ALEXANDRIA, La. (AP) - It’s not about winning awards for Dennis Stewart, principal of Alexandria Middle Magnet School, who was recently named the 2021 Louisiana Middle School Principal of the year.
“You can give me award after award after award,” he said.
To him, his job is about taking care of every child with whom he has been charged and make their lives better.
“That’s what matters to me,” he said. “Nothing else matters.”
Even so, Stewart is overwhelmed and in shock over the honor.
“I’m coming down off the high right now,” he said “I’m recognizing the impact of being the Louisiana Middle School Principal of the Year. That’s amazing to me. I owe it all to God. I give Him all the glory and all the praise. And then my faculty and staff. And most of all my students. It’s for them. Not for me.”
When Stewart first took over as principal of AMMS on Oct. 9, 2015, he was taking over a school with a school performance score of an ‘F’.
As the new principal, he had to diagnose what was happening at the school and sort through the pros and cons.
“And there were not many pros so I was really starting from the bottom up,” he said.
Stewart only wanted the best for the students. He wanted to give them opportunities they never had before.
And he wanted AMMS to be a school that parents would like their children to attend.
“So I just needed a vision from God,” said Stewart. “He gave me that vision. We were able to put things in place at the end of that year.”
Stewart started by replacing 17 staff and faculty members.
“That was a scary place for the central office but not a scary place for me,” said Stewart. “Because I know starting from the bottom is sometimes the best way and that’s what needed to happen here.”
He wanted the people he hired to want to work at AMMS and have the heart to work with children in the at-risk population.
“It’s kind of weird but the people who I hired - they had extremely difficult interviews because I could not just allow anyone to come on staff,” he said.
Those he hired came from fields other than education. One had been a human resources director. Another had worked in insurance and another in restaurant management.
Those 17 people he hired as replacements in 2015 are now all certified teachers.
“They are the same teachers who moved the school within two years from an ‘F’ to a ‘C’ school,” said Stewart. All 17 are now working toward becoming principals.
“And that’s how you change a community,” said Stewart. “When I’m gone, it will continue and go to the next level.”
But making these changes wasn’t for his benefit. It was all for the students. By building good leadership, the school can continue to thrive even after his tenure.
Under his guidance, mentorship programs which proved to be “phenomenal across the board” have been implemented. But, he claims everyone hired at AMMS is a mentor.
“If you are somebody who was hired on this campus, you know that you were hired not just to be a teacher,” he said. “You are a teacher-mentor.”
Students at AMMS may have social and emotional issues that have to be addressed.
In order for the students and schools to be successful academically, Stewart said that “you have to first understand who you’re servicing and the problems that come.”
“We need to try our best to make this place a safe haven,” said Stewart. “And that’s what we were able to do.”
Stewart watched the students from the beginning and could see a change.
Students began to see their school as a haven where their needs would met. Faculty and staff members became friends or parental figures they could trust. Once the children felt comfortable with this arrangement, Stewart said that they wanted to attend school and to be there.
“Even those kids who were here when I got here, who were rough, I could see the change even in them,” he said.
“Kids just want structure,” said Stewart. “They want someone to say, ‘This is what you’re going to do’ and ‘This is what you have to do to move on.‘”
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Each year, Stewart says it got better. The students can now distinguish the seriousness of academics when they are in class.
“That’s the piece that really turned our school around,” said Stewart. “The children embrace their own education. We can see the difference. When it’s time to be serious, it’s time to be serious. When it’s time to play, everybody plays.”
And when it’s time to play, they recognize that everyone - including the adults - play, said Stewart.
Even with COVID-19 pandemic, Stewart said they try to have structure and a systematic process for the kids in the building.
“But at the same time, we have to break in some fun, because we don’t want it to seem like a prison every day,” he said.
AMMS also implemented a house system based on the ones from the Harry Potter fantasy novels.
“We took that concept and brought it in here. It has made a tremendous difference in everything that we do,” said Stewart.
Much like in the books, there are four different houses among which students and adults are sorted.
“It’s good, clean fun competition on every level academically,” said Stewart. Houses earn points on anything related to academics such as the Accelerated Reading Program and interim testing.
“At the end of the week, one house wins,” said Stewart. “At the end of the year, someone wins the big house cup.”
AMMS also started offering field trips to places like New York City and Washington D.C. on a yearly basis.
“These are places that they had never seen,” said Stewart.
“Many people from the community got on the bandwagon sponsoring students,” he said. It was easy for him to ask people to sponsor students once they saw that AMMS was trying to make a difference in the students’ lives - students who were in financial need and at-risk.
“It was easy for them to give $1,200 to send a kid to Washington D.C., New York City,” he said.
“We just recognize that these kids can learn,” said Stewart. Parents are entrusting the staff and faculty with their “best because this is their best.”
“It’s up to us to take those kids to the next level regardless of what they’re going through. What they’ve been through ,” said Stewart. “We have to be the change agents for them. And if we’re not the change agents, who else is out there that’s going to do it?”
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