Classrooms are “sacred places” to new principal


Jennifer Priest Mitchell

Teaching writing, grammar and debate skills to middle and high school English students is how Holly Batsell (PhD '13, MEd '98), newly appointed principal of the Bioscience High School in Phoenix Union High School District, started her career in education. That’s when she developed an appreciation for the value of relationships between teachers and students. She said, “When I reflect on my career, I am most proud of being a teacher for 20 years. That work was very meaningful, and my interactions with students gave me a foundation for everything else.” And by everything else, Batsell refers to her years studying at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College to earn two graduate degrees and to her later roles in administration, where she works hard to ensure teachers and students have what they need to be productive.

While it may seem like a big leap from literary analyses at the classroom level to working in administration at a science school, overseeing staff, faculty and program implementation, it’s a move Batsell made with ease. The smooth transition is due in part to her high value for positive classroom experiences and her leadership training. “My doctorate is in leadership and policy, and I learned a lot about how to motivate people and bring people together. My work on my degree has helped me be able to inspire people to get results.”

Batsell has worked hard, seen a variety of results in her career and learned along the way. She was a high school vice principal in Deer Valley Unified School District and worked in a large school with 2,300 students. She said that experience helped her gain a broad view for the impact of changes in the school. For example, when she was the testing coordinator, she communicated new schedules throughout the school. She had to communicate changes and what was needed to staff at the front desk and in the cafeteria; people working on custodial teams and to the security officers; in addition to teachers, students and parents. She also helped coordinate continuing technological education  activities, many of which required detailed modifications with consideration of people’s time, use of space and required tasks. Being responsible for so many facets of varied projects was good practice for her job as a principal.

In her new role, Batsell said one of her goals is to increase communication to parents and among stakeholders in the high school community. She said the school is an important part of a science community in Phoenix, and ongoing communication and networking will strengthen its effectiveness.

Built in 2007, the three-story school building has six science labs and an external laboratory available to students. Located in the heart of the Phoenix genomics research district, the school is close to university and private sector research facilities to foster student learning and opportunities. The school is a close-knit community of teachers and students, and Batsell said there are many group projects and schoolwide projects going on all the time.

One new project this year is a participatory budget program in which students are involved in helping decide how some school funds are utilized. Batsell said, “We have a committee of people, including students, who met on a Saturday for training on how to get started on deciding how money could be spent in the school. They discussed the process, how to seek input from a variety of groups and possible projects, such as adding shade structures to campus.” As the process continues, this student-led group will receive a $4,000 grant from the school district, and they will apply the funds toward the project of their choosing. The work helps students collaborate, communicate and come to a decision—skills that extend into academics and, she said, will prepare them for a future of teamwork and working toward results.

Batsell also hopes to help the school offer additional advanced placement, or AP classes as well as dual credit courses, where students simultaneously earn credit toward high school graduation and college. She explained, “Our school is new, and it is smaller than many, so we can be innovative more easily than larger schools. We have great teams of people who are excited and willing to try new ideas. I want to help us balance all of that energy for innovation with our focus on what matters most and on what we all want to do for students and teachers.”

She notes that the same broad issues she saw in other schools and districts over the years exist in Phoenix Union as well. “Really, regardless of the amount of funding in a state, district or school, and regardless of any other resources, it all boils down to improving the experience students have in the classroom with their teacher. We want to remove obstacles for teachers and connect them with resources, be that funding or professional development or something else, so they can relate to each student. We want to create and protect that sacred space in the classroom. We want teachers to have what they need to create and utilize that space and those opportunities. We want to empower kids to be ready to learn, overcome their obstacles, advocate for themselves and make the most of what is offered.”