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Principals and integrity

Katie Black is first-year principal at North Union Elementary in Fenton

May 7, 2019
Amy H. Peterson - Staff Writer ( , Estherville News

FENTON - The month of May includes Principals' Appreciation Week, Teachers Appreciation Week and other ways to round out a school year with expressions of thanks to the community's educators.

Katie Black is first-year principal at North Union Elementary School in Fenton.

Walking with Black down the school hallways, she says, "Hello, Thomas," to a bespectacled young boy in a team jacket. "With 150 kids in the building, I know the name of each kid, and it didn't take me long to figure out which family each belongs to," Black said.

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"I love my job," Black said.

An alumna of Estherville Lincoln Central's class of 2000, Black came up as a teacher, first in a special education classroom and later teaching fourth grade. She went back to school in 2013 and said she "waited for the moment," to start as a school administrator.

"The experience of teaching in the elementary classroom helps me be effective. I understand what teachers deal with on a daily basis," Black said.

A school administrator is accountable for the school's performance. This has never been true more than in the current time of teaching. Black said meeting the Iowa Core requirements, Iowa Assessments, and other measurements of student achievements puts teachers under pressure.

"There are so many pieces to making sure students are on track, but it's easier with a good leader making sure the school is moving in the right direction," Black said.

The right moves include more than academic achievement. North Union is bringing in a full time counselor next year.

"Right now, that position is shared and very part time. We'll be able to do a lot more social and emotional learning, and working with the teachers on the emotional environment of our school," Black said.

North Union is also hiring a director of teaching and learning to work with teachers on aligning with Common Core, Iowa Core and improvement in district learning initiatives, Black said.

Black considers her role one of being there for teachers as a resource, but also as a leader in education, making sure the system functions on a daily basis.

"It's important to me to provide a caring environment with high expectations," Black said.

Black said the style of leadership that works for her is servant leadership.

"I love to come to school every day. I'm very collaborative and think it's best to work with teachers to make decisions together. My role is to serve them and lift them up. In conflicts and dealing with issues, we work through things and move forward. Our focus is always on what's best for the kids," Black said.

Special needs

It was Black's first years teaching in a special education classroom that ultimately led her to become interested in school administration.

"I didn't dream of being a principal when I was a kid, or even when I first became a teacher," Black said.

It was studying the law to ensure she was following it to the letter with every student that sparked her interest.

"I loved the law and policy in education. I worked closer with administration as a special education teacher," Black said.

Black brought that knowledge to her current role working with parents and teachers on IEPs the individualized educational plans that guide the education of students with special needs.

"In a small school, we have to be creative. We have really amazing teachers in our school, who put the students first. They are so completely flexible with providing classroom supports in and out of their classroom. It's such a strong team supporting those kiddos," Black said.


In the school as a whole, creativity and flexibility are key as well, Black said.

"Our staff puts the kids first. We're creative and flexible in what we do with frequent sharing of teams and content areas across classrooms and grades. Our physical education teacher also is our Title 1 reading teacher," Black said.

As a leader, Black said she draws strength from working with everyone in the building, including the janitor, cook, secretary, and other staff.

"This building is really great. Relying on each of them is key to what we do. I have a personal passion for teaching. I'm so excited to teach teachers and I wanted, as an administrator, to be able to guide multiple teachers and classrooms," Black said.

Uh-oh. The principal's office

Black is the first female principal at the Fenton building. Black's office seemed like a welcoming place, and Black said students frequently come in just to talk, to the point she sometimes has to push them out her door and to their classes.

For Principals' Day, Black had a stack of cards and notes, and a recurring theme was the observation that Black is "always smiling."

Black said, "I'm not sure if that's a good or a bad quality for a principal. Providing a safe, supportive, caring environment is my passion. Kids can't learn if they don't feel safe and loved at school."

The reality is, sometimes a student has to come to the principal's office.

"Kids have enough battles without school becoming another one. I try to be understanding and am willing to help solve problems," Black said.

Black said she's fortunate that the not-so-pleasant visits to the principal's office do not happen too often.

"The kids here are a super, super bunch of kids," Black said.


Parents are such a critical part of any school, Black said.

"It starts with the way we make them feel. Parents carry a lot more power than they think, and I encourage them to always advocate for their children's education. We love it when parents visit and ask questions," Black said.

First year struggles

Black said being a principal involves a very unique commitment to the school, the students, the staff, and the community.

"I would love to have more hours in a day than just 24. In education today, there is so much to balance, and finding the time to do it all with fidelity and efficiency is sometimes very challenging and causes my creative side to be activated often," Black said.

There are, however, still only 24 hours in each day.

"I just try to make it all work the best I can and find a healthy balance with my career, family and life, while always remembering that we have to first take care of ourselves to be able to take care of everyone else," Black said.

The last day of school for North Union School is May 31. The elementary school will celebrate with a family cookout.



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