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Heidi Smith, Principal, Frank L. Huff Elementary School – Mountain View, CA

2015 Terrel Bell awardeeWhen Frank L. Huff Elementary School reopened its doors in 1998, the district made a concerted effort to ensure diversity at the K-5 school. Today the student body at Huff Elementary represents 37 countries and 32 home languages. Additionally, 21% of students are classified as English Language Learners, another 20% are identified as gifted and talented, and 42% receive free/reduced-price meals. While reaching every student under these conditions is a challenge, it is one that Heidi Smith takes seriously. During her tenure, she has focused Huff on providing equity, engagement, individual support, and enrichment for all of Huff’s students. Huff has become a community that lives by the mantra, “All Children are Our Children.”

Social justice and equity are Ms. Smith’s passions. She works diligently to maintain a culture where all students’ talents are acknowledged and celebrated. One of the primary ways Ms. Smith accomplished this was by replacing Huff’s gifted program with an Enrichment for All program. Staff had noticed that students who were not enrolled in the gifted and talented program experienced low self-efficacy when their peers were singled out for enrichment activities. To counteract that feeling, Enrichment for All was offered to all students regardless of background, socio-economic status, or presumed abilities. The program includes opportunities for students to participate in speech and debate classes, push-in science lab enrichment, blended learning opportunities, creative writing, and instruction in coding, among other activities. Since the transition, student morale has improved, as have students’ oral presentations and critical thinking skills. Achievement gaps have narrowed, and the program has fostered a more inclusive and welcoming environment for all students.

While Ms. Smith maintains high academic expectations, her focus on increasing achievement does not come at the expense of students’ social and emotional needs. To ensure a safe, trusting environment, Ms. Smith worked with the PTA, parent volunteers, and the YMCA to fund Project Cornerstone and the Growth Mindset pilot initiative. Via Project Cornerstone, trained parent volunteers facilitate schoolwide readings of books focused on character education. The Growth Mindset pilot, a result of Ms. Smith’s empowering a teacher leader to write a schoolwide curriculum, supports students in reaching their potential by shifting mindsets about intelligence and the physiology of learning. Huff students learn to embrace failure as necessary to success and use self-talk that uplifts and motivates them even in the face of challenges.

As with her students, Ms. Smith’s expectations for excellence extend to Huff’s teachers and staff, and she leads the school’s professional learning community. She has instituted systems and routines to manage the transition to Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards. She sets clear expectations for implementing new curriculum and provides training, coaching, and planning time so that teachers are prepared to deliver high quality instruction.

A collaborative leader, Ms. Smith is skilled at developing trusting relationships. She aligns her work as principal to the mission and goals of the district, and works with teachers to ensure they do as well. Understanding that teachers grow as professionals when they experience teaching and learning beyond their own classrooms, Ms. Smith champions collaboration among teachers at Huff and across sites in the district. Additionally, and in the spirit of inclusiveness, she includes the parent community in ongoing communication about changes to curriculum and expectations.

Lately, in an effort to keep innovating and improving student achievement, Ms. Smith has turned attention to Huff’s writing and science curricula. Seeing room for growth in both areas, Ms. Smith provided staff development in writing, purchased additional materials and enrichment instruction for hands-on science experiences for students, and encouraged the integration of writing across all content areas, with a focus on science content through the use of science journals. The new approach was so successful that Ms. Smith has developed a new goal: to have Huff become a STEW (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Writing) school.