On July 11, Ascension Public Schools will find out if it has back-to-back winners of Louisiana Principal of the Year.
Pecan Grove Primary Principal Marjorie Meyers is finishing her year as the 2015 winner, and Gonzales Primary Principal Jaimee Williams is one of nine finalists for the 2016 honor.
“We are blessed with hardworking, dedicated leaders at Ascension Public Schools who believe in the success of every child,” said Patrice Pujol, Ascension Public Schools superintendent and the 2015 Louisiana Superintendent of the Year.
She credited Williams with enacting positive changes at Gonzales Primary in a short time.
“I am immensely proud of her and believe she is deserving of this honor,” Pujol said.
“Earning the state honor would be validation for my staff, students and the community of Gonzales Primary,” Williams said. “I believe it is the absolute greatest school in Ascension Parish and the state, and I am the luckiest principal in the world.”
During her first year as principal of Gonzales Primary in 2012, Williams was faced with turning around a school that was one point away from an F in student performance. Her first task was to raise expectations and position teachers to meet those expectations. She ended up hiring 13 new teachers between September and November of that first year.
“My priority was to seek out teachers who wanted to be here and believed in our ability to achieve success. Then, I had to promote the good, as success breeds success. Essentially, we had to build a culture of collective efficacy,” said Williams.
Her first milestone came after Christmas of that first year when she compared quarterly performance data to the previous year and already saw improvement. By sharing that with her teachers, it reinforced the belief and drive.
Williams’ strategy worked, and by mid-May, Gonzales Primary’s performance scores grew an astounding 26 points to be one half a point short of a B.
“I was crying, in complete shock and awe over what we had accomplished,” said Williams. “That’s when we solidified the mind-set that we are a high-performing school.”
Williams could be considered a nontraditional educator because she began her career in a different field.
“I know this is my calling, because I never saw myself becoming an educator, yet it is the most rewarding, fun and hardest job I have ever had. This is so much more than a job to me,” said Williams.
Originally from Los Angeles, she attended high school in Natchez, Mississippi, and came to Louisiana to attend Southern University in Baton Rouge. Williams earned a bachelor’s degree in mass communication in 2000 and worked for the New Orleans Saints in sales and marketing before moving to community relations.
She said she never considered working in education until the Saints partnered with Teach for America and she started working with the schools. That experience prompted her to pursue alternative certification.
Williams taught in Iberville Parish for two years before moving to Ascension Parish to teach fifth grade at Gonzales Primary. In 2008, she became the instructional coach at Pecan Grove Primary, a new school led by Marjorie Meyers, the 2015 Louisiana Principal of the Year.
“I learned pretty much everything I know about leadership from Margie, like how to build your own culture,” said Williams. “It is an honor and a blessing to follow in her footsteps.”
In 2009, she earned a master’s degree in educational leadership from Southern University. Then, after serving two years as assistant principal of St. Amant Primary School, she returned to Gonzales Primary as Principal and is pursuing a doctorate in educational leadership at Southeastern Louisiana University.
A support network
Family has had the biggest influence on Williams’ life and career goals, she said, specifically the grandmother who helped raise her, Emma Wimley; her father, Earl McCullen; and her 10-year-old daughter, Kynedee.
“My dad is my biggest supporter. He went to college with the intent to become an educator, and he always pushed and believed in me,” she said.
Williams also credits the Ascension Parish school district for her growth as a leader and says Superintendent Pujol’s leadership continuously inspires her.
Williams said she has learned that an effective leader must know her staff and be in tune with what a positive culture looks like on her campus, as every campus culture is different.
“You have to listen to what teachers are telling you. They are the absolute experts on what is working and what is not in the classroom. You have to give and earn mutual respect,” Williams said. “My teachers have to see me as a learner and not just the gatekeeper of information.”
On the horizon
After achieving significant gains in student performance and overhauling the campus culture, what is on the horizon for Principal Williams and Gonzales Primary?
“We are now in a different playing field. It’s not just good enough that we are meeting basic level performance. We must continually raise expectations,” she said.
“Our next focus is to get more community and industry involvement in our school. We want to give our students the opportunity to see the successes in their own communities and know what opportunities are available to them if they work hard,” said Williams.
The winner of the 2016 Louisiana Principal of the Year will be announced at the Cecil J. Picard Educator Excellence Symposium and Celebration on July 11 in Baton Rouge.
For more information about the statewide program, visit www.dreamteachers.org/semifinalists2016.html.