Hometown principal invests in relationships at Oak Elementary

Oak Elementary’s new principal, Stephanie Beach (second from left) stands with just some of the people who are helping her to maintain excellence at her school. With her are Holly Greer, at far left; Kasey Jackson; Jessica Willis; Tammy Jenkins; Pam Viar. Photo by Carolyn Bahm.

Oak Elementary is welcoming Stephanie Beach as its new principal for the 2018-19 school year, and it’s easy for her to embrace the school already: She’s a Bartlett native.

She graduated from Bartlett High School, married her high school sweetheart and earned a master’s degree in education with a focus in leadership and policy studies from the University of Memphis. They had two daughters, one who is now 24 and a Nashville resident, and the other who is 21 and doing her student teaching through the University of Memphis.

For the past 13 years, she has served as a principal and assistant principal in the Shelby County Schools district. Her educational experience spans 26 years from her start as a teacher at Altruria Elementary, and it also includes teaching at Elmore Park Middle and Shadowlawn Middle schools.

“I have always wanted to be back home,” she said. “But my experience had been in other areas in Shelby County, and so it was just natural that I’d want to come back home after being away.”

Her first official day was July 1, but she began back in May getting to know what’s already going on in the school and participating in “Meet the Principal” nights. She has met with faculty and the school’s parent-teacher organization. In one interaction with her school’s personnel, she handed out acorns, a symbol of her school’s name, as a tangible reminder that tender young oaks need nourishment to grow, and they are all committed to fostering that environment.

“So I spent all summer just kind of collecting information,” she said. “It’s already a great school. It has lots of programs already. It’s a very active PTO. And so for the moment I’m not wanting to change much except just kind of enhance and provide support.”

Her priorities

She met with teachers last Wednesday to outline her preferences, and she shared her theme of “Where Relationships Meet Rigor.”

Beach explained, “I want to keep working on building those relationships with the staff and the school and the community, highlighting some of the positives that we all do. Sometimes we get so run down in just trying to get the work done that we don’t get to celebrate as much as we should.”

She told the staff in May just before school let out for the summer, “My job is to support you and to remove any barriers to make your job easier.”

Oak is 31 years old and full of tradition, and she doesn’t want to be the new person coming in and disrupting that. So she spent time this summer learning what’s important in those traditions and deciding on what she’d like to enhance. She would like to increase the rigor somewhat for day-to-day teaching, such as giving teachers the opportunity to learn from each other’s best practices in action rather than just talking about each other’s ideas and strengths.

She appreciates how tightly the school is woven into its community, too. For example, a church volunteered to paint a bright map on the sidewalk, and Beach welcomed them.

“Come on – all the help we can get,” she said.

Beach is also meeting with various businesses to help grow their support. She intends to foster the community’s pre-existing sense of investment in the school and how willing families are to help.

“It’s really important for everybody to just have that sense of family – that it’s their neighborhood school, that it’s their place to work but also learn, and so that whole growth mindset with the oak and just being a family, but let’s grow together, is what I’m trying to bring,” she said. “… It’s already a great place, so I don’t want to change anything. I just want to help build those relationships stronger.”

Most Sundays, she emails a newsletter to parents, and she plans to keep up her best practices to keep communicating well with her school’s families.

The teachers, students and parents already work together well, she said. She doesn’t have an eye on any particular challenges looking ahead for this year, but she is relying on her experience and that of her faculty and staff to be prepared and to succeed.

School security

One area of effort is in security, with concerns about this in the forefront of all schools, Beach said. Oak is no different. She is focusing on ensuring security while maintaining positivity and a welcoming environment.

For example, a lot of teachers wear the same shirt at district events for a sense of unity and to represent their school. She does it at Oak because it helps parents and children know who to ask for help at events that draw heavy foot traffic like “B Ready Day” on Aug. 7 or the first day back at school for a new semester when many children are a little confused about where to go.

Beach also has worked to ensure that the school has a stock of necessary emergency supplies, and she’s looked at security protocols for such day-to-day practices as school visitors, ensuring that all door sensors are functioning, maintaining safety protocols during recess and even managing cell phone use on school grounds. (She explained that a parent enjoying lunch at school with his or her children might innocently pick up a phone to snap a candid photo, but the school has to be careful about protecting the privacy of all children in the background.)

“Those are all important things. At the end of the day, you send your children to school; it’s our job to keep them safe.”

Flexibility, change and success

As an experienced educator, Beach knows to be ready for an ever-changing environment.

“The one constant is change,” she said. “And it doesn’t matter whether it is a brand-new idea or whether it’s an old idea that’s come back with a new name in a new way. You just have to be flexible and go with the flow and know that, at the end of the day, good teaching is good teaching, and learning is learning, and that’s what we’re here for.”

She continued, “So we jump through hoops that we need to jump through, but you do it with the love and the guidance of knowing that the kids are most important.”

The school’s scores are great, she said, and she doesn’t foresee any immediate obstacles for a successful school year. While she intends to pay close attention to academic scores, she wants Oak’s focus to remain on the whole child.

“Because at the end of the day, we are preparing them for middle school, and since I’ve had so many years in middle school in my education, I already know what they need so that when I send them on to Appling or whatever school they end up going to that they’ve got what they need.”