The start of every school year brings the promise of new possibilities. For some members of the Chatham County Schools community, it also provides a new responsibility: leading a school.
At a July personnel meeting, CCS approved the hiring of three new principals: Nikki Murchison, named principal of Bonlee School, April Burko at Jordan-Matthews High School and Caroline Linker at Silk Hope School.
The three women will face a host of challenges in the upcoming year, including fostering meaningful relationships, learning the culture of the school district and recovering from the after-effects of COVID-19.
On the eve of the start of school, the News + Record spoke with the incoming principals to ask about their worries, goals and ideas for the first year in the saddle.
For Murchison, the new position won’t be as big of a shift. Prior to being hired as principal, she spent four years as the assistant principal at Virginia Cross Elementary School. Prior to that, she was an instructional assistant and teacher in Chatham County Schools. She says her experience in the district has allowed her to create a solid support network in the community.
“It feels natural because I feel well prepared,” Murchison said. “But I’ve said to several others, it’s like getting married or having kids; you’re never going to have everything ready.”
Murchison said she also has close ties with Bonlee’s former principal, Kim Taylor, and her former principal at VCE, Sara Chicchi Estes, who are helping her adapt to the new role. She said it’s also beneficial that the two schools also show many similarities — both are Title I schools, both have similar-sized student enrollment and both have lots of community involvement.
The other two principals, however, are not natives to CCS. Burko and Linker will have to adapt to the cultural norms of a new district and build trust with students, faculty, staff and parents.
Linker, at Silk Hope, said she feels prepared for the challenge. This will be her sixth year as a principal; most recently she served in Durham County Schools. She said CCS is different from other districts because of the communal atmosphere it provides.
“I’m really excited about the family feel in Chatham County,” Linker said. “That doesn’t exist everywhere else, and so I’m really excited about joining a team that feels like a family to move our school forward.”
The new Silk Hope leader has also built a strong foundation with the outgoing principal, Angie Brady-Andrew, who is retiring after 17 years. Linker said Brady-Andrew has been instrumental in helping her understand the culture of the teachers and families at the school.
“My plan is not to do an overhaul of Silk Hope,” Linker said. “So learning the Silk Hope way has helped me learn how I can contribute to the culture and help the school.”
Like Linker, Burko also comes from a neighboring school district in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools. She said the cultures are similar, but says Jordan-Matthews is unique.
“One of the things that’s really exciting about the school community is that the teachers, coaches and all staff are really invested in Siler City,” Burko said. “Many of them have either gone to Jordan-Matthews and are from Siler City, or have been teaching at Jordan-Matthews for 10, 15 or 20 years.”
She also said, though, that those close ties are part of what makes taking over this job uniquely difficult. Burko will be the third principal at J-M in three years. And for a school built on loyalty, creating that trust is going to be a challenge.
“I want Siler City and J-M to know they aren’t just gaining a principal, they’re gaining my husband and me as family members,” Burko said. “Building the bond means showing up, being present and continuing to be involved in the community.”
Another challenge of the upcoming year is dealing with the aftermath of COVID-19. Some teachers in the district say the 2021-2022 school year was the hardest of their careers: students were back in the classroom full time for the first time since COVID-19 began, but absenteeism and behavior issues became frequent during the school year as students struggled with mental health issues and learning loss.
Murchison said those problems are interconnected. She also said she believes acknowledging them helps deal with issues that arise on an individual basis.
“The mental health of both students and staff is something that we really have to be in tune to,” Murchison said. “We need to help staff members process all sorts of things from serious trauma, COVID-related trauma or any wide variety of experiences that students are having now that impacts their learning.”
Murchison wants to implement positive behavior interventions to help make expectations in the classroom clear to all members of the Bonlee community. That would create a continuum of consequences, which she said creates common ground for consequences and expectations.
Bonlee will also prioritize a social-emotional learning curriculum throughout the year to help students’ mental health and attempt to mitigate the impact of learning loss, which involves hiring a parent liaison to reach out to parents with absent students.
“One of my goals for the year is just to make really clear for students that all of our expectations are positively phrased expectations,” Murchison said. “We want to give students multiple opportunities to meet expectations, and show them they belong in the Bonlee community.”
Linker also hopes to emphasize mental health in the classroom as a top priority for the coming year. She said a big part of that is listening to students about their own needs.
“We should be figuring out how do we support mental health each day, not just some days,” Linker said. “Focusing on things like character education and supporting students beyond academic activities can go a really long way.”
Those concerns were echoed by Burko as well. She said everyone’s needs differ, making building relationships with students and staff more important than ever as students learn to transition back into the classroom.
“Yes, we can have large-scale, school-wide initiatives, but also remembering that there are some kids who might need some personalization to that,” Burko said. “The key to that is being as personal as possible and having relationships with the students so we know how to best serve them.”
The J-M principal said one way she plans on doing that is by celebrating students frequently and being there to uplift them.
The three principals say they’re eager to begin their respective journeys. When that first day of school rolls around, it’ll be a flurry of emotions.
“Kids bring a different energy into the building,” Burko said. “That first-day energy will be met with my own nerves, excitement and overall hope. There are so many opportunities for the upcoming school year, it’ll be like a natural high of possibilities.”
Reporter Ben Rappaport can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @b_rappaport.
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