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Led by enthusiastic principal, Chester County Junior High School achieves turnaround success

HENDERSON, Tenn. — You hear her before you see her.

“Gooooood morning!”

“Is that a new haircut? I like it!”

“Hey, where’s your smile? There it is!”

It’s 7:45 a.m. on a Tuesday. This is Dr. Belinda Anderson’s favorite time of the day.

Thirty years after starting her career as a kindergarten teacher, Anderson is now in her fifth year as Principal at Chester County Junior High School in Henderson, Tennessee. 

She spends the first 40 minutes of each school day the same way—and with the same contagious enthusiasm. She greets students as they come off the bus and then roams the hallways in hopes of interacting with as many sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders as possible. 

Sometimes, she wears a costume. Oftentimes, she sings.

“She acts like she just had an iced coffee every time you see her,” said Elam, a sixth-grader. “I’ve never seen her not happy. She’s always excited.”

“Once, I thought she was yelling,” said Trinity, an eighth-grader. “But she was actually just singing.”

This is no daily act that Anderson puts on for her school. She truly considers her current role to be “the pinnacle” of her career and can’t hide her joy when she greets her students each morning. 

“When I’m able to do that, my entire day is 100 percent better than it is if I’m stuck in my office in the morning,” Anderson said. “I used to walk around and say good morning to students and nobody would say anything. Now, I do that and I’ll get a smile and a ‘Good morning.’ Or sometimes kids beat me to the punch and say it first. I know that’s not academics, but that’s where it all starts.

“It starts with those relationships. It starts with students believing in themselves, believing in their teachers, and believing in their school leaders.”

When Anderson joined CCJHS as Principal for the 2017-18 school year, it was on the Tennessee Department of Education’s Additional Target Support and Improvement (ATSI) list for schools that need particular focus on their student group performance. Within one year, the school was off the list and embracing a new relationship-based way of teaching after partnering with Summit Learning.

CCJHS staff members can rattle off numerous educational ways they’ve been able to improve student performance, and proudly share that the school has gone from the state’s lowest level (1) to the highest level (5) in its recent academic results. But more than details and data, they point to the profound impact that a regular mentoring program has had on their students’ development. 

“The mentoring that happens here lets students really feel like they’ve got a person at the school,” said Christy McManus, Instructional Coach at CCJHS. “Not just a few students feel that way, but all 640 students have their person that they can go to and express whatever need or desire they have. Or just to chat.” 

There’s obviously been plenty to chat about over the past couple of unpredictable years, and Anderson doesn’t shy away from hard discussions with her students. 

“We’re teaching them about life,” Anderson said.

The CCJHS community experienced the harsh reality of the COVID-19 pandemic soon after it began in March 2020, when Assistant Principal Todd Lewis was hospitalized for two weeks after contracting the virus. As the first known case in Chester County (population 18,000), Lewis received an outpouring of community support and attention. The father of three boys (ages 13, 10, and 8) spent 10 days on a ventilator before eventually making a full recovery and growing even more thankful for his CCJHS family.

“Everybody has each other’s back here,” said Lewis, who also serves as a county commissioner and a reserve sheriff’s deputy. “In times of trouble and uncertain times, what they did for my family was just remarkable. My youngest son told my wife, ‘They really love us.’ It was one of those things that really makes you appreciate what you have.”

Lewis’ appreciation is evident when he happily transforms his office each morning into a news studio for Eagle Vision Network (EVN). Lewis deftly directs a rotating group of students who deliver on-camera updates for the school about a range of topics, including a daily reminder to “treat others the way you want to be treated.” 

The broadcast—which often includes a cameo from Anderson during her morning routine—helps set an uplifting tone for each school day that is centered on community.

“We all know each other personally,” Anderson said. “We cry when people cry, we laugh when they laugh. We live each other’s lives, inside and outside of school. That comes with being a part of Chester County. Things are always going to happen in life and how you choose to handle it will make or break you. It’s much easier to smile than it is to frown and so we make that choice to smile. 

“And the spark is our students. When they walk through the door, they bring life into the school.”

That’s why, whenever Anderson feels a bit down or overwhelmed, she walks the hallways to feed off the energy around every corner.

On this particular Tuesday, she pops into Chorus Director Janet Sain’s spacious room, where three rows of singers gleefully rehearse for a concert performance that will feature kazoos. Anderson then enters the eighth-grade History class taught by Wes Murphy, who once frantically drove 95 miles to Memphis after his daughter was airlifted to a hospital with a brain injury—only to find Anderson already there providing comfort. 

“She stayed with us in the waiting room all night,” Murphy said. “That’s what family does.”

Anderson wishes she had enough time to visit every classroom every day. She’s especially inspired when observing a group of eighth-graders, including cross country star and cheer captain Bella, who she taught in her final year as a third-grade teacher.

“It’s been a beautiful journey to watch how they’ve grown academically, emotionally, and socially,” said Anderson, who then checks her watch and hustles to get ready for her second-favorite part of each school day.

By 3 p.m., Anderson is outside the school on bus duty, mixing in arrival announcements with personal banter.

“Bus 9 is coming!”

“I’m excited to go to your concert tonight! Can’t wait!”

“Bus 9 is here! Bus 9!”

When the final bus leaves, Anderson allows herself a moment to exhale in the calm before preparing to do it all over again on Wednesday. It’s at this time each day that she’s reminded of a favorite motto, which is illustrated in large black letters on a wall in her school.

“Will it be easy? Nope.”

“Worth it? Absolutely.”

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