Principal LaForest: Heart, courage, and conviction

Principal LaForest: Heart, courage, and conviction
Murphy Elementary Principal Chelsea LaForest builds a healthy school community in part through bonds formed with students, parents, teachers, and staff. (Photo credit: GO WCC)

By Natalie Walchuk

As soon as we walked out of Principal Chelsea LaForest’s office, a young student walked in and was ready to tell her how his day went from good to bad. “I want to hear a rose and a thorn,” we heard her say as we left the Murphy Elementary front office.

We smiled as we walked to our car. Principal LaForest’s ask for a rose and a thorn is more than a display of her genuine care for her students, parents, teachers and staff—it is a core tenet of her leadership style. It represents her belief in every individual’s potential coupled with her ability to lean into challenges and areas of improvement. It is an essential mindset to further student success.

This was only one of many powerful strategies we learned about during our chat with Principal LaForest on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, when we discussed rising student achievement at Murphy Elementary. What follows are three evidenced-based themes we believe are key levers to the student growth we’ve seen from the Tigers.

Principals have said it, and we’ve seen it in action time and again– relationships truly matter. “It’s key,” Principal LaForest affirmed.

For Principal LaForest, connecting with her students, parents, teachers, and staff comes naturally to her. And yet, she does not leave relationship building to chance. She asserts that relationships are developed and maintained through incentives and intentionality. “All of my systems, whether it’s leading professional developments with adults or teaching in the classroom, are built around connections,” she shared, “and I look at what incentives can continue those relationships.”

The “Tiger Paw” is one such incentive, and a staple for young people and adults alike. Tiger Paws are earned for actions that support a healthy school community. And yes, teachers and staff can earn one, too. Monthly, the entire school celebrates all positive behavior choices and earned Tiger Paws at the Best Assembly. Excitement builds as the Tiger Paw raffle takes place, with everyone’s eyes on the most coveted prize: Principal LaForest’s Chair for a Day. “It’s a huge deal. We have a drum roll– it’s hardcore,” she said with a smile.

Principal LaForest also makes an effort to recognize her teachers individually. When observing instruction, she is sure to lift up both a highlight and a wondering, and signs off each classroom visit by leaving behind a teacher’s preferred Starburst. Intentional and personal touches like this are a sure way to help every person on campus feel seen.

Teachers as Experts

“Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.” – Joe Biden

When we asked Principal LaForest about her path to school leadership, she shared that she had not envisioned herself in a role outside of the classroom. “I love teaching,” she reminded us. It shows, not just in her willingness to substitute teach as needed, but in the way she partners with her teaching staff.

Principal LaForest firmly believes in Standards Based Instruction (SBI) and empowers her staff to find creative, engaging, and thoughtful ways to help students achieve content mastery. This method of instruction is the spirit of the common core standards movement and has contributed to Murphy’s significant gains over a year – 4.9% and 5.3% – in English Language Arts and Math, respectively. For teachers new to the profession, Principal LaForest leads a support group to ensure they are coached up and able to confidently design and deliver high quality SBI. She explained that because new teachers have never experienced teaching any other way, they are quick to embrace SBI.

“The curriculum is just the resource, the teacher is the expert,” Principal LaForest asserts. As such, she invests in – and values – humans over all else as evidenced by her site spending and budget priorities. She pays teachers for service on committees and for engaging in additional training and supports.

Courageous Conversations

A publication authored by Teaching Tolerance cites that “many teachers, wanting to avoid discomfort or conflict, avoid open conversations about race in their classrooms. These reasonable concerns only underscore how important it is to find ways to make the classroom a safe space in which to talk about race and ethnicity.”

Principal LaForest would agree; she is all too aware of the local and national data that clearly highlights that students of color have been underserved, and is unafraid to have conversations with staff and students about these realities. At Murphy, one of the Best Committee’s primary functions is to monitor referral data. The Best Committee looks at their data by incident, grade level, classroom, gender, and race. The information is discussed at a monthly staff meeting, with openers like “this is what we noticed…” and “the data says…” Staff are empowered to problem solve– rather than blame and shame, the conversations are open and generative in the spirit of supporting young people.

Likewise, student academic data is made transparent to create collective ownership for all students to thrive. In Murphy’s staff lounge, a large color-coded data wall serves as a daily reminder of the tasks at hand. Each student is monitored every six weeks aligned to the instructional cycles. Teachers update data during professional development time and plan how the next six weeks will make a difference. Progress of individual students and subgroups can no longer be masked by overall growth– as a result, all subgroups experienced growth at Murphy.

It is clear that Principal LaForest believes in the “work hard, play hard” adage. Everyday, her students and staff are aligned in their commitment to be respectful, responsible, and kind. Mistakes are named, growth is celebrated, and a supportive ear is never hard to find.

Natalie Walchuk is executive director of GO Public Schools West Contra Costa (GO WCC), and this piece was originally posted on the organization’s website here. GO WCC supports a coalition of students, families, educators, and community allies united around generating solutions to ensure that every West Contra Costa student thrives.