When Amanda Hale, now principal of Bird Rock Elementary, was in school, she said she had wonderful teachers and supportive mentors who encouraged her throughout her educational career. Hoping to replicate that experience with teachers and students under her watch, Hale took the helm at the start of this school year.
Hale’s arrival marks the end of a “rocky year” of three temporary principals following the departure of Sally Viavada in mid-2015. But as one transition ends, another begins: Having Bird Rock Elementary accredited as a Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math (STEAM) School and the implementation of the state’s Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Hale said she sees her role as supporting teachers as they bring on these changes, and continue to build a high-level learning environment for the students.
“Our focus is looking at inquiry-based learning and encouraging students to think deeper and work collaboratively in real-world applications,” she said. “I feel super grateful I get to be a part of that. We’re doing higher level learning here, not just telling students, ‘These are the facts,’ we’re asking them to think about why things are the ways they are and might be.”
Bird Rock was already in the process of becoming a STEAM School when Hale arrived, by bringing on a new science educator to work with other teachers to integrate more of the STEAM concepts into their curriculum. Further, the school is in its first year of rolling out California’s NGSS.
“We know students need more in depth of knowledge of the STEAM concepts and how to integrate and apply them to solve problems,” Hale said. “We know the staff and parents felt integrating STEAM is going to help kids establish critical thinking and problem solving skills to be successful.”
She said the school is also using “critical math” and “critical literacy” that encourages more understanding of why something is the way it is, rather than repeating information. “It’s a meaningful learning and a shift from the traditional teaching philosophy of lecturing. (With critical math) we have children that are in kindergarten and first grade solving complex math problems without using their fingers to count. (With critical literacy) they ask how things make them feel and why the character might have taken a certain action, teachers are asking students to infer things and making connections to their own lives.”
Noticeably excited, she said, “I feel fortunate to be a part of what’s happening in this innovative school.”
Hale comes to Bird Rock by way of Orange County, having been a principal there for almost 10 years. She grew up near Pasadena, and said she had the “privilege” of going to a small school. “My relationship with my teachers was positive and they genuinely believed in me as an individual and as a scholar. I struggled in math and had teachers who were willing to support me. That initiated the idea to be that person for someone else, someone to help them overcome challenges and be successful,” she said.
A graduate of the University of Redlands, Hale originally was going to be a lawyer, but a community service requirement got in the way. “We had to complete a certain number of hours’ community service, and I volunteered in a classroom. In helping a child learn to read, my heart told my brain this is where I belong.”
She earned her teaching credential and began teaching first and second grade. “I loved teaching, but never thought I would go any further than that,” she said. Imagine her surprise when a principal suggested she get her administrative credential. “I didn’t even mean to be a teacher, so I never thought I would be a principal,” she joked. But after receiving a scholarship for her doctorate in education at Claremont Graduate University, she studied to become an administrator.
“I wanted to look at how I would help the teachers and students be the most successful they could be,” she said. “I became an (assistant principal) and I cared for my teachers because these are people I worked with, they were my colleagues. My intention was never to continue on a leadership path, I just wanted to support teachers so they could help more children.” But soon, she was offered a chance to be a principal at an Orange County school, and took it.
Now leading Bird Rock Elementary, Hale said she spent the first few weeks of school getting to know the teachers, assistant teachers, parent volunteers and students. “I want to find out what’s working at Bird Rock and what do we need to work on. I always ask my staff, ‘How can I help you to strengthen your skills’ and ‘What do you need from me?’ ”
And for Hale, creating a supportive environment is personal. Her four-year-old daughter, Sawyer Grace, will attend Bird Rock next year.
“I feel joy in my heart in working at a school my child is going to attend, people don’t always have that opportunity. I’m very grateful my child is going to have the type of education she is going to have here,” she said. “My goal is to continue to build on that valuable foundation that has been set up here to put together the things our kiddos need to be more engaged in learning.”