AECC Reflections – 2021

In the world of education, July is the page turning month; the month that starts with a deep exhale and some relaxation then ends with the opening of schools once again for teachers and students. July is a time to look back on the successes of the previous school year, fine tune what worked well, and change what didn’t. It’s a time for everyone in the district to catch their collective breath before the wave of teaching and learning begins to build anew.

Over the course of a week in June, each principal in Haywood County Schools (HCS) sat down and reflected on the 2021-2022 school year. They discussed the challenges of the first year of full, in-person learning since 2018-2019. They reflected on their school’s academic successes and looked honestly at areas of needed improvement. Each principal, without exception, praised their faculty and staff and understood the challenges that come with being a classroom teacher. They also discussed tangible ways to positively impact learning during the 2022-2023 school year.

Every school leader and every school brings something unique to the district of HCS. From Anderson Early Childhood Center all the way to Haywood High School, the buildings and staff that make each school what it is are shaped by the administrative teams on each campus and the invaluable work that each classroom teacher performs every single day.

Anderson Early Childhood Center (AECC) principal, Chris Haliburton, just completed his first full year as principal. He assumed the role of principal in March of 2021 and finished out the rest of that school year. Last August, he began what would be his first full year leading a school.

AECC is composed of Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten students. At this age, children are just beginning on their educational journey. They are learning letters, sounds, numbers, and basic scientific facts. They are discovering social cues, new friends, and learning things as simple as getting up and going to school every day.. With help from their teachers, they are building the foundation for becoming successful adults one day in the future.

For the students at AECC this past school year, they were able to attend school for a full school year for the first time. The benefits of a full year of in-person learning were seen on multiple levels.

“It was great having the kids back every day. At this age, they absorb as much as possible – academically and socially,” Chris said.

Coming into the year, Chris and his team at AECC were prepared as much as they could be considering how unpredictable COVID-19 had been. They were prepared to boost student learning with students being in attendance five days a week. They were also prepared should students have to miss a considerable amount of time due to sickness.

“We anticipated not being able to anticipate what COVID would be like. We talked about ways to maximize student learning if we would be able to remain in full in-person learning mode – which we were. We also talked about plans in case we had a lot of students missing because of quarantine or having COVID. So, we were prepared as much as we could’ve been prepared,” he said.

Luckily, schools did not have to close due to a widespread outbreak of sickness. And, because of that, learning at AECC took off like a rocket. At each school leadership team meeting, new data was presented that showed astounding growth in reading and math among the pre-k and kindergarten students at AECC.

“We could tell that the students were really excited about being at school. There was a lot of progression – socially and academically – in Pre-K. In Kindergarten, we hit every benchmark goal that we set out to accomplish. Our data was very strong,” Chris explained. “We started the Reader/Writer project where each student has their own learning target goals. I want to start looking at the national average of AIMSWEB data, and our students need to be at 50% on the national average to be on grade level. Now, we have to take that momentum and carry it into the next school year.”

For students who are just beginning their educational journey, school attendance is a top-priority. Because learning happens so quickly at this age, students in pre-k and kindergarten need to be in school as much as possible.

“A lot of students don’t even know how to hold a pencil when they get here, so they learn something as simple as how to do that. We take that for granted, but almost everything is new for our pre-k students. They learn about community helpers and letters and sounds. You can really see the progression over the course of a year. They also have to learn how to be in school and attend school regularly,” Chris said.

A built-in support in Haywood County Schools that assists with consistent attendance is having a school social worker on each campus. At AECC, the school social worker partners with families to ensure students attend school as much as possible.

“Our school social worker really helps with the attendance piece. I heard someone say that normally Kindergarten students have a high rate of chronic absenteeism. Our social worker’s main priority is that our students are in school because if they’re not in school, they can’t learn,” Chris said.

Along with the substantial growth his students are showing, Chris also knows that he has to continue to grow as an administrator in order to see the continued success of AECC. Having a full year under his belt has definitely helped the growth process.

“When I first started in March of 2021, everything was so fast. It’s still fast, but I can stay on top of things. Until you get in a position like this though, you can only prepare so much for it; the rest you have to learn by experience,” he said. “I’m definitely still growing, though. I’m not where I want to be, and I’m not going to become complacent. I’ve got a lot of learning to do.”