A Conversation with Gretchen Kasper-Hoffman, Principal
Grady Middle School, Houston, Texas

THE BREAKTHROUGH COACH: Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you ended up as principal at Grady MS?

GRETCHEN KASPER-HOFFMAN: I started at Texas A&M with a major in Agricultural Economics, then added a second major in Inter-Disciplinary Studies (Education). I began as a middle-school math teacher, became a regional math supervisor, then began work on my Master’s Degree. I spent a year as a Principal Intern, working with a principal to open a new school – 1200 students, broken up into 3 smaller “houses” of 400 students each, then became principal of one of the houses.

TBC: When did you come to Grady? Tell us about the school.

KKH: I’ve been at Grady for five years. We have 500 children in grades 6-7-8. We are an urban school, with 47% of our students on free or reduced lunch. Our school population is 43% Hispanic, 20% African-American, 20% White, and about 20% of other ethnicities. Most of our students reside in our area, but we are a choice district, so we do have students from other residential areas who choose to attend Grady.

TBC: What challenges did you face when you began at Grady?

GKH: Grady is a small school with substantially fewer resources than larger schools – but with the same high expectations for success. When I arrived, I found an adult-centered culture – as opposed to a child-oriented one. There was a lock-step mentality, wherein people were comfortable with what was happening, everyone did things pretty much the same way, and there was no impetus for change or improvement. Furthermore, 2/3 of the staff was new, not only to the school, but to education. We have limited staff, so peer mentoring was difficult.

TBC: You had a lot to deal with at work, but your personal life had changed dramatically, as well.

GKH: Absolutely! I was a newlywed – returned from my honeymoon on Sunday, and got the call about my assignment to Grady on Monday! That’s a lot to cope with in a very short time. By the beginning of my second year, I felt as if I was spinning my wheels – working long hours without real results. I heard about TBC from other district principals. My secretary, Katy, and I attended the 2-day program towards the end of year two of my tenure at Grady.

TBC: When did TBC’s approach begin to resonate with you?

GKH: It really hit home on Day 2, when we were asked to go through files we’d brought from our offices, using the TBC Methodology. I realized that, if I was going to do my job as an instructional leader – and have any time for a personal life – I was going to have to let go of “stuff” that I should not be involved with. That equated, in my mind, to letting go of control, which was very difficult for me.

TBC: How did you begin implementation?

GKH: It was the end of the school year, and the summer hiatus made things a lot easier. Katy and I began administratively, getting my office cleaned out and developing a scheduling process. I also decided to send our school Deans and Clerks to the TBC 2-Day Program during the upcoming year.

TBC: OK – now we’re at the beginning at Year 3. How did the school year begin?

GKH: It began with big news: I discovered that I was pregnant with my first child! I loved the school, but I realized I was going to have to leave the building after a sensible workday and work a 40-hour week! I also realized we were going to have to focus more on raising test scores, since they do serve as a measurement of success. I knew I needed more intensive help to achieve all of that, so I began one-on-one coaching with Jill Pancoast (from TBC) Jill helped me deal with letting go and giving up some control so that I could be a real leader. I found I was able to leave on time each day; I was working 2-3 hours less, but was much more effective when I was there! Jill’s one one-on-one coaching was a real impetus – it made the job a lot less lonely and provided an outside perspective when I needed it.

TBC: Can you describe the changes you made as you worked with Jill & TBC?

GKH: I got in the habit of scheduling and budgeting my time, and assigned more responsibility to my staff, instead of waiting for them to come forward and offer. We organized the staff into committees to generate ideas and implement decisions, as opposed to issuing directives from my office. Those committees helped us get buy-in for changes we were making, including a move to block scheduling, instituting a dress code, developing a new grading policy, and working with the PTO to help parents – and children – learn how to communicate and advocate with us.

TBC: It sounds as though you had a really busy – but successful – Year 3. Year 4 was easy, then?

GKH: You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But that wasn’t quite the case. By then I was pregnant with my second child, and had some health problems. I had to use a cart to get around the building, and then had to work from home. The TBC Methodology, which says that your school should be able to run without you, made that possible. My staff and their committees were able to handle administration, and I used Skype to confer with them and to coach my teaching staff.

TBC: Where are you – and the school now?

GKH: Our school’s rating went up from Acceptable to Recognized, our test scores are up, and we are applying to become an International Baccalaureate Campus – a feeder-school to the IBE high school. I believe I have become a more effective leader and educator.

To sum it up, I have a satisfying strong marriage, 2 healthy children and a job I love at a school I can be proud of.

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