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James Heater, Principal, Esther F. Garrison School of Visual and Performing Arts – Savannah, GA

2015 terrel bell awardeeIn 2013, when James Heater became principal of Esther F. Garrison School of Visual and Performing Arts, he was the school’s third principal in as many years. Garrison was struggling with its mission and identity. Leadership was fundamentally broken, resulting in a loss of confidence from all stakeholders, and the PTA had fallen apart. Mr. Heater immediately engaged his leadership team, parents, stakeholders, and students, and dedicated himself to encouraging excellence throughout the building. His continuous promotion of high expectations for students and staff was recognized when he won the 2014 Georgia PTA Outstanding Principal Award.

The core of Mr. Heater’s leadership philosophy is to treat every person in a respectful, caring, and professional manner. He conveys this by sharing school responsibilities with all constituents and fostering communication that addresses their dreams, hopes, and ideas. One of Mr. Heater’s first acts as principal was to obtain stakeholder feedback, which he used to schedule enhanced instructional time and maximize staff efforts. The new schedule created a remediation/ resource instructional block for each subject, and reduced class size, allowing teachers to re-teach or extend lessons. Mr. Heater also developed regular routines that were shared in the form of staff and student handbooks to establish expectations.

Communication became a priority. Besides stopping by every classroom in the morning, Mr. Heater attends nearly every performance, exhibition, and sporting event that Garrison participates in. Weekly call-outs, monthly newsletters, and the school website share information with stakeholders. When parents broached the topic of safety, including the dangers of busy streets, unsecured school entry points, and a lack of a check-in system for visitors, Mr. Heater worked with the PTA’s safety committee to make sure the most serious lapses were resolved by the year’s end.

While believing he must act as a model of leadership, Mr. Heater also believes in maximizing the number of opportunities for students, parents, and staff to take active school roles. He created a School Council, comprising parents, PTA officers, teachers, and community business representatives to energize and empower the education process, and established a School Leadership Team to help determine Garrison’s mission and vision. Students participate on the Student Council, and older students are trained to act as peer mediators.

Connecting Garrison students to opportunities in Savannah’s business and arts communities has been another focus of Mr. Heater’s tenure. Students are members of the Savannah Youth Futures Council, and one student was selected as a member of the State Superintendent’s Student Council. Along with the PTA, Mr. Heater formed relationships with the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), Savannah’s art museums, and members of the Savannah film community. Results of these partnerships include an exhibition of Garrison seventh and eighth grade students’ art at the SCAD Museum of Art, and an opportunity for lower grade students to take free educational workshops at the Savannah Children’s Museum.

Along with the school’s emphasis on the arts, Mr. Heater has made it a priority to keep the focus on academics. He worked extensively to help teachers create data-driven classrooms and increase rigor. Eighth grade students have the opportunity to earn high school credit while they are still in middle school, and creative scheduling has provided Spanish instruction for all students. Seventy-five percent of eighth grade students leave with two or more high school credits.

Finally, because Mr. Heater expects regular education teachers to integrate the arts into their classrooms, he provides unique opportunities to promote teacher development in this area. In the 2014-2015 school year, Mr. Heater took groups of teachers and parents to visit performing arts schools in Florida where they observed arts integration in action and returned with ideas for how to make them a reality at Garrison.