Principal Works To Help Middle School Students Thrive

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The thing about middle school is, when you're in it, it's hard. You're growing up, but still a kid. You're body is changing, and you even have to start changing classes instead of sitting with the same teacher all day. It's no accident that test scores for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders typically dip before rising again in high school.

Sometimes it takes a maverick -- which is also the school's mascot -- to guide middle school students through those emotionally tumultuous years. Meet Rim Country Middle School's new principal, Gary Witherspoon. A computer printout of a maverick hangs on the wall behind his desk, and Witherspoon says he considers himself one.

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Gary Witherspoon

"I encourage myself to think outside the box," he said.

Some educators theorize that the emotional jolt of moving from the one-teacher world of an elementary school student to the seven-teacher world of a middle school student contributes to lower test scores. Witherspoon is contemplating introducing multiple teachers gradually, perhaps with fewer class changes initially.

But Witherspoon says right now, understanding the workings of the school and the district is most important.

"Everybody that's a part of the school realizes that changes are going to be made, but it will be done collaboratively and with their input." Witherspoon said his predecessor, Monica Nitzsche, left a good foundation.

"It's been challenging," Witherspoon said. "I'm getting things revealed to me every day about how things operate, in addition to getting to know the faculty."

He continued, "I'm kind of really observing and taking it all in and learning things and trying to manage the logistics of construction. It's almost overwhelming at times."

At times, candy bars help. "I told the students I'd know their names by the end of the first quarter," Witherspoon said. He told his 700 students that if he didn't know their names, he'd give them a candy bar.

"I'm sure I'm going to hand out quite a few candy bars, but I don't mind." It's part of Witherspoon's philosophy -- don't sit in the office too much, get out into the halls, into the classrooms and create a culture of openness and comfort, where kids know they still need to behave.

Witherspoon, 37, is a soft-spoken man, raised by a white dad and Native American mom in the four corners area -- New Mexico and Colorado. He spent his junior and senior years of high school in the Seattle, Wash. area. His father, a Pulitzer Prize nominated anthropologist who taught at Yale University for a year, found a job teaching Native American Studies at the University of Washington after years of raising cattle. The family moved.

Witherspoon was a four-time state championship wrestler, and many colleges courted him with scholarships. He decided to attend Arizona State University and become a social studies teacher.

"I had a lot of good teachers, coaches that steered me in the right direction, and I wanted to give that back," Witherspoon said.

He taught social studies -- primarily high school juniors and seniors -- eventually earning his master's degree in educational leadership from the University of Phoenix while teaching in Parker. He became the school's assistant principal, and was later promoted to principal.

"It was a big change because I love being in the classroom," Witherspoon said of his switch to administration. Assistant principals deal mainly with disciplinary problems, he said. "That's what I did; I was Dr. Discipline."

Still, the ability to direct a school's entire culture, from hiring good teachers, encouraging the ones already hired, and directing curriculum schoolwide, allows administrators to affect more children. That interested Witherspoon.

He focuses on data to make instructional decisions and never forgets the mission. "Our mission statement is pretty simple. It's unite students, parents and teachers to support the common purpose of academic excellence. Nothing but excellence. That's what we're striving for."

Witherspoon led Parker's kindergarten through eighth grade school, and then decided he wanted to move out of the heat.

He worked as an assistant principal and school improvement specialist in Ganado, then moved to Snowflake, where he found a job as the intermediate school principal -- grades four, five and six.

Witherspoon has four sons, ages 8, 9, 15, and 16. The oldest has heart problems, and the family eventually decided to move closer to the Valley and its hospitals. He considered living in the Valley, but then remembered its intense heat.

He applied to Payson after hearing of an opening, and got the job.

On Witherspoon's desk sits a legal pad cluttered with his lengthy to-do list, a laptop and assorted paperwork. On a recent Tuesday, Witherspoon made himself available between signing paperwork and a construction meeting.

Even mavericks must attend to daily duties.

Research shows that students who fall behind in middle school are more likely to drop out of high school, Witherspoon said. With an age so pivotal, programs like the intervention pyramid help keep kids on track.

The research-based pyramid describes what forms of intervention, such as increased mentoring or tutoring, teachers should use for various levels of functioning. It also describes rewards for successful students. The top of the pyramid describes intensive action for students most at-risk.

"One of the things that is a challenge is a lot of our kids come from different backgrounds," Witherspoon said.

Not every child or family is completely responsive to intervention. But sometimes, the trickiest situations require a maverick's perseverance.

"You just never give up."

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