WELLINGTON — Erica Ward sat in her new office at Westwood Elementary school Wednesday afternoon, enjoying her first day as the new principal.
Her office was mostly empty except for her desk, a bulletin board, a few shelves and a chair. With the teachers returning to school Aug. 27 followed by students Aug. 29, Ward plans to get immersed in the operations and curriculum.
The district hired Ward, currently living in Port Clinton, on a two-year contract with an annual salary of $81,000. On her first day, Ward attended a district meeting with administrators and staff. She also met with community members, parents and children who introduced themselves to her Wednesday.
Ward has her work cut out for her, tasked with turning the school’s literacy rate
and academic performance around, something her predecessor, Paul Holland, failed to accomplish.
A long way up
Holland’s contract was not renewed May 15 due to the failing grades Westwood received on state tests, including an “F” in kindergarten-through-third-grade literacy from the Ohio Board of Education for the 2018 school year.
In Superintendent Ed Weber’s April 23 evaluation of Holland, he cited his failure to institute a reading improvement and monitoring plan for a number of third-graders who did not pass the state literacy test. That led to school’s literacy grade lowering from approximately a “B” to an “F,” according to board member Brett Murner.
The report also highlighted more than half of the kindergartners in the building were not on track for reading at grade level, along with 20 second-graders and 10 third-graders. It was recommended to the board to not renew Holland’s contract last year, but the board declined the decision to give the educator time to turn his building’s scores around during the transition period, according to Kevin Stump, school board president.
In order to even get close to those expectations within her two-year contract, Ward wants to first understand what and who she’s working with. Ward was hired after an extensive interview process with a special interview board made up of parents, teachers and administrators. Through the interview process, she asked what the teachers on the evaluation board needed.
The one thing they wanted was to collaborate better as a school, communicating past their own grade levels, she said. In the future, she wants to create a plan to align the actions of each grade to help one another. From the little she has reviewed, Ward said the district has the resources to succeed, and she wants to focus on the ways the district can use them.
“In having a plan, I have to get to know how we use it,” she said. “Are we missing pieces? Do we need a better road map?”
Big shoes to fill
In addition to her performance expectations, Ward also is facing a community that fought to retain Holland. Holland was appreciated for his kindness to students, parents and staff and many disagreed with his departure. A group of parents and community members formed a Facebook group called “Keep Mr. Holland” that worked to try and bring him back, but the board again rejected the contract renewal June 26.
Ward knows people miss Holland and may not be willing to accept her. Anytime someone is replaced, she said, it’s not an easy thing.
“What I want to accomplish is just that I’m going to come in and do the best job that I can,” she said. “All I can really and truly hope for is that the community, the families, the teachers and the students are willing to get to know me.”
In her interview process, Superintendent Weber said some parents involved in the “Keep Mr. Holland” group were invited to help evaluate candidates and approved of Ward.
Who is Ward
The new principal grew up in Bellevue and then moved to Florida where she worked in education with students from kindergarten to fifth grade since 2003. She has worked as a teacher as well as a reading and math coach before going into administration.
She received her bachelor’s degree in early childhood education from Heidelberg College in 2003. She also received a master’s degree in educational leadership from Nova Southeastern University in Florida in 2009 and a reading endorsement in 2011. As someone who is asked specifically to improve literacy through kindergarten through third grade, she feels like this position is a perfect fit.
“My heart is definitely in literacy, everything else is important, but if you have primary literacy strong, you are making all students successful all the way through,” she said.
Ward said she applied for the position because she wanted to be a principal again. She served as the assistant principal for Wetherbee Elementary School in Orlando from 2011-14. From 2015-17, she also served as a principal for Bucyrus Schools.
After that, she became an educational consultant from 2017 to May 2018 for North Central Ohio Educational Service Center in Tiffin. As a consultant, she visited many schools but felt a yearning to return as a principal.
“I wanted to have a family staff and be with the kids on a regular basis and they know who I am instead of ‘that redhead walking down the hallway,’” she said.
Ward also wanted to assure the community that no drastic changes will come to the school if they aren’t run by them as well as her, believing in teamwork and group effort.
The board will do an official approval of the contract at its Aug. 14 meeting, and Ward plans to meet with faculty, parents and students before the school year begins.
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