Virginia Middle School Sees Improved Attendance and Academics through Emphasis on Culture

Being a principal at the onset of a pandemic is a formidable challenge in itself. However, ushering in a transformation of school culture concurrently? That appears to be an almost insurmountable endeavor.

Nonetheless, at Bayside Sixth Grade Campus in Virginia Beach, Virginia, Principal Shampriest Bevel has achieved precisely that since assuming her role in 2021. Her approach began with prioritizing student and teacher voices during the global crisis.

“When I first arrived—particularly during that period—I felt the need to truly address people’s essential needs rather than fixating on statistics and accreditation,” shared Bevel, the 2023 Virginia Principal of the Year and a finalist for the National Principal of the Year in 2024, in an interview with K-12 Dive. “My focus was on nurturing individuals.”

In our discussion, Bevel expounded on the significance of focusing on culture at the 327-student school, detailing its impact on attendance, academic performance, teacher retention, and offering advice to fellow middle-grade leaders.

K-12 DIVE: How crucial is it to emphasize school culture and what was your approach to achieving that?

SHAMPRIEST BEVEL: Right from the start, I devoted time to acquainting myself with the staff, learning students’ names, and grasping their backgrounds as much as possible. For instance, upon commencing, the primary objective was to enhance attendance. I distinctly recall examining the objectives and remarking, “The emphasis can’t solely be on attendance, as the narrative delves much deeper than that.”

One of my initial actions was convening a student group. I instructed the teachers, “Choose the most expressive students from your homerooms. Disregard behavior for now; I simply want the most expressive students.” Consequently, this became my inaugural attendance task force.

I simply posed questions to the students such as, “What aspects do you miss from elementary school? What activities or features were you eager to engage in during middle school?” Their responses were enlightening, and I utilized their ideas to amplify student voices and ensure the school catered to what they desired, as opposed to imposing directives relentlessly.

My aim was to cultivate an environment that students yearned to be a part of—and the same applied to teachers. I took care to address past grievances or factors that led to disengagement because this particular school previously experienced significant turnover. Teachers would arrive, only to depart after three years.

Understanding what brought joy to individuals and fostering a conducive atmosphere within the school were paramount to me. I spent the initial year and a half solely focused on the well-being of the individuals, organizing monthly gestures for my staff, ensuring student voices were heard throughout.

How have these endeavors translated into improvements in academics and disciplinary matters?

BEVEL: Notably, our attendance figures have soared in the past month, exceeding 98%. This marks the highest monthly attendance among all middle schools in the district throughout the academic year. Progressing from the 13th and 11th positions to clinching the top spot is a source of immense pride for me. Prioritizing individuals over numerical targets was pivotal.

This positive shift has been evident across the board; we are excelling in math unit assessments, while chronic absenteeism has plummeted to single digits. It boils down to students’ eagerness to be present and the teachers’ enthusiasm for teaching.

The middle school phase can be particularly challenging for children. How frequently do you and the teachers deliberate on comprehending students and their motives?

BEVEL: I advocate for placing children at the forefront, often emphasizing, “They’re just 11 or 12 years old.” Patience and understanding have been my guiding principles. When accountability is necessary, I uphold it. Fortunately, my staff aligns with this approach.

Navigating this terrain is undeniably daunting, especially considering we have a solitary academic year to leave a lasting impact. Yet, we manage to do so because we empathize with their plight. I don’t need to convey to my teachers that issuing 50 discipline referrals for children merely exhibiting vigor or reprimanding a student the first time they are late is unnecessary. Understanding the underlying reasons for their actions supersedes punitive measures.

To be continued.

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