Griffith installed as permanent principal at McCallum

After nine months as interim leader, former Austin High academy director plans to stay at Mac for long haul

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Dave Winter

This morning during Mac Connect, executive director of high schools Sheila Henry announced to the McCallum faculty and staff that Nicole Griffith has been confirmed as the permanent McCallum principal. Henry congratulated Griffith and expressed her support. “Ms. Griffith, tell your community… that you are going to be taking care of McCallum for the next 50 years,” Henry said. “As always, I am going to be right here to support all of your work.”

Samantha Powers, co-news editor, co-copy editor

March 12, 2020, was the last school day at Mac before the pandemic arrived. The coronavirus had been declared a global pandemic the day before, and the arrival of COVID-19 in Austin the following day launched McCallum and Austin ISD into a period of uncertainty. Now, on March 12, 2021, the installation of Nicole Griffith as the permanent principal promises, for many, an era of stability at a school that has seen three principals and a global pandemic in two years.

We’ve gone to battle together, you know? We’ve just grown closer. I’m not sure I would be this close, or I would feel this close to the staff if it had been normal times.”

— Principal Nicole Griffith

This morning during a staff meeting, executive director of high schools Sheila Henry announced that after a months-long selection process, Nicole Griffith will make the transition from interim to permanent principal at McCallum. Griffith is relieved for this new sense of constancy amid such unprecedented times.

“It’s a huge relief,” Griffith said. “I’ve really fallen in love with this school. This community is really amazing. And I have, from the beginning, felt really welcomed. … I feel like I’ve just kind of hit the jackpot, as far as schools to lead. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. So yes, relief is the word.”

McCallum building manager Camille Nix worked with Griffith at Austin High as a teacher and as a counselor as Griffith worked her way up from the classroom to her final Austin High role as academy director. Nix had only good things to say about her friend, colleague and now boss.

“Nicole and I have worked together over the course of about 15 years,” Nix said. “We began as ‘teacher next door neighbors’ when I was an English teacher and she was a world geography teacher. It’s been an honor to watch her career move from teacher to assistant principal to academy director to interim principal to principal. She is a born leader, and I am excited for the years ahead!”

Nicole Griffith traded her interim tag for a free lunch courtesy of the PTSA and a celebratory piece of cake ordered promptly by building manager Camille Nix immediately after a Zoom faculty meeting in which Griffith was introduced as the permanent principal of McCallum. Assistant principal Tamara Stone, math teacher Susan Ashton and language arts department chair Diana Adamson were there for the free meal and the moment (Dave Winter).

Griffith encourages the community to look to her past experience at Austin High and her commitment as a reason to subdue any concerns about whether she will stick around.

“I don’t plan on going anywhere at all,” Griffith said. “First of all, I told the staff today, ‘I hope you like me, because I’m like, I’m not going anywhere.’ I really, really like it. You know, I was at my last school for 13 years, … so yeah, I like the idea of coming up with stability.”

Members of the McCallum staff are thankful for this new stability and pleased that Griffith is the choice for permanent principal.

Knowing this is a done deal will allow us all to breathe more easily and start to really plan for the upcoming 2021-2022 school year.”

— language arts department chair Diana Adamson

“Principal Nicole Griffith has done a phenomenal job over the past nine months as interim,” assistant principal Larry Featherstone said. “She has earned this job on the job under unprecedented circumstances! We are so happy to have her here at McCallum High School. We know the best is yet to come!”

English department chair Diana Adamson sees Griffith as a beacon for what will come in the future as vaccines are distributed and the world begins to recover from a global pandemic.

“I am so pleased that Ms. Griffith is officially the principal of McCallum High School,” Adamson said. “Knowing this is a done deal will allow us all to breathe more easily and start to really plan for the upcoming 2021-2022 school year. I welcome her even-handed leadership and look forward to working with her as we all move out of the COVID crisis.”

After getting to know her over the past year, Adamson’s fellow Mac English teacher James Hutcheson trusts that McCallum is in good hands with Griffith.

“I’m in my second year of teaching and have seen three principals – not a typical beginning for a career in education. After landing on [Griffith], and working with her over the past year, I think I can say that I think ‘The third time’s a charm.’”

Griffith does feel a sense of gratitude that working through a pandemic alongside the McCallum staff has allowed them to grow closer and learn to collaborate and adapt.

Interim principal Nicole Griffith principal set up a trial run of the outdoor classroom initiative on Oct. 20. The initiative is a new teaching option she has been developing in partnership with @familiesinnature, that has allowed some teachers and students to be outside when learning. The risk of catching COVID-19 is lessened when you are outside, while still social distancing and wearing a mask. “I think that we thought this would be more temporary than it is and so we were putting Band-Aids on how to get through this,” Griffith said. “We’re coming to the realization that this is going to continue and so now it’s how do we really adjust.” (Dave Winter)

“As we’ve gone through this, in the pandemic… Sometimes I describe it as, especially with the staff, it’s like we’ve gone to battle together, you know, and we’ve just grown closer,” Griffith said. “I’m not sure I would be this close, or I would feel this close to the staff if it had been normal times in some ways, because we’ve had to really get creative and we’ve had to really listen and and try to find something that’s going to work.”

The selection process for the McCallum permanent principal began in fall of 2020 and was restarted in December and then rescheduled in February due to inclement weather. After this long period spent determining the best choice for the principal, Griffith is thankful for the time she was able to spend getting to know the school.

I do not regret the way that it happened. I feel like I was able to do a lot more reflection and digging and really getting to know the school, because the process took longer.”

— Principal Nicole Griffith

“The uncertainty is hard, of course,” Griffith said. “However, I have learned a lot in this process. And I am a better principal for going through the process in the way that I went through it. And now, sitting on this end of it, I do not regret the way that it happened. I feel like I was able to do a lot more reflection and digging and really getting to know the school, because the process took longer… So I’m thankful for it, actually.”

Griffith looks forward to collaborating with the McCallum community, especially students, to make the school better for everyone.

“We’ve just kind of gone through so many iterations of being flexible and working,” Griffith said. “And I think through all of that, I’ve grown to really respect the people who work here, and the students. I’ve had so many amazing conversations with students and families who love this school, who want this school to continue to be excellent. And then also want the school to grow and be excellent for all students. That need is there and that drive is there.”

Many McCallum students look forward to a new era marked by the pursuit of excellence.

“I think Ms. Griffith will be a great principal for McCallum and hopefully help push our school to be one of the best,” senior Olivia Navarro said.

Navarro’s fellow officer in the McCallum Student Leadership Team, senior Emily Arndt, also has high hopes for the future.

“I’m looking forward to what Ms. Griffith will be able to do for the Mccallum campus now that she is permanent principal and will have less to worry about during COVID,” Arndt said.

Navarro and Arndt are both officers of the Mac Student Leadership Team, a student group dedicated to pursuing equity in this school. Griffith said that in her time as interim principal, she has been able to observe areas for improvement in equity and ways to close the gaps for McCallum students.

This morning Camille Nix told her colleagues in the main office that Griffith did not tell her what this morning’s meeting was about. But when faculty members lamented that there was no cake to celebrate Griffith’s appointment as permanent principal, Nix immediately got on the phone and let them eat cake. (Camille Nix)

“I really do see the value in slowing down that process and allowing myself to get to know the school better, to get to know the programming better and to see the gaps that we have in our school,” Griffith said. “McCallum is a great school for many students. But it’s not a great school until it’s a great school for all students. And I think having the opportunity to take longer to go through that process required me to dig deeper as a leader, as a learner and as somebody who wants to continue serving this community.”

After working with the Student Leadership Team and organizing focus groups and student panels centered around equity, Griffith has identified some key goals for the future.

“Let’s look at our school,” Griffith said. “When kids walk in the door, what does it look like? What would it look like to walk in… if you’re a Spanish speaker, for example? Is it as welcoming? What about classrooms? Do we see all different kinds of kids represented in our physical building? And the building is one thing, and even more important stuff is that we have to take a hard look at our curriculum. We have to have a more relevant curriculum, and especially in our humanities, our English and social studies classes.”

McCallum is a great school for many students. But it’s not a great school until it’s a great school for all students.”

— Principal Nicole Griffith

Griffith explained that by adjusting curriculum to better suit the diverse community that McCallum contains, learning will be more effective for each student.

“Just taking an equity lens to what we do, and making sure that we’re doing it well,” Griffith said. “Those are two things that we need to do right off the bat. And then a couple other things as well, is that we need to be data informed when we’re looking at our instruction. So we have to know how our kids are doing and where they have gaps in their learning. And we have to adjust, that has to be a continuous process in the learning.”

Griffith also expressed concerns for McCallum students who have spent little to no time on campus. Next year, only one out of four classes will have spent a full year on the McCallum campus. Griffith plans to get creative in making sure that every student has a smooth transition into in-person school.

“We’re going to have to be creative about how we come back together as a community,” Griffith said. “I can’t predict what August and September are going to look like, I can’t. But I do think at some point, we’re going to have normalcy, [and] it’s a goal of mine that we build to better through this.”

After a challenging year, Griffith looks forward to spending her future leading McCallum High School. For her, becoming the permanent principal is a silver lining on a dark cloud.

“There [have] been so many challenges this year with the pandemic,” Griffith said. “I mean, who hasn’t had a challenging year? I think that for me personally, this school year is one that’s just always going to be a sort of marker of life before McCallum and life at McCallum. Because this has been a hard year, but I was given an opportunity of a lifetime during this time.”