When South Pointe High Principal Al Leonard was preparing to open the school in 2005, he had no question about who to put in charge of curriculum.
He offered an assistant principal job to Denise Khaalid, whom he had worked with years earlier at Sullivan Middle.
"She was just a really dynamic teacher with a lot of leadership potential at a young age," he said.
Since taking the job, Khaalid has come to be known as a curriculum expert plus a mentor and motivator for colleagues.
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"She really leads by example," Leonard said. And "the kids really respect her."
When she makes presentations at staff meetings, Leonard said, "it's like being in a classroom."
During a surprise ceremony on Tuesday, Khaalid was named South Carolina's Assistant Principal of the Year.
"She certainly has had a big impact on that school," said Molly Spearman, president of the S.C. Association of School Administrators, which runs the annual competition. Khaalid, a 16-year educator, is now in the running for a national award.
In an email interview with The Herald, she wrote about reaching students, her approach to the work and how she got "Punk'd."
How do you view your role as an assistant principal?
I chose administration, and, specifically, curriculum and instruction because I wanted to support teachers in the classroom and help ensure that we are doing the very best with one of the things we can control in education, which is the quality of instruction.
What is a typical day like for you?
A typical day includes: morning, lunch, locker room and afternoon duty; observing classrooms, planning and monitoring our school improvement goals, completing reports/paperwork for programs, meeting with different groups at the school, district and/or state level and responding to email and phone calls.
The SCASA judges were impressed by your curriculum knowledge and Al Leonard said he considers you an expert on the topic. In laymen's terms, how does one become well versed in curriculum?
You have to constantly see yourself as a learner, as well as a teacher. When I began my career as an English teacher, for example, I was prepared to teach adolescents who could read and write on grade level. I didn't know what to do for my students who were significantly below grade level. So, I took classes throughout the school year and summer, I joined organizations, and I did a lot of professional reading - especially the research about best practices. I still take classes, read a lot, and share with colleagues.
I hear you got a "Punk'd"-like surprise at school before receiving the award. What happened?
I was told that we were going on SPIN in the Morning, our morning news program, to pump up the football players for the big game this Friday. My colleagues told me that the team had asked specifically for the administration, so I was willing to be silly for the students. I asked a few questions about what we would be doing on the air to be "hype." The other administrators and I came up with a plan to do a chant and a little dancing. My fellow assistant principals were like "Okay, we'll follow you." So, I rushed in shouting "Go Stallions!" and started to dance. It took a moment for me catch on to what was happening.
(The assembly had been called to announce Khaalid's selection.)
What are the biggest challenges facing public education and how do you as an assistant principal confront them?
Although our kids come to us with tremendous talents, they also have varying needs and abilities. Anyone who has ever spent significant time in the classroom knows that you can't just walk in, teach your content and leave; you're dealing with adolescents who have so much going on - be it positive or negative. It's a balancing act to help students learn and see the significance of what you're teaching, recognize their own potential, and look beyond "the now" towards "the future." ... I work with our faculty to know our kids and to learn and plan as much as we can to meet their needs. It's definitely a team effort.
You were key in launching South Pointe's 212 program. Can you describe how it works?
The 212 program is an enrichment period named after the degree at which water boils. It's designed to provide extra instruction to students who are below grade level in their math and English/language arts skills. Additionally, we provide students with support for state assessments, as well as SAT, ACT, college and career preparation.
What programs or initiatives are you working on now?
Currently, SPHS is working on strengthening how we assess students, how we use the results from the assessments, and how to meet the varying needs and abilities of students in classes while providing challenging and engaging work. Departments have goals addressing one of more of these areas.
What advice do you have for aspiring educators and aspiring assistant principals?
You have to have a passion for helping all kids - regardless of circumstances - because every student deserves quality instruction and caring adults. I believe you genuinely have to care about the students the way that you'd love and care for your own child - which means tough love at times.
Finally, you have to view yourself as a learner and be committed to your own professional development, learning from colleagues, and exploring different ways to engage our students. There's no one answer for reaching our students and helping them achieve. Really, all of the above applies to assistant principals, as well. They not only have to lead but be willing to learn and work along with teachers.