Grit and Grace

Secret ingredients for school transformation

By Charlotte Moore

Photography by Anne Bannister

Letty Roman, Principal
Cedric C. Smith Elementary School
Magnolia ISD
Raising School Leaders Alumna ’14 (Harvard)

Schools and their surrounding communities are integrally intertwined. When a community transforms, so do its schools. And that transformation can be hard. Really hard. Good school leaders can balance changing community conditions and school culture. The best school leaders can tip that balance to take their schools to impressive new heights.

Smith Elementary in the Magnolia Independent School District 50 miles northwest of Houston has a heart as big as Texas. Its principal, Letty Roman, says that heart is built of equal parts grit and grace. But the school’s heartbeat was not always so strong.  

Several years ago, Smith Elementary struggled with challenging demographics, lackluster academic status, stagnant staff culture, and a poor reputation. Add to that a fast-changing local community and you have a perfect storm. The question was whether the school would, or could, adapt and improve under tough conditions to meet the needs of all students.

Principal Letty Roman’s recipe for getting the best out of her students? Grit and grace. Watch as Roman shares the principles she says guided her ability to transform Smith Elementary from a low achievement campus with a poor reputation to an exemplary Title I elementary school model.

Putting the status quo on notice

“When I came to Smith Elementary, I heard from a lot of people in the community who were not pleased with this campus,” Roman said. “They said they didn’t want to come here.” Smith Elementary was a majority low socio-economic campus. It had a reputation in the Magnolia school district of being the school you didn’t want to send your kids to. And some staff were comfortable cruising with the status quo.

Anita Hebert, Magnolia ISD’s Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, distinctly remembers Smith Elementary as a school in turmoil.

“When Mrs. Roman came to this school, it was in transition,” Hebert said. “There were a lot of challenges right off the bat.”

Not only was Principal Roman walking into a roiling quagmire, she was also jumping into the fray in August, at the start of a new school year. She didn’t have the benefit of easing into things over a summer. Roman dug in and fast-tracked assessment of school staff and structures. She quickly learned the school had a long road to reach high-performing status. She knew what needed to be done, and it involved taking teachers and staff out of their comfort zones.

Getting Teachers and Staff on the Bus

At the beginning of the school year, Roman coordinated a simple school bus ride, not for students, but for staff. Everyone boarded the bus one morning and toured the school zone. Many of Smith’s students lived in impoverished neighborhoods –  in trailers with no windows or electricity. Some even bathed in water troughs in their front yards.

“I wanted them to see where our children were coming from,” Roman said. “I do a lot of home visits so I know where they’re coming from, but a lot of our staff had not been there before. They needed to see that so they could have that empathy and understanding, yet come back and talk about how we owe students this greatness and these high expectations. We’ve done book studies, we’ve gone to conferences where we’re learning about students from underprivileged families, and the reasons some of them do the things they do. I model on a daily basis with our staff how we love our children.”

Parents and District Leaders Sought Swift Results

Parents new to the area were solidly invested in Smith Elementary’s success. They expected their neighborhood schools to deliver a top-notch education for their children.

“When we first moved out here to Magnolia, our subdivision was just being built behind the school,” said Katie Mitchell, a parent and volunteer coordinator for the Smith Elementary Parent Teacher Organization. “It was one of the newer subdivisions out here. Everything else was just woods. There was a lot of change and growth happening in this area. So Principal Roman really had to have strong leadership, and she had to know how she wanted the school to progress. Some people were on board and some were not.”

Magnolia ISD leadership knew parents were concerned and needed to be reassured their children were attending strong schools. District staff stood alongside Roman and supported her from the start. “Letty just looked that bull right in the eye and said ‘I can do this,’” Hebert said. “She started bit by bit putting structures and expectations in place and building the kind of structure she knew would be successful for all the different populations represented at this school. For a while it ruffled some feathers. She had to go through a few turbulent seas.” Hebert continued, “We tried to stand behind her because great leaders need those people to stand behind them when they have to get through those seas until they can get the ship righted and make it straight.”

Change Comes Hard in a Legacy Industry

In the corporate world, ushering in new processes and personnel to deconstruct and revive a struggling business is commonplace. Educators in schools can have a different temperament about change. Many teachers graduated from, or were certified through, programs that prepared them for the 20th century factory model of education, not programs that prepare teachers to develop 21st century learners. In the face of an ever-shifting accountability and curriculum landscape, increasing state and federal expectations, lack of funding support, and a barrage of negative rhetoric about public education, it’s easy to understand why teachers might be skeptical, even antagonistic, about major change proposals. In the face of such upheaval, some teachers, regardless of their efficacy, first and foremost value the traditional long-term guarantee of their positions.

“When she came here she had to break a lot of bad habits and she had to raise the school,” said Smith Elementary Assistant Principal Dion Rivera. “She had a job ahead of her and she was not very popular for the first three years because people, when they are left to their own devices, are going to take the easiest road.”

However, Roman was unwavering in her plan of action. She changed faculty meetings from sit-and-get reporting sessions to mini-seminars about instruction and how to teach better. She brought in curriculum specialists and district experts to speak to her team. She applied state curriculum while adding Smith Elementary-specific lesson plans into the mix. The Model Classrooms Project, a dynamic evidence-based instructional delivery model, helps her teachers set a purpose for instruction and objectives for each day. The Five Dimensions of Teaching and Learning provides teachers with a research-based framework focusing on student purpose, student engagement, curriculum and pedagogy, assessment for student learning, and classroom environment and culture. Now, faculty meeting conversations center around instruction and pushing all students to reach their greatest potential.

“I almost feel bad when we hire a new teacher,” Roman said, laughing, “because it’s like, are you ready for this?”

Roman directed her teachers to notice – really notice – their students; to look at them as individuals and assure them they were in a caring environment, whatever their life circumstances. She began teaching staff to internalize what some of the children — no matter their economic status — might have gone through before the school day started and to empathize with them, while at the same time refusing to cut them slack for bad behavior or missed homework. Roman made it clear the status quo was no longer acceptable. If you wanted to teach at Smith Elementary, you had to up your game.

“At our campus, every teacher believes our children can be great,” she said. “I love when I see a teacher who refuses to give up on a student, or a parent that says, ‘He had to redo that assignment four times.’ Because if you didn’t do your best the first time, you’re not off the hook. You’re going to have some re-teaching and do it again.”

Growth and rezoning shakes up everything

Student performance was on the rise and Roman was in the midst of rallying students’ families around the new transformational vision when things changed again, in a big way. The regional corridor where Smith Elementary sits was experiencing some of the fastest housing and population growth the area had seen in a decade, so the school board was responding to those shifts on a macro scale while Principal Roman was charting a new course for the school.

“The area around Smith was rezoned,” Roman said. “Students and families from an affluent area were rezoned to come to Smith Elementary.”

“That’s one of the big things that we’re always having to look at,” said Deborah Rose Miller who is in her third term as a Magnolia ISD school board member. “Obviously our administration is always staying ahead of it, trying to see with that crystal ball where that growth is going to be. We knew that Smith, which has been primarily a Title I school, was going to start seeing that shift in the area.”

The rezoned children were from middle- and upper-class households, and for most their first language was English. Their parents expected quality teachers, academic rigor, and a challenging curriculum. Many had questions about Smith Elementary’s previously spotty track record in student achievement and how the school’s leadership was balancing the varying needs of different demographic groups.

Roman knew buy-in from the rezoned population was key to the school’s ultimate success.

“I took a lot of personal time getting to know people one by one to invite them to our campus,” Roman said. “I’ve spent time with real estate agents, hosting them on our campus, with luncheons and walk-throughs in the classrooms.”

The school board knew Roman’s task was not an easy one, and recognized she was doing the hard work that would make a meaningful difference for students, instead of doing the popular things that would win her more friends.

“Mrs. Roman has done what any good principal has to do,” Rose Miller said. “She’s made some changes in the staff, made some changes on the team and how they perceive and view things. And she’s created a great team concept here.”

Some parents transferred their children out of Smith Elementary and into local charter or private alternatives that aggressively marketed their schools, only to realize how good they had it at Smith. Many of those parents quickly brought their kids back. Parents who from the beginning gave Smith a chance reveled in its results and continue to tout the school’s potential whenever they get the opportunity.

“Principal Roman knows the kids names; she knows details about them” said Mitchell whose two sons have attended Smith Elementary. “They love her. They love that she’s right there at the front door every morning, and so the kids love coming to school.”

They’re Going to College!

The single most inspiring message students at Smith Elementary receive may be that it is never too early to start talking about college. The motivation is working. Here, eight students ranging from first through fifth grade sit down with Principal Roman to talk about their college and career aspirations.

Here, college begins in kindergarten

For her students, Roman created a collective objective: the idea that college is available to each and every Smith student. Every. Single. One.

“Some of our students are coming from homes where I’m sure they’re discussing college,” Roman said. “However, probably 60 percent or more of our families, the parents have not been to college. I’ve made it a goal here that we have every classroom adopt a college, and that they have a banner posted. They are to talk about the school colors, the mascot, the location, and what that school might specialize in. We try and talk about college in some fashion every single day.”

Each morning before school, the students — from pre-k to 5th grade — dressed in a dazzling array of bright colors, gather in the gymnasium where they sit cross-legged with their classmates for an awe-inspiring assembly. Some line up in front of the electrified crowd to sing and dance to lively music. A student helps deliver the day’s announcements. After offering the students words of encouragement, Principal Roman leads the children in reciting their school creed:

My education is important to me.

I pledge to do my best each day.

I will respect myself and others.

I am responsible for my own learning.

I will use each day wisely and be successful in all I do!

Roman always closes the assembly with a single question to the crowd of students: “Where are you going?” In unison the students shout, “I’M GOING TO COLLEGE, HUH!” all pumping their fist on the last word.

As the children file out of the gymnasium, Principal Roman and Assistant Principal Rivera give every kid a high five or a hug.

“I’ve even had a student ask, ‘Mrs. Roman, can I live with you when I’m in college? I know that my family isn’t gonna be able to support me, but can I live with you?’ And I said, ‘We’ll talk about that when it’s time. It’s amazing that they’re really internalizing it and thinking about it.”

School Pride Anchored in Diversity and Distinctions

For the last two years, Smith Elementary earned the most distinctions of any school in Magnolia ISD. Today, Smith Elementary showcases its heart more than ever and sets a high standard of spirit and student growth, not only for a Title I school, but any school.

“One of the things that I’m always talking about is ‘grit and grace’ on our campus,” Roman said. “We need to teach the students to have grit to make it through, to persevere through their challenges. However, we’re going to have grace and understand where they’ve come from. I want to create a school where children love to learn. I feel like I’m getting there, where kids love being here and that’s how it should be.”

Principal Roman knows the kids names; she knows details about them. They love her. They love that she’s right there at the front door every morning, and so the kids love coming to school.”

Katie Mitchell

Cedric C. Smith Elementary 

28747 Hardin Store Rd., Magnolia, TX 77354
Pre-k – 5th grade
Enrollment: 800

Distinctions: Academic achievement in reading/English language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies.

Top 25% in student progress, closing performance gaps, and postsecondary readiness.

Hispanic: 60%
White: 34%
African American 1.0%
American Indian 1%
Asian 1.0%
Two or More Races 2.3%

Enrollment by Student Group:
Economically Disadvantaged 62%
English Language Learners 47%
Special Education 8%

Campus Conversations with Assistant Principal Dion Rivera

Principal Letty Roman’s right-hand woman at Smith Elementary is Assistant Principal Dion Rivera. Rivera has worked at Smith – first as a teacher, now in administration – for three years, and worked with Principal Roman at another schools. The Charles Butt Foundation sat with Rivera to discuss the misconceptions about Smith Elementary, the type of leader she has in her principal, and the school’s abiding “grit and grace” philosophy.

Charles Butt Foundation: Can you paint a picture of Smith Elementary for us?

Rivera: Some people will go online and see our demographics and that we have a limited English proficiency, low-socioeconomic population. A lot of people will look at that and they will balk. They’ll say “Let’s go to this private school where our students will be with these higher-level students.” But those schools don’t have the culture we have here. That makes a huge difference. It takes a lot of heart to teach students who barely know the language. It takes a lot of heart to teach students who don’t have any background knowledge or experiences. Our teachers have excellent relationships with their students. If you have that you can get them to do whatever you want them to do because they don’t want to disappoint you.

Can you describe your relationship with Principal Letty Roman?

Rivera: Letty was my assistant principal in my very first teaching job. She was my first mentor and she was the one who guided me in pursuing my Master’s degree and moving forward with my career. As an assistant principal she was like a principal. I felt I could go to her and she could answer anything for me. She was always just very smart; she has guts and is always very confident in her answers.

What would you say is Principal Roman’s greatest leadership quality?

Rivera: She has a great sense of humor. She can laugh with you and keep things light and positive even though you are making hard decisions every single day. She has a very hard job but she makes it look very easy. As a teacher I had no idea what was going on behind the scenes. Stepping into the role of assistant principal, I see there are a lot of things happening every minute of the day. You have to keep your head up and have a strong face for your teachers. I believe she is one of the most respected principals in the district.

What are the effects of Smith Elementary’s “college ready” messaging?

Rivera: At the beginning of the year the teachers talk about the colleges they went to, the mascot, how their experience was. Every Monday the teachers wear college shirts and the students are encouraged to wear college shirts as well. We want college to become an everyday part of their lives and something they are always thinking about. The majority of our students’ parents did not go to college or have any kind of post high school degree. A lot of these kids don’t even know that this is an option for them. College is not something that is discussed in their everyday lives. With some of our students who come from different backgrounds, it’s just expected that they are going to go to college. We always want our students looking toward their future. Even though it’s just elementary school, they need to know that right here they are forming their intellectual and work habits.

Have you bought in to Principal Roman’s “Grit and Grace” philosophy?

Rivera: She’s always reinforcing the term “grit and grace.” We have grit, which means we never, ever give up. But we also have grace and we know that we are professionals and we have a job to do and that’s where the caring and the relationships come in. We are going to be gritty and we are going to push and push our students. But we are also going to have grace because we are going to love them and care for them and support them in any way we can.