By Mike Marsee
Walk into Southwest Calloway Elementary School and you just might see Principal Josh McKeel wearing a chicken costume.
On another day, he could be wearing a tutu. Or he just might be leading a marching band through the halls. Yet while students and staff members at the Calloway County school have come to expect the unexpected from their leader, they know what is expected of them.
McKeel is committed to continuing Southwest Calloway’s legacy as a school that does great things for its students, and it was recognized as such when the U.S. Department of Education named it a 2016 National Blue Ribbon School.
“It’s always been about being better, and we try to have an experience where the kids understand that this is a great place to be,” McKeel said. “To be recognized on a national level kind of brings attention to what we thought we were doing well and confirms that things are headed in the right direction and we have a great school.”
The school likes to celebrate its successes, and sometimes McKeel simply enjoys injecting some fun into an otherwise ordinary day, such as when he wears a chicken outfit into the cafeteria on a day when chicken fingers are being served.
“You never know what might show up,” he said. “Not only do students come to learn, but they come saying, ‘What’s going to happen today?’”
McKeel’s goals remain the same, however, for a school that was named a Distinguished School in 2016 and a Distinguished and High Progressing School in 2014 and 2015 by the Kentucky Department of Education based on students’ performance on the Kentucky Performance Rating for Educational Progress (K-PREP) Test.
“I tell the parents the first thing I’m going to do is make sure your kid is safe, and I’m going to make sure that we’ve challenged them academically,” McKeel said. “We’re going to be relevant and rigorous and we’re going to make sure that we make them the best they possibly can be. Our staff and our faculty have bought into that. It’s a belief that we’re going to give your child everything we have to let them reach their full potential.”
Fourth-grade teacher Yvonna Hooper said teachers and principals at the school have always put their students first.
“Everyone here works for the best of the child,” Hooper said. “It doesn’t matter if the child is excelling or struggling or in the middle of the road. We’re always working to make sure that every child grows – and the whole child, not just their education.”
Southwest Calloway, located about 5 miles outside of Murray, has about 470 students in grades K-5, and 51 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
McKeel said there have been many factors in Southwest Calloway’s success, but the one he points to as having had the greatest impact is an emphasis on using data to make decisions.
“Data drives everything. It drives our lessons, it drives our interventions, it drives what we do,” he said. “Data drives every decision that we make in and out of the classroom. How are we going to reduce novice? How are we going to continue to challenge those kids who are excelling?”
He said using data strategically involves more than simply creating spreadsheets.
“Understand what that data means and how it impacts our kids. Make it a part of our instruction, where it helps us plan our instruction. And when we’re in the middle of a lesson, ask how we use it to improve what we’re doing right now,” McKeel said.
Andy Davenport, a 5th-grade social studies teacher, said McKeel’s leadership is one thing that sets Southwest Calloway apart.
“We have great leadership in our school. He sets the pace for all of us, sets high standards. Plus, our shareholders out in the community are some of the best that we could ask for,” Davenport said.
McKeel, a Calloway County native, inherited a veteran faculty when he came to Southwest Calloway five years ago.
“Every teacher that we have in our building has been here at least four years,” he said. “We’ve got a middle-of-career staff that has performed at high levels for a long time. That gives you consistency, and you have expectations that are understood and are met.
“My job is just to help facilitate and remove barriers and let my teachers do their job.”
Hooper, who has spent her entire 19-year teaching career at Southwest Calloway, said she has never wanted to teach anywhere else.
“This is a really good place to work. The people here are all dedicated to children,” she said.
Kindergarten teacher Mallory Bybee, who in her fourth year at the school and remains one of its newest teachers, said a veteran staff is definitely an asset for the school.
“They’re able to get better every year. When you have a lot of turnover, it’s hard to get consistency,” she said. “We have a very special thing going on here and we hope it continues, and we know it will.”
McKeel uses the philosophy put forward in Sam Parker’s book, “212 Degrees: The Extra Degree,” which says that water at 211 degrees is simply water that is too hot to use. But at 212 degrees, water becomes steam and is capable of generating power.
The school celebrates 212 Day each Feb. 12 and recognizes students throughout the year who are “being 212” with extra rewards.
The school’s Captain’s Club recognizes students who are performing at high levels or who have shown improvement in academics or behavior on a bi-monthly basis. Students’ accomplishments also are displayed and announced throughout the building on a regular basis.
Bybee said those celebrations are important, particularly at a level such as kindergarten, where students aren’t yet measured by state assessments.
“Sometimes in other schools it felt like our work didn’t matter, but he makes it feel like any accomplishment for any child is a huge deal. That makes the kids take ownership of their learning, it gives the teachers pride and the whole school is supportive,” she said.
McKeel said the school is planning a week-long celebration this spring of its Blue Ribbon achievement that will involve not only the staff and students, but also parents and the entire community.
“It was a great afternoon to be able to sit in front of the faculty and staff and say we have been named a National Blue Ribbon School,” he said.
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