Award-winning educator Sheri Coll joins Walsh Elementary as its first commander-in-chief.
There’s no denying the future lies with our children, and the kids who will attend the highly anticipated Walsh Elementary are no exception to the rule. For a school planned with such a forward-looking curriculum, one needs a forward-thinking staff, beginning with its newly appointed principal Sheri Coll.
Having started her career as a kindergarten teacher in Arizona, Coll rapidly rose through the grades as she rose through the ranks, teaching third, fourth and fifth in in the Douglas County School District near Denver. Eventually promoted to elementary and then middle school assistant principal, she concluded her Colorado career as the principal of the 21st Century Innovative School-awarded Summit View Elementary. In her role as the very first principal of Mary D. and F. Howard Walsh Elementary, Coll brings years of experience, a unique outlook on how children learn, and a carefully curated staff of the best and brightest in education. Because every child is different, Coll and her teachers plan to take the approach of engaging them individually and tailoring the way lessons are learned to achieve the greatest retention of knowledge. We took a moment to meet with her before planning for the school year begins to learn what the vision will be for this most unique educational institution.
Walsh: “Tell us a little bit about your background.”
Principal Coll: “I’m from Colorado, and I’ve been in education all my life—it’s just what I did. My last achievement was taking a school and turning it into a 21st Century Innovative School. When I say innovative, it’s not just about technology, it’s about the way we teach children and how we reach them to engage students. So that was one of the biggest sellers for parents, but also it was so exciting for teachers and students because we had motivated and engaged students. “We were in the top ten percent in the state and earned the John Irwin Award (given to Colorado schools that demonstrate exceptional academic achievement over time). I had my own children and they’re older: One lives down here and the other is getting her masters at the University of North Texas. I miss them, and it’s family. My husband and I said we’re tired of Sunday night dinners Skyping and we said, ‘We’re going to move.’ They say God works in mysterious ways, and this is it.”
W: “How did you end up with Aledo ISD?”
PC: “When I was coming from Colorado and looking at schools, all these people were asking, ‘Where are you going to work?’ Everyone kept saying to go to Aledo, so I started doing my research back in September of last year. And what a community it is—it’s incredible! With their vision and mission they believe in partnering with the parents and families to create strong students and that’s my philosophy, too. Aledo ISD’s motto is, ‘A past to remember, a future to mold,’ and isn’t that what we’re doing? We’re bringing the traditions that are so strong with Aledo and molding them with innovative thinking. All of that meshes so well with who I am and what I believe, and that’s what led me here.
W: “So the timing was perfect.”
PC: “It was. I want to be with the best and this was the best, and I won’t settle for less. When you find it, it’s a good fit. If it’s right, you’ll know it and I feel that same thing, a great connection being part of Aledo. Being an outsider looking in, it’s a very strong community that’s about family, caring for one another and supporting the school district. Who wouldn’t want to be part of a strong community that believes in the schools?”
W: “Walsh Elementary is a new prototype for the district, what can you tell us about what’s different and unique?”
PC: “It’s incredible to watch the details going into the school and the state-of-the-art thinking behind it. We’re Bearcats through and through, so we’ll bring those traditions, but Walsh is about focusing on students and engaging them as individuals. It’s about following Aledo’s successful curriculum, but the red thread we’re adding that will run through everything is the technology, because that engages and motivates students. The other red thread we’re running through is the innovative thinking and creative lessons. “We’re truly hands-on for students and developing them through hands-on learning and authentic real world situations. When you walk into a classroom, I love when kids can explain to you why they’re doing (a lesson) and their goal. That’s what you want for students and what motivates them to succeed. It’s about the students having the resources right there in front of them to get answers, but that should create more questions and deeper questioning. That’s what we want.”
W: “Will the 21st century child need to learn differently?”
PC: “We’re educating kids for jobs we don’t know that are going to exist, so we’ve got to create critical thinkers and problem solvers! We’ve got to create kids that can communicate and collaborate and you can do that from the base of a kindergarten student all the way up. You just have to teach them these skills and strengthen these skills daily. “That’s done through small group activities like small Socratic seminars where kids are able to talk about whatever they’re learning. I always tell kids that my learning plus your learning equals new learning, because my way of thinking plus your way of thinking equals new thinking. Isn’t that what collaboration is all about? By using our maker space, which I’m so excited for, and being able to be inventors and tinker with different things and to learn how to be resilient and persistent. If something doesn’t work the first time, to be reflective enough to go back and rethink what they’re learning and try it again. That’s innovation. If we’re able to start that at a young age, we’re creating leaders.”
W: “And learning is so much more impactful through experience than just talking. You mentioned the maker space: We are also big proponents of the Maker Movement, how does that fit in at Walsh Elementary?”
PC: “I think (the maker space) is important. Our students learn differently, whether they learn visually or (through) holding something or doing something. We have to fit all those needs and we’ll see the results on test scores. It’s part of who Aledo is, differentiating the teaching and learning styles to meet students’ needs.”
W: “Is that part of the STEM curriculum?”
PC: “That’s the Aledo curriculum. STEM is imbedded in what we do. You create strong science, technology, engineering and math. I’ve had kindergarteners build birdhouses because they’re working with birds and the older kids give them diagrams (for the houses) because they’re learning about area. So you have the older kids helping the younger kids and it’s so much better because when the older kids can teach, you know (the knowledge) is stuck. We’re using things likes spelling words or multiplication tables in authentic ways and we know it’s sustainable learning. “I’m a firm believer that content needs to be taught in ways that engage students, whether that is science with writing, or math and science together, or reading and social studies. They all need to be interwoven, and you bring in the technology pieces that makes it go deeper.”
W: “What technology are you excited about?”
PC: “The new Promethean boards in every classroom, which is an interactive white board. The teachers understand the use of technology in authentic ways, so if you’re using Google classroom you’re able to design questions for one class and other questions for another group of students. You’re differentiating the questions to meet the kids’ level and the kids’ needs. Students can submit their thinking through Google classroom and see everyone else’s thinking at the same time. “Every school had great apps to use, it’s just what apps fit your needs. (We can use) online portfolios so the parents can see then and there what their kids are doing. What’s great is those kids can show the grandparents too, and isn’t that awesome? When they’re not living in the same state, they’re still able to see the work that’s going on, as well!”
W: “How about the design of the school?”
PC: “The furniture is designed to be flexible and movable, which is really cool. So often kids had to sit in rows, and it’s not like that anymore. The furniture is on wheels and can be moved around. Kids love lying on the ground and doing work in smaller groups, so we’re able to push the furniture away to create a big space. Students that prefer to learn standing will be able to, the desks will adjust. There are different types of chairs for different types of learners. “Outside the library are conversation stairs. You could have groups of students discussing whatever they’re learning about. There are great things going in to this building to make it creative and innovative.”
W: “We can’t wait to see it! We all wish we could go back to school.”
PC: “I say that too! Education is changing as fast as technology. But Walsh isn’t just teaming with parents and students to make sure they know their goals, we’re also teaming with other Bearcat schools in our district. We’re all learning from each other. And as you learn, you tweak to fit the needs of students. You may be able to tweak it differently for students next year, but that’s the exciting thing about education and its momentum right now.”
W: “What are you looking forward to next year?”
PC: “I got here at the beginning of April and I’ve been visiting other schools to be with the children, but I can’t wait to be with my team and be able to put all these pieces together. When I was in 6th grade, I got to give the dedicated speech for a brand-new school that opened and it was the greatest thing: I remember everything about walking into that new building. And now I can’t wait to see those kids’ faces coming into a new building. “As a staff were creating the mission and vision of what we want Walsh to be, and then these kids are going to come in and help create this foundation that, years from now, they’ll drive by and say, ‘We’re the first!’ You can’t ask for anything more. As this community grows, we’re going to take them in as family. I believe the school should be the hub for everything.”