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Beth Houf didn’t set out to be a middle school principal. She loved classroom teaching. But a couple of years of professional development through DESE’s STARR teacher program several years ago provided her with the opportunity to train teachers. Beth realized that teachers benefit from strong administrators and that administrators support teachers’ efforts to do what’s best for kids. She was sold on the idea of becoming a principal.
Beth initially was principal of McIntire Elementary in Fulton. Under her leadership, the school became one of the first in Missouri to be removed from the state’s school improvement list. McIntire Elementary was recognized by DESE as an Exemplary Professional Learning Community, and Beth was named an Exemplary New Principal in 2011. Based on her success at McIntire and bolstered by her superintendent’s encouragement to move up, Beth took her turnaround strategies to Fulton Middle School as principal in the 2015-16 school year.
“The first thing I look at is culture,” Beth said of her turnaround focus. “It’s hard to learn in an environment that isn’t positive and safe, both for kids and staff. Culture can make the difference between a good school and a great one.”
Sometimes a cultural shift can be difficult. Beth begins by building trust with staff and parents. She meets with each staff member and gets to know their interests. She tries to immerse herself in daily practices at the school. She reaches out to parents both in person and through social media to gather feedback and give parents a voice.
Beth’s background at the elementary school comes in handy at Fulton Middle. She already knows many of the students because they came through McIntire Elementary.
“It gives me a chance to see where the kids come from,” she said. “Middle school is a critical time in their development as students and as individuals, and it helps to know their background.”
One way Beth encourages student engagement is by making students the leaders of parent-teacher conferences. She said her leadership team starts with a question: What is the purpose of the conference? The team then works with staff to develop a form for kids to complete to determine the focus of the conference.
“The kids pick five things to share with parents. They can lead their parents through a typical day,” Beth said.
The changes have increased participation in parent-teacher conferences. Beth said that just a couple of years ago, participation was about 20 percent. Last year, participation was up to 80 percent in the fall and 96 percent in the spring. Beth made good on a promise she had made.
“I spent the night sleeping in the trophy case,” she said with a laugh. “And I thought to myself, ‘I may have gone too far.’”
If a student is struggling, Beth works to improve communication between the school, the student and parents.
“I try to be an advocate for all kids from all backgrounds,” she said. “I advocate for kids who don’t have an advocate.”
Communication comes through different channels. Email and Facebook work well for parents and staff, Beth said, while Instagram and Snapchat are good ways to reach the kids. The school uses Twitter to showcase class activity for state representatives and the community.
“When we showcase the positive things that are going on, tougher messages may be easier for people to swallow,” Beth said. “Social media virtually tears down the school walls and brings people in.”
What’s next? Beth said she’ll keep doing what she has been doing. She said the school has come a long way, and she has a deep pride in Fulton Middle.
“My ‘why’ is building a school where my own kids could succeed,” said Beth, the mother of two sons. “And they’re all our kids in a sense. These students will be coming to communities all over the state, the U.S. and the world.”
Beth’s work has received national attention. She recently was honored as the Missouri National Distinguished Principal of the Year, representing the Missouri Association of Elementary and Secondary Principals at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. She was among 58 elementary and middle school principals from across the country who received the recognition.
One of her students may have best said why Beth earned the recognition: “She has brought life to the building and made it an exciting place to be.”