational environments. The school draws most of its diversity from a countywide magnet lottery, which together with the physical neighborhood zone, constitutes Normal Park's student body.

"I think the kind of education that kids who came through Normal Park are getting is a great education for any kind of kid, no matter what their background is," Brown said.

After seeing the transformational effect the arts had on Normal Park students, Brown said she couldn't imagine not offering the same chances to Red Bank students. She also started offering guided reading training for teachers, modeled after a similar program at Normal Park.

While pieces of Normal Park are trickling out, principals say they aren't trying to create schools identical to Normal Park, but are picking the strategies and ideas that best work at their new schools.

"It's nice to see that there are great things going on in every school," Brown said. "And there are elements of what's going on in Normal Park taking place in lots of other places."

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfree or 423-757-6249.