Five years ago, I thought I was going to catch Miriam Hughey-Guy, principal of Barcroft Elementary School in Arlington County, making an excuse for her school’s failure to reach federal proficiency targets three years in a row.
I didn’t see why she had to take the blame. Her students were mostly from low-income families. Many parents spoke little English. That year the school just missed the mark, needing only seven more limited-English students to pass the state reading test.
When I asked about this, she began a sentence with the word “because.” She seemed on the verge of blaming somebody or something else. But she cut herself off and started again.
“No because,” she said. “There is no excuse!” Failing to meet the requirements of the No Child Left Behind law was “mind-boggling,” she said, “but it is something we have to work on.”
Which is what she, and a team of teachers who hold her in awe, did. They brought the school back into compliance. More importantly, they demonstrated how good a school full of poor kids can be if it has a smart, energetic principal who gives teachers unwavering support for their best ideas.
This year, Hughey-Guy, 59, is retiring. I don’t envy the person who will take her place. It is difficult to find a principal as creative and resourceful as she has been. Barcroft’s Leonardo da Vinci Project, a way to mix history, art and science in ways that enthrall children, has become a curricular legend. Hughey-Guy is the only Arlington principal to persuade parents and teachers to switch to a year-round schedule to reduce the learning loss from the traditional summer vacation.
The average elementary school principal’s tenure is five years. This is Hughey-Guy’s 20th year at Barcroft. Parents, teachers and students speak of the 5-foot-tall former physical education teacher with a reverence similar to what former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs gets from football fans.
Andrew J. Rotherham, former education adviser to President Bill Clinton and former member of the Virginia state school board, has kids at Barcroft. Hughey-Guy “led a genuinely economically diverse school that parents are choosing,” he said. “Schools like that are pretty rare in the context of American education.”
Dora Sue Black, the lead teacher for reading at Barcroft, said Hughey-Guy “encourages staff involvement in decisions and implementation. She provides support when teachers come with ideas to support and challenge the students.”
“She is a whirling dervish that doesn’t stop,” said Arlington County School Superintendent Patrick K. Murphy. “She always has an opinion, has strong beliefs and is always action-oriented.”
Sixty-one percent of Barcroft’s 481 students are from low-income families. Fifty-two percent are Hispanic, 23 percent white, 10 percent black and 9 percent Asian. The school has an 8:45 a.m. to 5 p.m. extended-learning program. It offers Spanish as a foreign language to all students.
Hughey-Guy said she plans to spend more time with her husband while spreading the word of how to build a great school. She loved talking to kids. She encouraged teachers to be leaders. She shared and analyzed new student data immediately. She had her staff plan for each student. She had frequent meetings with parents.
If all principals were as good as Hughey-Guy, this would be the golden age of American education. Many people she trained are now running schools, or soon will be. We should be glad they are out there showing what they learned from a remarkable woman who always hugged kids, and knew all their names.