Memphis principal retires after 17 years lifting up school with long odds

Principal Yolanda Heidelberg with former student Maria Pena (third from left) and family members.

After 17 years at Jackson Elementary School and 30 years at Memphis schools, the principal who led her once-struggling school to national recognition is retiring.

Yolanda Heidelberg, who worked at Gardenview and Kingsbury elementary schools before taking over at Jackson Elementary, credits her love of teaching to being a third generation educator on both sides of her family.

“During family gatherings, I heard conversations as a child centered around the dinner table regarding how to best help children,” she said in a letter to Jackson Elementary teachers, fellow principals, and Shelby County Schools leadership announcing her retirement. “So then, I was innately destined to do this work.”

During Heidelberg’s time at the Berclair school, students have sustained the state’s highest rating for academic growth since 2005 and scored higher than the district average on state tests, even with the tumultuous rollout of the new standardized test, TNReady.

That’s noteworthy because three out of four students at Jackson Elementary live in poverty, and for nearly half of students, English is not their native language. That’s much higher than the rest of district, in which about 60 percent of students live in poverty and 9 percent of students are English learners. The Memphis district has long struggled to catch those students up to their peers in academics.

So in 2016, the U.S. Department of Education gave the school its highest honor for closing the gap between white students and students of color and between students from poor and affluent families.

Read more about Jackson Elementary School’s success in our 2016 story when it was nationally recognized

Heidelberg said a key to her success was working collaboratively with teachers and parents, addressing any hurdles that might get in the way of their involvement school.

When she couldn’t get translation services from the school district a decade ago for parent announcements and other materials, Heidelberg improvised and used the Memphis Police Department’s resources to get it done. It is also commonplace to see parent volunteers in the school and at meetings.

Her staff also point to her coaching and leadership as a guiding force for how teachers collaborate and brainstorm to best meet the needs of students. For example, English as a Second Language teachers are often seen in regular classroom meetings and help their students in their mainstream classes.

Jackson Elementary is one of six schools that are in need of a new principal in Shelby County Schools, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told school board members Tuesday. Those other schools are Woodstock Middle, Lucy Elementary, Vollentine Elementary, Cordova Middle, and Sherwood Middle.

You can read Heidelberg’s farewell letter below:

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