TOOL–Tool Elementary School is no stranger to awards, having won Blue Ribbon School Status in 2016 and been recognized as a National ESEA Distinguished School in 2018. But this time it was their leader who was singled out as the 2019 NAESP National Distinguished Principal for Texas. State education and community leaders gathered at Tool Elementary May 2 and recognized Tool Elementary School Principal Christal Calhoun for the honor.
Calhoun, speaking to the crowd, found it hard to speak about herself, being so used to bragging on her kids or her staff. So in typical Calhoun style, she began by thanking the students for “rising up together with her” and being her inspiration. She teared up as she talked about her staff being her family, saying, “You are so much to me – We share good times, hard times - We laugh until we cry and sometimes we just cry. Thank you for the sweet moments after school when we all just sit in the hall and talk about things that make us laugh. You inspire me daily to be the best that I can be because I see what all you do and think that I should do even more.”
Calhoun thanked her family, husband Ben and children Halie and Colby for giving her so much love she is able to come to work each day and share that love with her students.
Challenges abound in the small, rural PreK-5 school Calhoun leads. Eighty percent of Tool Elementary are considered economically disadvantaged. Add the 40 percent mobility rate, meaning almost half of the student population moves each year, and it’s easy to believe less than one-third of kids were succeeding prior to Calhoun’s arrival. Today two-thirds of students are meeting standards in reading and math.
“While Tool has a lot of residents who have struggled in life, everyone in Tool agrees that the campus is the brightest star in the area,” Malakoff ISD Director of Curriculum and Instruction Mike Burns wrote in his recommendation letter. “Everyone is proud to have Tool Elementary School at the center of the community.”
For six consecutive years, the state has recognized Tool Elementary with the TEA Accountability rating of Met Standard with Designated Distinctions increasing from two in 2013 to all six in 2018 with an overall grade of 97.
While teachers at Tool are proud of rising test scores and improved student performance, Calhoun says they find their greatest success in meeting their student’s many needs. Under Calhoun’s leadership, attendance has soared to 97 percent, and more than three-quarters of kids regularly attend the monthly “Granny Calhoun” party to celebrate learning and perfect attendance.
“Extraordinary community engagement, high expectations for academic achievement and unique opportunities for students beyond the regular curriculum are hallmarks of this outstanding campus,” TEPSA Executive Director Harley Eckhart said. “The creative approach to instruction and the warm, nurturing environment make Tool Elementary an exceptional place for staff and students. ‘Granny Calhoun’, the art gallery and the innovative use of technology for both parents and students are a few highlights that make this school a special place every day.”
Grade level and vertical teams meet regularly to discuss each student’s potential and ways to ensure every child is successful. Not only do they review test scores, teams also consider each student’s social emotional needs to determine where help is most needed. More than 20 percent of students meet weekly with a positive adult role model in the community mentoring program Calhoun created. Students who were formerly withdrawn have blossomed under this program, and teachers report increased student achievement and better behavior in their classrooms.
With limited resources available, Calhoun has recruited several community organizations to help her students. For example, she partnered with a local church, Calhoun implemented a Friday Food Sack to ensure students have food to eat for the weekend. After seeing the high level of need at the school, the church expanded the program into a community food pantry.
“At the heart of student and school success is a great principal. Our Texas principals live up to this every day and Mentoring Minds is proud to showcase their efforts through our long-time partnership with TEPSA and the National Distinguished Principal program. Christal embodies everything that makes our schools successful, and we are honored to have her represent the state of Texas,” said Shad Madsen, CEO of Mentoring Minds.
A principal for seven years, Calhoun earned her M.Ed. from Stephen F. Austin State University. She has volunteered as a TEPSA region officer for several years, including serving as the 2017-18 TEPSA Region 7 President. She was recognized as the Region 7 TEPSAN of the Year in 2018 for her service to the association.
TEPSA received more than 100 nominations for the 2019 NDP award. After a rigorous reading process, in which applicants shared their educational philosophies and accomplishments both in and out of the classroom, a peer-review committee selected four finalists. These outstanding leaders then showcased their achievements during a school visit by a team of educators. Calhoun will receive her award Wednesday, June 12, during the TEPSA Summer Conference in Austin.
The celebration in Tool Elementary School of course centered around the children who were seated in the middle of the room for all the presentations and speeches. When they were done, it was time to party! Cue the Malakoff High School Band members and the kids started dancing with their beloved principal right in the middle of them.
Teachers served the students colorful cupcakes and the delight (and the frosting) was on their faces. There are many quotes about servant leadership and one is attributed to Campbell Soup Company CEO Denise Richardson who said, “I think leadership is service and there is power in that giving; to help people, to inspire and motivate them to reach their fullest potential.” Christal Calhoun has discovered that power.