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2016 Bell Principal Robbie Holder: L. Mendel Rivers Elementary School Altus, OK

As r holder bell principala school that serves mostly students from military families, L. Mendel Rivers Elementary faces a unique set of challenges. Student turnover at the school has been as high as 41%, and students may enter the school at any point in the year, frequently with wildly disparate educational backgrounds. Besides their academic needs, students from military families often have additional social and emotional needs that must be addressed as well. Mrs. Robbie Holder rises to the challenge of serving this student population with a leadership philosophy that can be summed up in two words: respect and expectations. She must be respectful not just of her staff, students, and their families, but also of their ideas and differences and the practices that best serve them. Expectations should be high and clear, and they should focus on the success of students and the school.

The students at Rivers come from families where moving from state to state and even country to country is normal, as is having a parent leave for a deployment and living with the uncertainty of when they will return. For staff, it is normal to discover that their students must play catch-up because they transferred from districts that are behind Rivers academically, and it is normal to find their students crying in the middle of the school day because they miss their mom or dad. For all these reasons, Mrs. Holder has designed a school where the curriculum, instructional programs, and counseling services target student needs on an individual basis and the staff work closely with students and their families.

To meet academic goals, all students entering Rivers are assessed within their first week. Afterward, Mrs. Holder and her team meet with parents to facilitate a conversation about where each child is educationally. She reviews assessment data, explains what the expectations are, and finally brings everyone on board with what the school and the family need to do to help that child meet Rivers’ high expectations.

On an emotional and social level, Mrs. Holder’s role is equally important. Students at Rivers are often under a lot of stress. It is important for them and their families to feel that they are a part of the school culture as soon as they enter the door—a welcoming atmosphere that Mrs. Holder strives to create. When students struggle, she works directly with parents to come up with a plan. As a result, parent engagement at Rivers is high. Mrs. Holder makes it a point to celebrate every child and their unique situations, whether by helping plan a special reunion for a deployed mom to surprise her children or coming into the classroom to check on students in need. For Mrs. Holder, it’s all part of creating an environment where students feel safe and eager to learn.

Recently, Mrs. Holder also took on moving a school from good to great. Too many underperforming students were being left behind while others were not being challenged to reach their potential. Mrs. Holder began holding conferences with individual teachers, examining classroom and student data. From that exercise, she and her teachers devised a data-driven plan to move students in the bottom 25% to a higher level and enhance learning for above-level students. Students who were behind received extra help and resources, and class schedule adjustments and additional resources were made available for students who were above level.

Thanks to Mrs. Holder’s efforts, Rivers has become an excellent school. The school recently received an A+ on the Oklahoma State Report Card, was named a High Performing School by the Oklahoma State Department of Education, and was named the fifth best school in the state of Oklahoma. But perhaps the work of Mrs. Holder is best summed up in a quote from one of her student’s parents who was being deployed : “I knew that my girls would be taken care of at school and that whatever they needed emotionally would be given by this staff at Rivers.“

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