Photo by Heather Middleton
Lake City Elementary School's 70 teachers, and staff members, were treated to a "chuck wagon" breakfast, compliments of the school's principal, Kelly Veal, as they returned to work for a new school year on Monday.
The meal was a tie-in to the "Old West" theme the school will use to promote academic achievement among students this year. Most employees were dressed in cowboy and cowgirl outfits. The buffet-style meal, which featured a wide variety of dishes, including eggs, biscuits, grits, and "Texas Toast" casserole, was not provided by a catering company, though.
Veal said she prepared all of the food, and she said it was not something she was able to whip up in her kitchen just over the weekend alone.
"Two weeks," she said. "I cooked dishes that could stay fresh for awhile when I had the free time, and then put them in my freezer to keep them fresh."
Clayton County Public Schools officials recently announced that Veal, 48, is the school system's Principal of the Year for the 2010-2011 school year. She has been Lake City Elementary's principal since 2007.
Veal was recognized during the Clayton County Board of Education's business meeting, on Monday evening, where nearly two dozen Lake City Elementary teachers, and Lake City Mayor Willie Oswalt came to applaud her.
"Kelly Veal is an excellent choice for Principal of The Year," said Mildred McCoy, the school system's director of professional learning, who oversaw the selection process for Principal of the Year. "[She is] well-liked, and respected by teachers, principals, and administrators throughout the district, and beyond," said McCoy, in a written statement.
Veal, who is entering her 24th year as an educator, said she found out she had been chosen as the Principal of the Year during a school system leadership retreat, on June 25.
"It was very humbling," she said. However, she added that accolades, such as Principal of the Year, do not matter as much to her as seeing children succeed in school. "Part of my dedication is just to the children. My reward is watching the children grow."
Veal began her career as a health and physical education teacher at Pointe South Elementary School, in 1987, according to a school system press statement. She moved into school administration in 1996, when she became the assistant principal at East Clayton Elementary School, and later became the principal at Hendrix Drive Elementary School in 1999.
According to Veal, though, there is no formal, textbook leadership philosophy that she subscribes to, per se. "I tell the teachers to work hard, and to play hard," she said. "I feel like the way to get someone to learn, whether it is children, or adults, is to make the work purposeful, and enjoyable."
And, the school's focus on student achievement has not gone unnoticed. In May of this year, the Georgia Public Policy Foundation named Lake City Elementary School one of 35 "No Excuses Schools" in the state. These are schools, with above-average percentages of low-income students, who also have high levels of student academic achievement.
Veal said she feels she can identify with where her students are coming from, because she had to split her time working and going to school when she was in high school. She said she encourages teachers to try and understand the students' perspectives as well.
But, the one thing Veal said she does not allow is the use of poverty as a roadblock to learning. The attitude at the school, Veal and several teachers said, is that the sky is the limit for the students.
"Even though they may be struggling at home, once they cross through those doors [at the school], they are mine, and they have just as much potential as the child who has everything," Veal said.
Lake City first-grade teacher, Virginia Haygood, who previously taught under Veal at Hendrix Drive, added, "These students can be whatever they want to be. That's the expectation here." Haygood said that expectation –– both at Hendrix, and later at Lake City –– originates with Veal.
"The students, and the teachers understand the expectation is, there is nothing these children can't achieve," Haygood said.
Lake City Elementary Media Specialist, Bobbie Larkin, said Veal will also go the extra mile to encourage students to read, including dressing up as "The Cat in the Hat," every March for Read Across America Day, or as a clown for other reading events.
Larkin said she and Veal worked together to come up with a goal that every student should be earning scores of 90, or higher, on all of their Accelerated Reader (AR) tests.
"She really wants the kids to read," Larkin said.
Several Lake City teachers and staff members said Veal also has the respect of many educators who work in the school. As a testament to that sentiment, Clayton County Education Association President Sid Chapman said Lake City Elementary is one of the few schools in the county about which his organization receives almost no complaints from teachers.
Natasha Clarke-Grant, a first-grade teacher at Lake City, said Veal does not put herself above other people in the school, just because she is the principal. Like Haygood, Clarke-Grant previously taught under Veal at Hendrix Drive Elementary.
"She's very down to earth," Clarke-Grant said. "If she sees a piece of trash on the floor, and no custodian is around, she will pick it up herself. She does not see herself as being above doing any task herself."