Mrs. Carmen Vargas-Guevara was on a mission to close the achievement gap and make South Street School in Danbury, Connecticut an exemplary model when she joined as principal in 2017. With a community population of over 80 percent Hispanic and other non-native English speakers, she set her sights on bringing a new vision to the school by establishing mutual respect, trust, and creating a safe environment for all. She called upon her past teaching and administrative experiences working in challenging districts as a general education teacher, bilingual teacher, and as an Assistant Principal in the private sector and in public schools. With her professional leadership experience serving high needs populations and her own Puerto Rican background, she knew she was up to the task. Principal Vargas-Guevara’s ability to meaningfully engage and connect with families and serve as a hands-on instructional leader is what sets her apart.
In only a few short years, Principal Vargas-Guevara oversaw key changes in one of the district’s lowest performing schools with a large high-needs population. She created a school culture of continuous improvement and success. Principal Vargas-Guevara began with three guiding principles to serve as the foundation at South Street School as the school community worked together to close the achievement gap. The first principle was high expectations for all students. She helped shape the culture of the school to remove assumptions about what students were or were not capable of. As she states, “there are no excuses and no barriers” to meeting the academic, social, and emotional needs of every student. Second, was to establish and understand the school’s vision and mission. Principal Vargas-Guevara understood that everyone had to be working in the same direction, so she communicated to school staff, students, and families that the goal was to empower and equip students with the necessary skills for them to thrive in society. Finally, she assured her staff and the broader school community that she would lead with empathy and respect. Through this principle, she communicated that she would advocate for them, hold everyone accountable – including herself – and together, they would give 100 percent to the community.
When Principal Vargas-Guevara arrived at South Street School, she was keenly aware that the school did not reflect the community, making it difficult to connect with families. She understood that to close the achievement gap, she would have to build bridges to the community and communicate clearly defined, high expectations for all students. Described as a “vigorous approach” to family involvement, Principal Vargas-Guevara worked hard to build stronger connections with families by staffing the school with bilingual personnel. The school persistently reached out to families through social media and other platforms, providing translators at all events, and developing meaningful programs for the community. As a result, she has managed to secure 100 percent participation at parent-teacher conferences, increased parent participation in the Parent Teacher Organization, and helped families feel valued, respected, and informed.
One of the most valuable leadership tools Principal Vargas-Guevara uses with her staff is her strength as an instructional leader who exercises shared leadership. She builds leadership in others by modeling and supporting teachers with proven instructional practices and planning and facilitating meetings and professional development. During her first year at South Street, Principal Vargas-Guevara began each meeting by articulating a clear focus, mission, and vision. She restructured meeting protocols to be more meaningful and focused. She skillfully used data to drive instructional and organizational decisions. Each month, staff participate in active committee meetings focused on School Climate, Curriculum and Instruction, and Parental Involvement. Committees include representatives from each grade level. Each month, the committees discuss successes, challenges, solutions, and next steps. Notes from each committee are posted on a shared drive to ensure school-wide decision-making and transparency. These changes and her “whatever it takes” mindset won the hearts and minds of teachers.
Under Principal Vargas-Guevara’s leadership, South Street is “closer than ever to closing the achievement gap.” As they continue to work on closing the gap completely, the school has become a model school. South Street students’ academic growth and performance has increased dramatically. Principal Vargas-Guevara essentially turned around the lowest performing school in the district, and created a genuine community at South Street.