Beating the Odds (and the Naysayers)

Teachers at the Department of Education were impressed with the Terrel H. Bell principals that we met during this year’s Blue Ribbon Schools National Celebration, but Blaine Helwig, the principal of Graham Elementary School, stood out because he has done what many thought was impossible: using home-grown strategies that others thought wouldn’t work.

Principal of Graham Elementary School Blaine Helwig

Blaine Helwig, principal of Graham Elementary School accepts a check earlier this year after receiving an excellence in education award.

A self-proclaimed “upstart,” Helwig said that his experience as a systems designer helped him plan systems that work for students in his school. “Yes, I am a rebel,” he told us, “There can be no doubt of that. I will not follow a curriculum that is designed for children to fail or produce the level of academic results we are seeing continually in these urban schools.”

Helwig’s school is about 95 percent low-income. As reported in the Austin Statesman, the school has struggled for years because “it’s not rich (and) it’s located on the wrong side of town.” Yet, against the odds, the students at Graham are exceling. Since taking the helm in 2007, the school’s academic achievement has grown so much that every student at Graham who took the state math exam passed it.

Helwig attributes his school’s success to focusing on the variables he can control. While he can’t change students’ home environments or fix their poverty, he said that he can ensure they get what they need in his school.

Read two stories from the Statesman that reveal insights into Helwig’s leadership style and strategies:  “Austin District Should Build on Graham Elementary’s Success” and “A Model of Academic Success at Graham Elementary.”

Laurie Calvert is the Teacher Liaison at the U.S. Department of Education, a 2010 Teaching Ambassador Fellow, and a 14-year English teacher from Asheville, N.C.