The Art of Turning Things Around: A Texas Principal’s Story

October 17, 2023

The Art of Turning Things Around: A Texas Principal’s Story

As we celebrate National Principals Month, we appreciate all principals who work tirelessly to make a difference in their schools. Throughout the month, we are excited to highlight a handful of school leaders to learn from, as we see great work happening across the nation. Today, we reflect on Winona Middle School Principal Johnny Walker in Texas and his turnaround efforts that have uplifted multiple schools in the Winona Independent School District.

By 2019, Johnny Walker was already well-versed in what needed to be done to have a turnaround effect in a school. He had led the effort as associate principal with Winona Elementary in Texas, which soared from a grade “F” to a grade “B” in just 2 years.

For him, his “turnaround” efforts were just beginning.

Throughout his time as associate principal at Winona Elementary, Walker became fully invested in helping improve the school significantly. His ambition to uplift schools grew after attending the Harvard School Turnaround Leaders Symposium, surrounded by educational leaders centered around turning schools around. He was brimming with renewed purpose and eager to return to Texas to apply all he learned - both knowledge and inspiration.

In his 15 years in the education field, Walker has guided teachers through challenging lessons, ensured he focuses on the little things to build relationships with peers and constantly kept the betterment of his students at the forefront of his mind. His collaboration with other leaders at the symposium focusing on “turnaround” efforts in schools empowered him.

“There was an electric energy. It was a gathering of the most brilliant minds in education from across the globe, all congregated with a shared mission: to revitalize and reinvent schools that were facing challenges,” Walker said. “The diversity of the group was its strength. From urban principals to rural administrators, from policy influencers to on-ground educators, everyone brought a unique perspective to the table.”

There was one quote from a professor that resonated with him so deeply during his visit to Harvard, that he is sure to pack it in his bag and carry it with him to his office each day:

"Turning around a school is not just about changing statistics; it's about changing lives,” Walker recited.

Now, he works to bring that quote to life within the halls of Winona Middle School.

Relentless support, rigorous expectations

When Walker first got his teaching certification he took a position at a high-performing, high-needs school in Longview, Texas, where he saw firsthand how students can succeed regardless of their circumstances, with the right systems in place.

“The principal refused to settle for mediocre teaching and learning for her school. She taught me the importance of curriculum alignment and the deep knowledge of student expectations through professional learning,” Walker said. “I quickly found myself invested in the school’s vision and the idea that a student’s zip code or their parent’s income does not determine their ability to learn at high levels.”

One of his biggest actions while he led the turnaround effort in Winona Elementary was helping align teacher goals with student growth expectations, he said.

“During the turnaround process, I assisted teachers with building powerful lessons, created aligned assessments, facilitated impactful data meetings, and sustained meaningful relationships with teachers that proved to them that we were in the fight together. As a result, I was asked to lead the charge at Winona Middle School.”

Winona Middle School needed work, too - ranked an “F” school when Walker stepped into office. But he was ready, and with his structure of support and efforts to build relationships and develop intentional instructional leadership, Walker said the needle began to move.

The middle school also went from an “F” to a “B” ranking in two years and this year, Walker has his sights on achieving an “A” with the help of his staff, instructional planning and support structures like NIET, he said.

“During this time our partnership with NIET strengthened and aligned our improvement efforts for sustained student growth and increased teacher effectiveness,” Walker said. “I am excited to see what the future holds because I sincerely believe in the abilities of teachers and students when they are placed in a safe and trusting environment, that focuses on high expectations for all and high levels of learning for all.”

While an “A” ranking is no small feat, it doesn’t mark the finish line for Walker and Winona Middle School. One goal they have this year is to implement more use of high-quality curriculum, ensuring teachers have full comprehension of the materials they are using for instructional lessons, and providing every student with rigorous, enriching lessons.

Walker’s progressive mastery of identifying strengths and addressing areas of improvement in schools now has a track record of success in Winona - and he keeps in mind a second memorable quote centered around turning schools around:

“Every system is perfectly designed to get the outcomes that it gets.”

Modeling Leadership for Teachers

Having school leaders who help teachers navigate challenges makes all the difference. For Walker, he could identify ways to help build the potential of his teachers and took the responsibility to help them succeed.

A major breakthrough he had with a struggling English teacher was when he asked her during a coaching session if he could model a lesson as an example - an opportunity that lit up the teacher.

“One of the most powerful things that came from this partnership between the teacher and I was her seeing my willingness to not just tell her what to do, but to show her what success could look like in her room,” Walker said. “I was blessed by the situation just to be able to get back in the class and work with students to continue to sharpen my instructional eye in practice.”

Walker’s intention of going first helps create a supportive and lead-learner environment, better motivating and setting examples for the staff he leads.

Impacts Start Small

Much of Walker’s impacts in his schools stem from small, “ordinary” acts that eventually snowball into extraordinary results. Taking the time to provide constructive feedback, narrate the positives and celebrate small victories has helped him create a supportive and positive environment for his teachers and in turn, their students.

“One thing that I would say to a new principal is to never neglect the importance of sustaining a strong school culture, especially when involved with school improvement/turnaround. It is very easy to get caught up in doing this or that to move metrics and forget about building people,” Walker advised. “It has been said that culture eats strategy for lunch. So I have to be intentional about building a strong culture that will sustain robust school improvement efforts.”

A school reaching an “A” ranking after just years prior being graded an “F” may look like the finale of a turnaround effort to some, but for Walker, he is constantly thinking about the next improvement - whether it is developing more high-quality curriculum instruction, supporting a teacher around a classroom table, celebrating successes, or embodying the inspiration from others that still fuels him to this day.

“The ability for staff, teachers, students and parents to come together to transform a once-failing school into a beacon of hope and excellence is truly inspiring,” Walker said. “A school's success is deeply intertwined with its community's involvement and commitment.”