June 2010

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R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Sheila Kahrs’ philosophy garnered a national award for the middle school principal

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Sheila Kahrs. Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker

Sometimes it’s Bach, sometimes it’s Mozart, but the classical music playing as students arrive at Haymon-Morris Middle School always sets a calm mood.

This purposeful start to the day is just one idea Principal Sheila Kahrs (EdD ’92) enacted when she was hired to head the new school in Barrow County five years ago. It is also part of the “whatever it takes” philosophy she forged with teachers, based on educator and author Richard DuFour’s book Raising the Bar and Closing the Gap.

Because more than half the school’s students qualify to receive free or reduced-price lunch, Kahrs knows the students need a personalized environment to overcome socioeconomic stumbling blocks in education.

“It’s a hard age for parents and kids,” Kahrs says. “We realize the seriousness of what we owe them.”

Kahrs was named the 2010 National Middle Level Principal of the Year by MetLife and the National Association of Secondary School Principals. The school leads Barrow County in writing test scores and four out of five Criterion-Referenced Competency Test scores.

Respect, rewards and attention are keys to the school’s success.

“The students are treated as if high achievements are endless,” she says. “Poverty does not mean low intellect.”

Kahrs meets with students who earn a 70 or below on report cards to show them that even the principal cares how they do in school. Once, a student who had been to see Kahrs about a failing grade in math returned to excitedly report a C+.

“‘Respect’ is a word to describe the school—respect for each other and the curriculum,” Kahrs says. “We know kids will not learn from us if we don’t care.”

Kahrs and the teachers abide by a positive discipline plan, rewarding students with 45 minutes of non-curricular activities at the end of two or three weeks. The reward can be time outside, a cookie decorating class or playing Rock Band or musical chairs.

Before class starts at 8:35 a.m., Kahrs waits by the doors to greet incoming students.

“There’s a beautiful innocence about children in this world of awful stuff,” she says. “They’re not afraid to hug you.”

Kahrs, who has spent her professional life in education—earning her doctorate in educational leadership, teaching music at Russell Middle School in Barrow County and serving as assistant principal at Westside Middle School before opening Haymon-Morris—says she will not retire too young.

“I’m never going to be able to just call it quits,” she says. “With experience comes wisdom. I really enjoy what I’m doing. I want to be in the throes of my school.”