Welcoming New A+ School Leaders

September 20, 2022

“A+ is not just another initiative to learn. It is the real deal, and worth every investment of time and energy. To me, the A+ school model is what education is all about. I wish I would have realized sooner that arts integration is not just about the curriculum and instruction. It is the lens through which we prioritize resources, hire and train professionals, communicate with our community, and interact with one another. It is our culture.”—Dr. Sarena Fuller, executive director, ArtSpace Charter School, Swannanoa, N.C.

The new school year has begun, and A+ Schools of North Carolina is welcoming many new A+ leaders. At each A+ school, the principal and assistant principal are supported by an A+ Coordinator or A+ coordination team who help the principals advocate A+ philosophy and practice schoolwide and serve as a liaison between the school and the A+ office.

This academic year, 67 pre-K through grade 12 schools in all regions of the state are following the A+ model; more than 30,000 students and 2,200 teachers and administrators are participating. As a new cohort of A+ leaders join the program, we asked some veteran A+ school leaders for guidance and words of encouragement. 

What value does becoming an A+ school add to the educational experience?

“A+ has given our school a focus and mission, deeper than we could have imagined,” said Melody Marsh, the principal of Royal Oaks School of the Arts, in Kannapolis, N.C. “It has brought us together and given us reason to believe that teaching and learning can be fun and that investing in the arts leads to a deeper understanding of content and higher engagement.”

Katiuska Herrador, the principal of Jones Academy of Fine Arts and Dual Language, in Arlington, Texas, said, “The most valuable thing we have gained is a special spirit. Call it a certain spunk or grit, even, but starting from Day One of our A+ Summer Institute, we developed a strong sense of trying new things, thinking outside of the box, and pushing ourselves to be creative to help improve student outcomes.”

What do veteran A+ leaders wish they had known when they began?

Creativity, thinking outside the box, and using the arts as a tool to approach education from a different angle are all pillars of the A+ Schools model, but someone coming to this philosophy from a traditional educational model might be confused or intimidated at first.

Ms. Marsh said it’s important for A+ leaders to keep this in mind: “A+ isn’t just about including the arts. The arts are just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many other components to focus on to bring the true A+ vision to life, such as climate, collaboration, and experiential learning.”

Veteran leaders agreed that new leaders must remember that the arts are just one of the eight A+ Essentials that are part of A+ practice and implementation. The whole-school reform model prioritizes creating an engaging, creative learning environment and school community.

Where can new A+ leaders turn for help?

Many A+ veterans discussed how important it is for educators to use resources available to them—especially ones that promote and encourage the A+ philosophy. Justin Carver, the principal of Banner Elk Elementary School, remarked, “You have a wealth of resources to gain understanding and guidance from.” 

An essential resource is the New A+ Leaders Toolkit. The A+ Schools staff, based at the North Carolina Arts Council, are also glad to advise and answer questions. Mr. Carver encouraged new A+ leaders to seek help from Michelle Burrows, the A+ Schools director, and her team. Among other things, he said, the staff “will pair principals and encourage them to share their experiences with each other. I have done this with a number of administrators.”

If the advice of these veterans could be distilled to one word, it would be this: Commit! Here’s how veteran A+ leaders explained it:

Ms. Herrador advised, “In professional development sessions, don't just sit back and observe. Get in there and dance, play, and learn alongside your staff. Enjoy the magic that A+ brings.”

Ms. Marsh commented that the uncertainty and the learning are part of the experience of being an A+ leader. She said, “[You] have to be comfortable with being vulnerable in front of your staff, and that’s part of the fun! Leaders are always learners, too!”

Dr. Fuller agreed: “Lean in and embrace the learning journey of leading an A+ school. Stand up and dance, create a collage together, make a joyful noise, and go all out. It is worth it.”