Transforming a school, one cheer at a time

Transforming a school, one cheer at a time

GREELEY, Colo. — A Heath Middle School student is late for class and principal Dawn Krueger has spotted them.

It’s an opportune moment for a school leader to enforce a little discipline about tardiness. Krueger, though, puts a different spin on the situation.

Rather than lecture the student about being late, Krueger turns into a cheerleader.

“‘Hey, you’re almost there!’” Krueger said. “You can do it. You’re going to learn something great today!”

Krueger has led with this glass-half full mindset since her first day as Heath Middle School’s principal to start the 2019-20 school year.

“Everything I do, I try to frame positively,” Krueger said. “Instead of asking that student, ‘Why aren’t you in class?’ I want them to feel encouraged and excited to learn.”

Krueger, in her 26th year as an educator, speaks with the enthusiasm and optimism of a younger professional.

“I love coming to work each day,” she said.

Dawn Krueger
Principal Dawn Krueger with a student at Heath Middle School.

Krueger said her genuine excitement has a lot to do with her community’s commitment to embrace a whole-student approach to education, which centers on preparing students to leave school with the knowledge, skills, and self-direction needed to thrive both academically and in life.

“It’s critical that we give our students the opportunity to explore,” Krueger said. “Yes, academics are what we’re all here for. But they need to explore who they are and what they’re interested in.”

Before coming to Heath, Krueger was the principal at Prairie Heights Middle School in nearby Evans, Colorado. While there, she partnered with Summit Learning and helped set in motion the school’s turnaround success and positive progress on the Colorado Department of Education’s performance ratings, jumping from the second-lowest ranking to the highest after the first year of Summit Learning implementation.

Krueger said the partnership with Summit Learning taught her a lot about herself and how to be an effective leader for her community.

“The end result was that Prairie Heights teachers, staff and students felt like they were part of an environment where they were heard,” Krueger said. “By listening to and respecting all members of the school community, we built a culture that fostered collaboration, learning, growth and improved student performance.”

Krueger is leading the same turnaround work at Heath Middle School, another Summit Learning partner and anticipates significant improvements in its state performance ratings. Krueger quickly deflects any singular credit for the success, but her focus on positivity has clearly become infectious throughout the building.

“There’s no silver bullet to turn around a school,” Krueger said. “It’s so many different things and requires the work of so many different people. When I first stepped into this building, it didn’t feel that good overall, just felt a little rundown. So improving that overall positive feeling was what I really had to focus on.”

Krueger instilled in her staff the importance of building relationships and fostering connections between students that enabled them to learn with and from each other. Krueger knew that overall academic results would improve as long as her school could establish a culture that supported the growth and development of every individual student.

“Yes, academics are what we’re all here for. But they need to explore who they are and what they’re interested in.”

“I focused on making people feel good,” Krueger said. “Curriculum is important. Assessment data is important. But what was more important to me was knowing that all students and teachers were cared for, they were loved, and that each one of them knew they belonged here.”

Krueger doesn’t take any of her staff members for granted and is selective about who she brings onto her team. She will leave positions open for as long as necessary to ensure the right fit. It’s part of her team-first mentality where she enables her teachers to collaborate and grow together.

“Showing gratitude and showing people that they are appreciated is a big part of what we do as a team,” Krueger said. “It can never be about just one person.”

Krueger has no plans to leave Heath Middle School anytime soon. She lives near the school, enjoys seeing her students live fulfilled lives outside of the classroom, and is invigorated daily by the ongoing renovation projects that are enhancing a history-filled school that opened in 1954.

In contrast to the construction outside, Krueger said the transformation of a school from the inside is among the most rewarding work that an educator can do.

“You see the faces of these kids and it makes you want to work even harder to make a positive impact on them,” she said.

Krueger was given a recent reminder about the reward of connecting with an individual learner.

“A student said, ‘I don’t think I can learn anything,’ and I said, ‘I know you can learn, and I’m going to be on you like butter on rye, and you’re going to tell me tomorrow what you learned today,’” she said. “And he gave me the biggest smile and said, ‘Okay!’”

The next day, the student approached Krueger and told her about several new facts he learned.

“There’s some days where you feel like everything’s going wrong, but then there’s those moments where you see someone that just needs a little positivity,” Krueger said. “I just love to see people grow and develop, and love that I get to be a part of that.”