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Principal Carol Leveillee: The Culture Builder

By June 21, 2019February 21st, 2022Featured Posts, Star School Leader

When we spoke with Principal Carol Leveillee of Frederick Douglass Elementary School, she shared some tips on how to reinvent a school’s reputation. This is the sixth spotlight in a series of twelve, in which we feature the winning recipients of Kiddom’s annual Star School Leader Award. Look for the others over the coming months by signing up for our newsletter, or check out our School Leadership page, which we will update with each new spotlight.

In a healthy environment, and with a little imagination, children begin to construct the lives they want to lead. Teddy bears can serve as patients in their play clinic, and emerge with a toddler’s solution to whatever ails them: Play-doh, maybe, or a sticker. These remedies hold as much weight as do complex procedures. When you’re young, the means to an end is always within reach.

For some kids, there’s less of a stretch to make when dreaming of their future lives. Principal Carol Leveillee’s favorite toys growing up were a chalkboard slate, a red pen, and stickers. The seats of her classroom were eagerly filled by stuffed animals until she left them behind for an audience of 5th-grade children. Leveillee taught for 11 years before moving into an administrative role. Her warmest memories still come from the classroom.

“When I left (teaching), I made myself a promise that every single thing I do, I’ll never forget what it’s like to be a teacher because it’s the best job ever.”

— Principal Carol Leveillee, Frederick Douglass Elementary School 

Her fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Peretti, inspired Leveillee to go into education. She had early exposure to the ways a teacher can enrich your life with more than practical skills and assessable information. From her teacher, Leveillee learned how to be comfortable in her own skin. “I had to start wearing glasses when I was in fourth grade and she wore glasses too. I remember that she made me feel that it was OK to wear glasses, that they made me look smarter—that kind of thing.”

A Star School Leader Spotlight from Kiddom is hardly the first award Leveillee has earned in her 36-year career. Before being called to the principal’s office, she won the Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher Award from the Washington Post, as well as Teacher of the Year. This caught the attention of the principal at the second school she taught in. Fresh from completing a Master’s degree in reading, Carol was somewhat disappointed to realize that she “wasn’t able to do anything with it other than grow my mind.” The principal of her school approached her with a 75% scholarship to another Master’s program, more closely related to school administration. “They need good teachers to be administrators,” her mentor told her. “You should think about it.”

Their investment in Leveillee reared commendable results. She was later honored by the Washington Post once again when she was given the Distinguished Educational Leadership Award in 2006. On a national level, she represented the state of Maryland as a National Distinguished Principal in 2008.

It has been a long time since stuffed animals filled her classroom seats. Today, her awards and honors could do the trick!


Mastering the Winds of Change

Since stepping into the role of principal at Frederick Douglass Elementary School in Seaford, DE (nicknamed “Fred”), Mrs. Leveillee has certainly done her community proud. Of the 200 elementary schools in Delaware, Fred was performing in the bottom 5% when Principal Leveillee came onboard four years ago. Data on climate, academics, assessment, and more painted Fred as an undesirable place–even the current parents didn’t want their kids there.

Principal Leveillee’s ambition and pragmatism came up with a clear place to begin: the climate. “It was toxic. Staff didn’t like kids, kids didn’t like staff, front office didn’t want the phone to ring or people to come to our window. I knew that climate had to be the first place to start. Knowing that instruction is how we’re judged, but until I got the mindset of a lot of key players to change, stellar lessons weren’t going to make a difference.”

The first step Leveillee took to turn the school culture around was to do a book study: ‘The Energy Bus’ by Jon Gordon. “I spent a year and a half drilling that in. That was our mission every day: are we going to be a Negative Nelly or are we going to be on that bus working together for the good of our school?”

In addition to the principles covered in Gordon’s book, Principal Leveillee introduced Fred to the three R’s: respect, responsibility, and the right to learn. “I said the three Rs so many times that I would have dreams about it. But it really helped. Our climate is a much better place. We’re no longer a Focus Plus school. We just missed exceeding expectations by 0.4%.”

Of course, you don’t see results like that by simply hanging a few inspirational posters. Once the atmosphere and people’s feelings toward the school improved, Principal Leveillee targeted math as Fred’s next area for improvement. At the time, instruction relied heavily on worksheets and didn’t allow for engagement or even conversation between teachers and students.

“We burned the math workbooks.”

Principal Carol Leveillee, Frederick Douglass Elementary School 

Three years into her tenure, Principal Leveillee made Fred’s lesson planning more standards-based. Gradually, she showed the teachers how to teach in small groups and use technology to make class more interactive. Rather than accepting conventions, Leveillee reviewed how paraeducators were being used in the classroom. Eventually, the state of Fred’s math got to a much better place.

Of all the work that she has poured into Frederick Douglass Elementary, Principal Leveillee says that it’s the small successes that make her the most proud. “You know, the child that maybe didn’t want to get out of their car, and is now coming in. Or the teacher that said, ‘Nope I’m going to do my worksheets and you’re not going to tell me otherwise.’ And now I walk in their room and kids are in small groups with the teacher facilitating the learning.” Seeing the culture change infused into daily encounters provides more affirmation than an assessment rubric could hope to.


Disowning “On Your Own Time”

In order to create lasting change in a learning community, you might have to unlearn what you’ve been taught. Traditional practices might not be as constructive or even straightforward as they could be with a new perspective.

When asked how she created a school culture that enabled teachers to collaborate and support each other, Principal Leveillee gave us the rundown on her way of reinventing the seven-hour school day:

“One of the first things I did was totally recreate the schedule. I wanted to make sure that every teacher was free for 90 minutes, at least once a week, to collaborate, to plan, to talk, to kid-talk, to brainstorm, to score papers, to edit.”

With this new schedule, educators are able to complete important professional development on contract time, rather than putting in unpaid hours that decrease their job satisfaction as well as their return on emotional investment. Meanwhile, the students have 90 minutes each week to practice new hobbies and skills, including Pokemon Masters, drumming, coding, kindness club, calligraphy, cheerleading, and chess. “The nice thing is that kids aren’t just on busy work and people aren’t just babysitting while the teachers are collaborating.”

In my heart, we’ve got to do what’s right for kids and for staff. That’s the way I’ll always be.

— Principal Carol Leveillee, Frederick Douglass Elementary School

Teachers also use this time to share what they’ve learned at recent conferences. “It just has to be that way because no one person can do it all.”



Tools for Success

Through patient coaching and innovative thinking, Principal Leveillee has implemented changes that demonstrate care for every member of the community. The general perception of technology is that it cannot do the same. Despite that, she has fit it into the mold.

Every student at Frederick Douglass has a Chromebook that allows them to do research, create projects, and design artwork. Much like a differentiated assignment, the Chromebooks allow Fred students to complete work that reflects who they are just as much as it demonstrates what they’ve learned.

While the Chromebooks foster independence, Principal Leveillee employs other technology to bring the community together. “We start every day here with live-stream morning announcements, and it’s not just the pledge and the menu. I go on and talk to the kids about kindness or caring, or I’ll take kids on with me and they’ll share a goal that they’re working on.” Voicing their goals in front of their peers might just get students closer to reaching them.

With technology, Principal Leveillee has also reduced printing costs and saved time at the start of a new school year. Meeting notes and other important information is stored and easily accessible on Google Drive. Gone are the days when she and her secretary would assemble two-inch binders for each staff member at the beginning of the year. “Now I can spend that time looking for training camps or other things that teachers don’t know about.”

“[Principal Leveillee] has brought so many ideas to our school through book studies and motivational speakers. Most recently she took a few staff members to a “Get Your Teach On” conference where staff brought back numerous ideas. Now she is allowing us to share and implement new engagement strategies school-wide. She also has inspired us to build those meaningful relationships with each other and our students and I believe that has helped us turn our school around.”

–Jacqueline Allman, teacher at Frederick Douglass Elementary School

It wasn’t long ago that parents were concerned about sending their kids to Frederick Douglass Elementary. In less than four years under Principal Leveillee’s leadership, Fred has improved its academic performance as well as its reception by the surrounding community. Regardless of what a formal evaluation would say, Fred exceeds expectations by offering kids a chance to explore new interests, and by showing teachers that their time and contributions are valued.

While she laments the fact that she didn’t start a blog on her first day to help other principals, Principal Leveillee offers this advice to administrators that may be taking charge at a school like Fred. “Have a 3-5 year plan: don’t expect change to happen overnight.” With hindsight, she notes that her own ambitious plans at the start of the new jobs were a little unrealistic.

Leveillee also advises new administrators to surround themselves with strong people—which could mean rearranging the people you have into positions that suit their strengths. “If you were to look at my roster from July 2015 and compare it to my roster today, there’s a lot of people that have been counseled to a different job. It’s what our kids expect us to do as principals.”

As quickly as things change, there are plenty of community staples that stay the same. Principal Leveillee tends to leave the door of her office open so that a particular first grader can get their daily hug.

Recap: What Makes a Star School Leader?

Great school leaders empower their teachers. What teachers do is one of the most difficult, and often thankless jobs. And while we all agree that teachers are the true heroes of every school system, it takes a special kind of leader to enable their teachers with the right support to focus on the important things. Like teaching.

The Star School Leader rubric stands on three pillars, hanging from one common theme:

  1.  Empowering others by setting a positive attitude, culture, and environment.
  2.  Empowering others with the right use of technology as a means and not an end.
  3.  Empowering others through supportive coaching and access to professional development.

To read about the rest of the Star School Leaders, visit our recipient announcement page.


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