SCHOOLS | April 30, 2021
Mr. Herald Watson, the current assistant principal at Dunne STEM Academy in Roseland, thinks his educational philosophy resembles The Matrix. Just as the villain, Agent Smith, becomes more powerful by cloning himself, Mr. Watson believes every school needs a strong team that is aligned to a common vision of putting students and families first.
“When you have multiple people who have a laser-like focus on changing the academic trajectories of students, that’s how you pay it forward,” he said. “Continuing to build relationships with our families and the surrounding community is how we make sure that all of our students feel supported.”
Even before he became a school leader, Mr. Watson discovered the power of mentorship in molding the success of his students. He recalls a group of male students that he developed a close relationship with during one of his first years of teaching at Curtis School of Excellence, also located in Roseland.
By teaching under the premise of “let me know what you want to be and what you want to do, and I’ll help you out,” Mr. Watson ensured that his classroom was a space that focused on what his students could achieve rather than what they couldn’t. Two of his students went on to become valedictorian and salutatorian, and, in their speeches, they highlighted Mr. Watson as the first person to believe in them and tell them they could do anything.
Those students are now in college, and Mr. Watson still links up with them yearly.
“Sometimes what is needed is simply asking a student: ‘How’s school? How can I help?’” he said. “And it’s hard because there’s always going to be someone who falls through the cracks. You just have to ask yourself three questions—I learned these from my former chief, Dr. Cheryl Watkins—Is this my best? Can I do better? What am I prepared to do about it?”
Another important question that he had to find an answer to: How do you approach mentorship during the height of a pandemic when learning from home is the only option for students? You pivot to home visits.
“When I started doing home visits, I’ll never forget feedback from one parent who essentially said that I was doing too much,” he said. “All I had to do was tell them that I wasn’t there to be intrusive; rather, I was there to see how I could serve.”
Mr. Watson’s efforts especially paid off for a family who was new to Dunne this school year. On top of having to navigate remote learning, these students were also struggling with transitioning to a new school in a new neighborhood.
So, the Dunne team tackled their problems one at a time. First, they supported them with their internet connection. Then, they were able to provide them with gift cards through the Children First Fund. They also brought them breakfasts and lunches directly. Now that the students are learning in person, they provide them with additional tutoring support both during and after school.
“There was no time for us to be held back by COVID-19 because our families relied on us for direction and protection pretty much immediately,” he said. “To maintain our composure, we needed to focus on our values, which are our students’ social-emotional well-being and support for our families.”
He believes that one of the greatest silver linings from this school year was being challenged to establish alternative methods to communicate consistently with his families, especially when it came to student success. After realizing that his parents needed a new way to stay up-to-date about their students’ attendance and grades, he created weekly reports that are sent directly to families.
This approach was so effective in raising both attendance and academic performance that he led a professional development session for other school leaders to learn how to create reports of their own.
And his present successes are coupled with ambitious plans for the future—he hopes to add a recording studio and a broadcast media program at Dunne within the next few years. He wants to welcome his students back to a school that feels like it is the best it has ever been.
“We want to be that umbilical cord for our students,” he said. “We open up our doors and our hearts at all times so our students know that they can always come back to Dunne and leverage us.”