Principal of the year: principles of successApr 10, 2018 05:14PM ● By Jet Burnham
Dixie Garrison, Utah's Principal of the Year. (Jet Burnham\City Journals)
Five years ago, Principal Dixie Garrison came to West Jordan Middle to find a struggling school. Now, she has been recognized as Utah Principal of the Year of a thriving school. To change the culture of the school, she has initiated a growth mindset, provided leadership opportunities, encouraged mindfulness, improved grading systems, partnered with the community and loved the students.
“We determined that it was limiting beliefs among teachers and students that had perpetuated a culture of failure that was previously accepted by the students, teachers and community,” said Garrison. Starting at the top with teachers, she implemented a growth mindset initiative, training teachers to look at their students in a new way.
“Students will respond to your expectations, and they will perform to the mark you set for them,” said Garrison. “If you have a fixed mindset about them, that’s where they’ll stay.” Teachers began to believe in the students’ potential. Students started to believe they could do better and that their teachers truly cared about them.
“Teachers catch the vision of what that could do for our students, and they all start giving more,” Garrison said.
Vice Principal Eric Price said teachers and even aides volunteer their time after school, building relationships with their students. They teach dance classes, host chess club and STEM activities, and coach sports clubs. They are open to trying new programs.
“If it’s going to help a kid, we’re going to try to do it,” said Price.
The after-school clubs include leadership groups such as Latino in Action, Student Ambassadors (an anti-bullying group) and Poly Crew.
“We have multiplied the opportunities for students to serve in leadership capacities and find their niche,” Garrison said. Teachers are also getting more opportunities to cultivate their leadership skills.
Garrison supports her teachers 100 percent. She knows most chose to become teachers because they wanted to make a difference.
“This is a school where they can fulfill that passion,” she said. “They’re not just punching a clock. It’s not just about the love of the subject. It’s about the love of the student, which is what really drives teachers to go into the profession in the first place.” Garrison said it’s not uncommon to hear a teacher dismiss the class with an “I love you.”
“We tell our kids every day on the announcements that we love them and care about them,” Price said. “That’s our mentality.” He said when a student is suspended, he and the student’s teachers will visit them in their home to help get them get ready to go back to school.
It’s important for students to know their teachers care about them when they are experiencing difficult circumstances at home. Garrison said students dealing with stress or anxiety are not in a learning state. With the help of school psychologist Olin Levitt, Garrison initiated a schoolwide mindfulness program.
Each day begins with a daily mindfulness exercise during morning announcements. Teachers have adopted mindful practices into the classroom with brain breaks, breathing exercises, stretching and reflective exercises.
“We’re reprogramming the students to help them get into a mindset where they can learn,” said Garrison.
To better measure student’s academic progress, Garrison has implemented a Grading Standards Reference Grading system at WJMS. Instead of a points system generating a letter grade, students receive a level of proficiency for each topic within a subject.
“It shifts the focus over to learning rather than the grade,” Garrison said.
The change has had a huge affect on reluctant learners. Five years ago, 30 percent of WJMS students were failing one or more classes. The first quarter of this school year, that number was down to 2 percent.
WJMS has partnerships with the Ron McBride Foundation and University of Utah Health & Nutrition Department. Garrison is always looking for programs, grants and partnerships to enrich student learning. She supports teachers or students who have ideas for improvement.
“If there’s something that could make a difference and make an impact on learning, you’ve got to say yes to those big purchases,” she said. “I spend down my budgets to the dime and get the students and teachers the resources they need.”
Faculty members say WJMS is unique.
“I’ve been in some great schools, but I’ve never seen any school like this school in terms of the love and care and the effort and dedication to the kids,” Levitt said. He said this kind of culture can only be generated from the top down.
“Dixie sets the standard as the leader,” he said. “She’s got the vision, she’s got the energy, she’s got the love.”
Levitt said he would not be the person or the psychologist that he is today without her amazing support.
Like her father, who served as principal of WJMS in the 1980s, Garrison loves her job.
“Every time I turn around, there’s something phenomenal happening; I can barely keep up,” she said. Phenomenal things such WJMS students winning state leadership awards, placing in 22 of the 24 spots of the District Science Fair winners, its “We the People” team taking second place in State and teacher Jorge Ibanez being recognized as a Jordan Credit Union Project 100 winner—and that’s just in one month.
Garrison believes the Principal of the Year Award is not just about her.
“It’s really a recognition for WJMS,” she said. “I wouldn’t be able to do what I do at most other schools in the district. This school is where you can truly make a difference.”
She is proud to put her school up against the 49 other schools now in the running for the National Principal of the Year Award.