Real champions inspire us because we know they give everything to make a difference. Through this column, we are helping make known real champions in the lives of children and youth. At NCUST, we are thankful for all the many equity champions who are, each day, changing lives, changing schools, and changing communities.
In every school, the successful pursuit of equity and excellence depends on individuals who play critical support roles. Often, these individuals receive little recognition; however, without their supportive efforts, success would not be likely. Steve Collins, Assistant Principal at Wynnebrook Elementary in West Palm Beach, Florida is a true equity champion who has exhibited a “whatever it takes” attitude in supporting teachers, students, parents, support staff, and the school principal in ways that have helped Wynnebrook become and remain an exemplary school. In 2017, Wynnebrook was a winner of the America’s Best Urban Schools Award. Each year, for the past 18 years, Wynnebrook has earned an “A” grade from the Florida Department of Education. Both Latino students and Black students at Wynnebrook outperform the general student population in Florida on state assessments. Additionally, Wynnebrook boasts very low suspension rates and high rates of student attendance. Assistant Principal Collins has played crucial roles in helping the Wynnebrook team achieve and sustain phenomenal results.
Thirty-two years ago, Mr. Collins began his career as a teacher in another school in Palm Beach County that served a low-income community. He was thrilled to have the opportunity to work for and learn from an outstanding new principal with a great vision for improving a school that was persistently underperforming; however, he was disheartened to see how the students felt about themselves and each other. “They didn’t see their own brilliance. Many of the students felt like failures,” he explained. The experience shaped his commitment to building a positive climate that supported children, embraced their cultures, and helped them feel loved. He recognized that there were teachers who cared deeply but lacked some of the tools needed to help students succeed. He explained, “I supported everybody I could and we learned and rose together.”
Mr. Collins’ successes as a teacher, and his later successes on a district restructuring team, eventually led to his promotion to the Assistant Principalship at Wynnebrook in 2016. When, he arrived at Wynnebrook, he found that the school was already “a well-oiled machine” that was achieving outstanding learning results. He explained, “We have intense PLC meetings where each grade level meets once a week in the afternoon from 1:15 to 3:00 pm to plan how they will get all children to achieve important academic standards. They plan assessments and make sure every child learns what they need to learn. Every teacher is on the same page. The teachers are passionate about what they do.” Mr. Collins emphasized that he tries to do all he can to make sure that teachers have whatever they need to ensure their classrooms are happy, safe, and conducive to students learning.
Another important aspect of Wynnebrook’s success is the positive focus on student behavior. Wynnebrook has no rules; however, it has a code of conduct that simply declares, “I am respectful, I am responsible, I am a peacemaker, I am prepared.” Instead of focusing on situations in which students break rules, teachers, administrators, and support staff spend considerable energy acknowledging and even celebrating ways in which students exemplify the elements of the code of conduct.
In describing his role, Mr. Collins explained, “I embraced the strengths of the school. I try to learn every day. I’m visible. I’m never in the office. I’m in the classrooms. I want the students and teachers to feel like I’m just part of the family. Family is very important to us at Wynnebrook. I listen to everyone’s concerns and deal with them immediately. I try to know every student. I look in students’ eyes. If they’re hurting, I try to alleviate that hurt. I want them to know they can come to me at any time. They are always welcome. We make Wynnebrook the safest environment they can ever enter. They feel like they don’t have a care in the world. We will watch over them and take care of them the whole six hours they’re here.” Mr. Collins emphasized the importance of being genuine. In working with other educators, he tries to encourage a team approach. He says, “You don’t have to mimic me, but don’t defeat me as I try to encourage kids to be their best. Let’s all be on the same page.”
To the dismay of many of his colleagues, Mr. Collins will retire soon. When asked to share his advice to new leaders who want to make a positive, powerful difference for the students they serve, he shared, “Have high expectations for yourself and everyone around you. Put your best foot forward for the children. If you have high expectations for yourself and for the students, students will honor that. They will want to please you and they will want to excel. Later, they will want to excel for themselves. Look for opportunities to remove obstacles and hurdles that get in the way of success.” New leaders might also note that Mr. Collins constantly gives credit to the teachers, support staff, and administrators with whom he works. He gives much more credit to others than he gives to himself. “I wouldn’t be anywhere without the great people with whom I work,” he says.
NCUST is proud to celebrate Assistant Principal Steve Collins as a true equity champion. More can be learned about Wynnebrook Elementary, Assistant Principal Collins, and his outstanding team of educators in the soon-to-be released book When Black Students Excel: How Schools Can Engage and Empower Black Students.
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