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On 'Shadow a Student' day, it's the principal's turn to learn

That morning, in a fleece jacket zipped up over her habit, Sister Mary Jackson rummaged through her convent in search of a pencil.

Her plaid purple backpack stuffed with a three-ring binder for note-taking waited on the kitchen chair. Three rooms later, she finally found a suitable pencil with an eraser.

"That's the one thing we expect from the students — come prepared and have a pencil," said Jackson, the principal of Villa Madonna Catholic School in Tampa. "I totally get it now. I didn't think it would take me that long to find one."

On any other day, she would head to the school's front office. Instead she took a seat next to 11-year-old Olivia Alba in her fifth-grade homeroom on Tuesday.

Alba was her guide through a day in the life of a fifth-grader. Jackson had committed herself to taking the Shadow a Student Challenge seriously: She took home homework to be completed for a grade, ate lunch in the cafeteria and raised her hand to ask to go to the bathroom.

Later, she would connect with the other 1,400 school leaders participating throughout the United States and 26 countries — including administrators at nine schools in the Tampa Bay area — and share her experience via social media. The goal to is collaborate and share tips to change schools for the better.

"It's been hard sometimes as a principal to play and eat with the kids," Jackson said. "It's important as an administrator to see who they really are."

• • •

Mike Murphy sat down at a lunchroom table with a group of high school juniors and twisted the cap off his orange juice. Instead of students taking lessons from him, the headmaster wanted to know what he should learn from shadowing an 11th-grader at Shorecrest Preparatory School.

The four teens echoed each other: He could better understand their daily stress.

"Time management," said 16-year-old Tom Murphy — no relation to the headmaster — who has been at Shorecrest since he was 3.

Of the 945 students in pre-K through 12th grade at the St. Petersburg private school, Mike Murphy chose to shadow a high school student on Thursday and randomly drew Tom's name.

"These kids are not at ease," Murphy said. "There's high expectation for these kids. The pressure's palpable."

While Tom was cramming to memorize the names of algae and fungi for a biology exam, Murphy said he was grateful to spend a day away from emails and fundraisers.

"If we wanted school reform, you would make every administrator do this," Murphy said.

The Shadow a Student Challenge was launched this year by School Retool, a professional development nonprofit created by the Institute of Design at Stanford University, as well as Ideo, a design and innovation consulting firm; and the Hewlett Foundation. School leaders were asked to clear one day during the week of Feb. 29 through March 4 to immerse themselves in the student experience.

Participation is free, and all administrators were encouraged to take notes on their observations and reflections and share them via Google Plus and Twitter with the hashtag #ShadowAStudent.

"This work is all about bringing forward all of the ideas that are happening in schools," said Susie Wise, the K-12 lab network director at the Stanford institute and organizer of the challenge. "Anybody can benefit from taking that empathy deep-dive and understanding what that experience is like."

• • •

Angie Murphy silenced her walkie talkie on Friday to learn the difference between a surgical glove and a medical glove in 11th-grader Joslin Pagan's health science class.

Because the designated Shadow a Student week was set during Florida Standards Assessments testing, Murphy, the principal of Ridgewood High School in New Port Richey, challenged her assistant principals to pick a day before spring break to shadow a student in their respective grades.

"A lot of times, unfortunately, teenagers get a bad rap for being lazy," she said. "From what I saw today, I saw kids that really wanted to be connected and really wanted to be involved and really just wanted to be interested in things they were learning about."

Back at Shorecrest Prep in St. Petersburg, Mike Murphy shared a similar sentiment. He snapped a photo of his student, Tom, looking through a microscope and tweeted it.

"The problem I want to solve is how to make school interesting all the time," the headmaster said.

And in Tampa, Jackson, the Villa Madonna principal, traded in her sandals for New Balance sneakers. Tuesday was PE day, and Jackson found herself up next for the long jump.

She hustled on the pavement, veil flapping behind her, and launched herself beyond the scratch line. One foot landed on the sand at 7 feet, 7 inches, and the other at 9 feet and 7 inches.

"This is what these kids do every day," said Jackson, huffing and puffing now and shaking sand out of one sneaker.

That's when she learned that the following week was the high jump.

"Thank you, Jesus, I was here today!"

Contact Colleen Wright at or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright on Twitter.

On 'Shadow a Student' day, it's the principal's turn to learn 03/05/16 [Last modified: Saturday, March 5, 2016 9:15pm]
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