SALISBURY — When Shonda Hairston enters a room people immediately smile.
The principal of Knollwood Elementary School lives by the motto “A rigorous culture isn’t a ruthless culture.”
That’s why she is quick to display her sense of humor and treat the people who work under her more like friends than employees.
“I have an open door policy … I feel like I’m very honest and transparent,” she said. “I think that’s key when you’re communicating so that people know where you stand, it takes away the guesswork.”
When Hairston took over the top spot at Knollwood in August 2007, she let her new employees know she has high expectations. But she made it clear she was there to support them in reaching those goals.
“She’s very hands on with the staff,” said Brenda Sokolowski, who teaches fourth and fifth grade academically and intellectually gifted classes at Knollwood. “If there are needs that the staff has she is willing to go that extra mile to try to meet those needs.”
Sokolowski said it didn’t surprise her at all when Hairston was named the Rowan-Salisbury School System’s principal of the year.
“I thought it was very well deserved,” she said. “I’ve watched her really grow as a leader, she is a very positive role model.”
Superintendent Dr. Judy Grissom agrees.
“She is the epitome of a leader and student advocate,” she said in a press release. “Her focus is always on doing what is best for our students.”
Sokolowski said she’s seen firsthand Hairston’s passion for students.
“You always know the children come first,” she said. “She’s quick to give them hugs, she knows them by name.”
Hairston said Knollwood has some of the best students.
“They come up and want to hug you and love you,” she said. “They have such unique personalities.
“That’s why we do what we do, they make the job easy.”
Hairston began her career in education as an eighth-grade language arts and reading teacher at Corriher-Lipe Middle School.
At that time, the thought of becoming an administrator hadn’t crossed her mind.
It didn’t become an option until Dr. Sarah Hensley, the recently retired director of elementary education, brought up the possibility.
“I served in different leadership capacities and realized there is a need to lead,” she said.
Hairston stayed at Corriher-Lipe for five years before transferring to Knox.
“I felt a connection there because I had gone to school at Knox,” she said.
During her six years at Knox, Hairston started working on her master’s degree in school administration.
When Hairston found out about an assistant principal position at Salisbury High, she decided to submit her resume.
“(Principal) Dr. (Windsor) Eagle called me and he said ‘You know you left one important thing off your resume, that you graduated from Salisbury high,’” she said. “He ended up offering me the job. “
Hairston worked under Eagle for three years.
“I had such wonderful high school experience so going back to that place felt good,” she said. “I knew the community and that sense of pride in being a Hornet.”
Hairston said Eagle gave her the support and freedom she needed to be successful on her own at Knollwood.
“That was a true learning experience for me as an assistant principal to be trusted with the various responsibilities that I was given,” she said. “It prepared me for the responsibilities that I initially faced as a principal.”
Being a teacher has helped Hairston focus on the curriculum, she said.
“There is a depth and level of understanding,” she said. “I have tried to stay connected to the art of teaching by writing lesson plans when teachers need help, modeling classes, teaching classes. That’s my passion.”
Hairston pulls teachers from each grade level out of class for an entire day about five times a year for collaborative planning sessions.
“It’s their time to share ideas, while I guide and assist them,” she said. “I’ve always tried to keep teachers informed about changes that are coming in education, this is just another time to share information. I think they enjoy it.”
Hairston said she shares the principal of the year honors with her entire staff.
“I told them ‘It isn’t just about me, it’s about you, your hard work and your efforts are being recognized,’” she said.
Using data to guide curriculum
Hairston said her staff uses data regularly to guide curriculum development.
“I asked my school improvement team the other week ‘Do we want to perform ongoing examinations or do we want to do an autopsy,’” she said. “Looking at data frequently allows us to keep a pulse on where students are and make changes as we need to.
“If we wait until the end of the year it’s done, there’s nothing we can do.”
Hairston said when she took over at Knolllwood she started working to develop a framework for the school’s curriculum.
“The focus was taking a large staff and trying to get them moving in the same direction, on the same page,” she said.
Hairston said her hope is that the hard work of the students and teachers will be reflected in student performance, but she knows that’s not always the case.
“Sometimes it doesn’t happen, but we keep at it,” she said. “Our goal is to keep looking for solutions and recognizing the challenges.”
Hairston said the high expectations she has for her staff apply to herself.
“I strive for excellence,” she said. “So, I nudge others to do that same.”
Sokolowski said with Hairston what you see is what you get.
“She is very straightforward, but in a positive way,” she said.
Sokolowski said Hairston’s no-nonsense attitude is part of what makes her a “phenomenal leader.”
“I recently went back to graduate school to get my master’s in school administration and she’s a big part of the reason I chose to do that,” she said. “She’s very inspirational.”
Dealing with challenges
Being the largest elementary school in Rowan County, with more than 700 students, presents some challenges, Hairston said.
“We have such a large and diverse population,” she said. “We have to figure out how to meet the needs of every single student.”
Hairston said she’s constantly using the phrases “It’s a challenge, not an excuse” to drive home the face that it’s the school’s job to educate students no matter what hurdles are present.
One of the things Hairston has implemented since she’s been at the school is Foundations, a reading program that focuses on foundational literacy skills.
The school already had a reading program when she arrived, but it only allowed students to move at one pace.
The new program allows those who are excelling to move forward, while students who might be struggling continue to work on basics before going to the next level.
Hairston also implemented a school-wide discipline policy called Knights of Character.
“We created a code of honor and give them a shield when they behave well, and they really want those shields because at the end of the quarter they can get a treat,” she said.
During the summer, Hairston found a way to send a book home with every student and invited them to blog with her.
“My plan was to pose questions, but when I logged on so many students had already started writing their own summaries, I just started responding to them,” she said. “I really want to keep them reading and engaged when school’s out.”
Connecting with parents
Hairston has added a parent/school liaison to interact with teachers and families.
“That has been a huge accomplishment because it was a big need for this school,” she said. “It’s really helping us grow and foster those relationships with parents, making them feel welcome here.”
The mother of two sons, Kenyon, 6, and Jamarius, 12, she knows how to relate to parents.
“I wear both hats so I’m able to understand the parents’ perspective as a principal,” she said. “It’s great because I can really understand both points of view.”
This year’s school motto “Team Knollwood” embodies everything Hairston stands for.
“Everybody, every day, all day, no excuses,” she said. “We’ve really tried to pull together to take this school that has changed and transformed and move forward.”