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Front Page - Friday, November 22, 2019

Establishing ‘a culture of belief’

State principal of the year Ware on how she helped revive Howard High

People who know LeAndrea Ware might have a hard time believing Tennessee’s 2019-20 Principal of the Year once hated going to school.

Known for her energy and passion, Ware, who holds a Ph.D. in educational leadership and administration among her four postgraduate degrees, works each day to create an environment of success for every student at Howard High School in Chattanooga.

But when she was in second grade, she spent most mornings crying and pleading with her mother to let her stay home. Her mom often caved, and Ware missed 28 days that year.

Ware knows the number of days she missed because she still has her report card. “My teacher wrote that I was moody,” Ware says with a laugh.

The notion is funny. Like a shaken bottle of soda, Ware seems perpetually on the verge of bubbling over with can-do enthusiasm, so it’s hard to imagine her not loving school.

Ware remembered her experience in second grade when she took over as interim principal of Howard at the end of the 2017-18 school year. At the time, absenteeism at the school stood at 52%, which translated to more than 500 students being absent 18 or more days during the year. Ware was tasked with bringing the number down.

Ware knew this wouldn’t be easy. She’d grown up near Howard and even graduated from the school. She’d also been raised by a mother who worked three jobs to keep her family afloat. So, she was aware of the challenges the mostly African American and Latino student population faced.

Despite being certain of the reasons behind the high level of absenteeism, Ware wanted her students to have an opportunity to speak for themselves, so she distributed a survey that asked why they typically missed class.

Ware’s intuition was correct, as many of the students said they would skip school because they had no choice.

“We had kids who were working full time because they were the provider for their family,” Ware acknowledges. “They said, ‘Dr. Ware, I want to stay in school and earn my diploma, but I can’t send a diploma to my family in Guatemala.’ They couldn’t eat a diploma.”

One set of responses struck a deep chord within Ware and stirred her memories of second grade.

“Some of our students said they felt like they didn’t fit in,” Ware adds, her ever-present smile waning a little. “I identified with that because that was me. In second grade, I felt like my teacher didn’t like me. I felt like my peers didn’t like me. I felt like I didn’t fit in.”

While mulling the results of the survey, Ware thought back to when her hatred of school was transformed into a love of learning.

“When I moved on from second grade, I met Miss Ethel Ulmer, my third-grade teacher, and my life did a 180,” she remembers. “That lady poured into me. She made me a leader in her classroom, she told me I was an amazing student and she took the time to build a relationship with me.”

Inspired by a newfound eagerness to learn, Ware went from 28 absences in second grade to one absence in third grade. She cried and pleaded with her mother to not miss that one day, but a stomach virus kept her home.

With her early success in mind, Ware met her students in the trenches. Instead of enacting a strict draconian policy against missing school, she and her staff implemented an attendance mentoring program that placed faculty and staff members in charge of overseeing one or two students on a daily basis.

“They were responsible for learning the child’s schedule, finding a time when their paths would cross, and saying, ‘How are you? I’m happy to see you. Thank you for being here,’” Ware says.

Ware also instituted incentives for good attendance, such as utility bill vouchers, a catered Thanksgiving meal and VIP seats at home basketball games.

To her delight, chronic absenteeism at Howard dropped to 43%, which was 5% more than the state had mandated. “We have to understand there are extenuating circumstances that require us to serve our children differently,” she explains.

Ware applies this line of attack to every challenge facing Howard, whether it’s meeting the state’s academic standards, improving student literacy, or teaching English to the school’s non-native students.

The key to success in each endeavor, Ware says, is cultivating a culture of belief. “I tell our teachers, ‘We have to believe in some of our students before they’ll believe in themselves.’”

Ware rolled up her sleeves and built that culture from the ground up, beginning with first layer of bricks that formed its foundation.

“When I stepped into the role of principal at Howard, a lot of people were frustrated because the results weren’t matching the hard work they were pouring into the school,” she recalls. “So, my first order of business was to establish a culture of belief.”

As part of this effort, Ware spearheaded a project that involved hanging more than 1,000 stars – each of which contained the name of a single student – at the school. Then, on the first day of the 2018-19 school year, she invited the community to attend a “parade of stars” in which the students participated.

“We wanted to set the stage for the school year and let our students know we believed in them,” Ware says.

From there, Ware, along with her staff and the support of the district, focused on tangible efforts to turn the school around. Through Howard’s Future Ready Institutes (which include health care and innovation, hospitality and tourism management, robotics and welding, and architecture and construction), they immersed students in real-life learning opportunities.

And with the help of a grant, Howard launched a commerce center that infused non-native students with language acquisition skills and gave them stronger footing for algebra, English and the school’s other accountability courses.

“We had to figure out ways to help our kids demonstrate they are just as smart as the students at other schools,” Ware adds.

By the end of the 2018-19 school year, Ware and her staff saw the first signs of success. “We scored the highest ever in literacy,” she says. “On a scale of one to five, we went from two to four, which is above the state’s expectations for growth. That was a big win for us.”

The state lists Howard as a priority school, meaning it is in a group of schools in most need of support and improvement. Such schools are identified every three years and have the opportunity to exit priority status each year.

While the weight Ware has been lifting at Howard has been considerable, she adds she’s never wavered from her belief in the potential of every student.

“As long as I have breath in my body and fire in my soul, I’ll be a ferocious advocate for these kids and a courageous leader,” she explains, her smile morphing into an expression of resolve. “That’s what I’m called to do.”

Like the whistle of a distant train, Ware heard her calling long before it arrived. When she was in sixth grade, she heard it in a television news story about Hamilton County’s schools. As she watched the report, she told her stepfather she’d be superintendant one day.

“Not in Hamilton County,” he said.

“Yes, in Hamilton County,” she thought.

Ware also heard the calling in her mother’s admonition to take advantage of every opportunity Howard was presenting to her. She heeded her mom’s advice, becoming a drum major, captain of the cheerleading squad and a peer educator who taught elementary students about the dangers of substance abuse.

“She expected me to do what I needed to do to benefit from being here so I could grow up and not have to work three jobs to support my family,” Ware notes.

The calling also was evident in the minority teaching scholarship Ware earned that opened the doors of every college in Tennessee to her. Already a strong believer in her community, she chose the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

After completing her education at Tennessee Tech University (Ed.S., instructional leadership and masters’ in strategic leadership) and Trevecca Nazarene University Ph.D.) in Nashville, she returned to the Hamilton County school system to give back what she had received.

Ware’s calling to be an educator was even evident in her first job, when Barger Academy of Fine Arts in Chattanooga gave her the task of teaching grades one through three in the same room, at the same time. “They had mad confidence in me, right? But the gap between grades was too big, so I told the principal, ‘Either they go, or I have to go to another assignment.’”

Several teaching and administrative positions later, Ware become the principal of East Lake Academy. Ware is glad her mother, who died in December 2017, lived to see it happen. “She was my biggest cheerleader,” she says. “If you named it, she knew I was the one to do it. She had great confidence in me.”

After East Lake was recognized as the fastest growing middle school in the district, Ware found herself sitting at a table where people were discussing who should lead the transformation efforts at Howard.

She said, “ Why not me? I’m from that community. I believe in that community. It’s going to be a lot of hard work, but with the right team and support, we’ll make a positive impact.”

Ware has presided over several big moments during her tenure as interim and now permanent principal of Howard, including the opening this year of a new track and stadium, a visit from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and being named Principal of the Year at an awards banquet in Nashville on Nov. 5.

“I’m continually inspired by the caliber of principals and supervisors we have across this great state, and I’m truly honored to recognize these outstanding individuals who work each day to make sure our students are receiving the best possible education,” Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said about Ware and the other recipients.

As Ware accepted the award, she said she was honored to represent not just herself but every student, teacher and staff member at Howard. “There is no Dr. LeAndrea Ware, principle of Howard School, without the amazing people who stand beside her and the wonderful students she’s privileged to serve,” she said.

Later that week, Ware returned to Howard and an abundance of people celebrating her win. But after the congratulatory cake had been eaten and the victory flowers had wilted, she was back in the trenches, focusing on acting as an example of what her students can accomplish.

Ware’s work days are long and involve a lot of walking from one end of the sizable school to the other. Although she makes every effort to “look G,” as her students say, most days find her scooting through Howard’s halls in tennis shoes to keep her feet comfortable.

During the day, Ware prefers to be in her classrooms or cafeteria interacting with her students, or discussing Howard’s ongoing transformation with her teachers and staff members. It’s only after the corridors she once strolled as a student have become silent that she sits at her desk for good and tends to her many administrative duties.

After Ware has pushed against the tide for as long as she can, she returns to her husband and children, ready to bask in the calm and support of home.

“They are the wind beneath my wings. My husband, Gerald, keeps me focused on what I need to do to and on taking care of LeAndrea because we get only one of us,” she says. “And if you don’t take care of yourself, how are you going to do anything for anyone else?”

While Ware credits her family with sustaining her, her wings are strong. They have carried her from a modest beginning to a place where she’s making a difference in the lives of students who are very much like she once was: full of untapped potential and simply needing someone to believe in them.

Perhaps no one has expressed this better than Kaitlyn Fox, a former student at East Lake Academy who wrote the following in a letter to Ware:

“You inspired my love for young people. You taught me to be creative and build programs that can help them succeed. I want to start a tutoring ministry for teens, and I don’t think I ever would have thought of that without your leadership at East Lake.

“You pushed me outside my comfort zone, and I am who I am today because of your loving leadership.

You are amazing!”