Most mornings, Ashley Schwarzbek is near the entrance of East Lansing High School (ELHS) greeting students by name. This time of connection is one of the newly named principal’s favorite parts of the day.
“I love getting to be the first person they see as they come in,” Schwarzbek said in an interview with ELi. “I’m still very much a teacher at heart. I also love to see and experience what’s happening in our classrooms. I still really geek out on awesome teaching and learning stuff that’s happening in our building.”
Schwarzbek, who had been serving as interim ELHS principal since February, was approved unanimously by the East Lansing Public Schools Board of Education on May 19 to be the school’s next principal.
An early experience sparked Schwarzbek’s passion for education.
This passion for the classroom was likely kindled by an educator who saw Schwarzbek struggling when she was in fourth grade.
“Her name was Mrs. O’Hara,” Schwarzbek said. “She was the one that really said, ‘Huh, gosh, it feels like there’s something going on with Ashley that might be more than just normal struggles.’ And that’s what led me on my path to my dyslexia diagnosis, which really helped change my life in a really positive way. [It] helped me be able to own some of the struggles that I was having, to be able to attach skills to it.
“Even now, the things I do to make sure I’ve got some adaptive technology in things, able to write efficiently and professionally, all those things started because someone said, ‘Hey, seems like there might be something going on here,’” Schwarzbek said. “And it took that adult to be able to really help validate some of the things I think my parents were feeling and all sorts of stuff like that. That’s a really powerful thing I think we have as adults, as educators, to be able to make that impact on students lifelong.”
With an undergraduate degree from Ferris State University and a master’s degree in educational administration from Central Michigan University, Schwarzbek began her career as an educator at Charlotte High School, just a 30-minute drive from East Lansing.
“I taught in Charlotte for a number of years before I became the restorative practice facilitator there,” she said. “At one point, I was doing that for part of my day, which was really working as an interventionist for restorative practices. And I was teaching half of my day still as well…world history, AP European history and some other elective history classes.”
She came to ELHS as associate principal just before the pandemic shutdown.
In January 2020, just months before the world shut down due to a global pandemic, Schwarzbek was hired as associate principal at ELHS. Three years later, when she was named acting principal, she found her responsibilities really didn’t change much. Schwarzbek was assigned to the interim position when then-Principal Shannon Mayfield took sick leave from that office. Mayfield eventually resigned when it was determined he had lied about his educational history to the district.
“Many things stayed the same,” she said. “There’s been quite a lot of things that I’ve been in charge of and have kind of been under my purview for a long time, especially after the transition to Mr. [Andy] Wells’ retirement that sort of transitioned to me that never went to other people, like hiring and all of those things, all of the personnel pieces that I’ve really been doing for quite a long time.
“I get a lot more emails, I get [copied] on a lot more emails,” she said. “But it’s really about, for me, the transition was really more about being the face of the building and being that main communicator to help instill some trust with families in the community, especially after some of the rocky times that we had in December and January, to start being the one who is able to communicate some calm and some procedures and strategies that we were putting into place and all those things.”
Her tenure as acting and then interim principal saw threats of violence and conflict in the hallways leading to questions of discipline procedures. But one thing she is glad came from those experiences has been an increased level of parent engagement.
“You know, we’ve been meeting with representatives from ELPAT (East Lansing Parent Advocacy Team) about every two weeks for the last several months,” Schwarzbek said, “district administrators and us as high school administrators, as well, to really talk through some of the concerns that were raised. And also to raise what systems and procedures we have thoughts to going forward. We’ve been able to give them some previews of some plans that we have to get some input, which has been really, really important.
“I also meet really regularly with our community council, formerly parent council, to work with them and I really, really encourage that level of family involvement,” she said. “I think it’s one of the really beautiful things about this community is we do have a really high level of family involvement. And I would encourage people to seek out those organizations.”
Not everyone was supportive of Schwarzbek’s hiring.
However, it was parents, including those of ELPAT, who appeared at the May 19 special school board meeting to appoint the new principal, asking the board to reconsider its decision and possibly repost the position. But Schwarzbek is grateful for the engagement of the community.
“You know, I really appreciate that we are in a community where people feel safe enough to be able to voice their feelings,” she said. “I truly think that that makes us better as a community to take all of these sometimes diverging thoughts and opinions and be able to pull them together. It’s a challenge sometimes to make one cohesive school out of it, but I think it makes us better.”
Schwarzbek told ELi she wants to work with parents and help them make positive change.
“I would really encourage anyone who has concerns, please reach out,” she said. “I’m happy to set up a meeting. Let’s talk about your concerns and let’s find a pathway through it. I think we have done that with a lot of families. And I really encourage anyone who still has any concerns to just reach out and let’s start the conversation and start that walk towards healing together.”
And she understands the importance of parents’ perspectives, as she herself has young children who are her priority when she’s not at ELHS.
“You know, I wish I was a person who had more interesting hobbies, like I played the flute or something,” she said. “I have young children and I love to be with family and I love to just really engage in that when I’m home. So I play a lot of ‘Candyland’ in my free time, I’ll be honest. And we run around in the backyard.”
High school staff is enthusiastic about and supportive of their new principal.
While some parents remain unconvinced about Schwarzbek being named the high school’s new principal, staff showed out in full force at the May 19 meeting to support her. A number of teachers and administrators expressed their support during public comment.
Schwarzbek said that kind of support wasn’t born overnight.
“I think it’s about the slow, consistent support that comes out of the work that we do every day,” she said. “I think it’s about showing up for people when they need you, to being able to be a kind of consistent, steady person. I’m very action-oriented in terms of problem solving. I want to listen and validate when someone’s having a concern and then we really get into, ‘what do we need to do to fix and resolve this, and what can I do and what can I help facilitate for you to be able to do.’
“And sometimes it’s small structural things that you can help to address within someone’s day or in a problem someone is having, to help them be able to walk through that,” Schwarzbek said. “I think that consistent support and being there and showing up for people is what’s important in building those long-term relationships. I was very, very moved by my staff showing up. And we talk a lot about EL family and what it means to be in our EL family and it felt like my EL family showed up for me that day and it was great. It felt really amazing.”
Schwarzbek knows there are challenges ahead.
Despite that support, Schwarzbek has challenges ahead, but they are the same hurdles being experienced in communities and classrooms across the country.
ELi asked her about discrepancies in test scores and academic achievement between Black and Hispanic students and their white peers, inquiring how the administration plans to address the issue.
“I think that disproportionality [this] is a problem nationwide,” Schwarzbek said. “It certainly has been something that’s been continued to be addressed in this district for many years.
“Several years ago there was an achievement task force,” she said. “I know Mr. Wells was a big player in that, a member that’s been associated with that work. But the pandemic really has increased, again, nationwide, those discrepancies. We know that there’s learning loss. We know that there have been. Not everyone’s life was the same during that lockdown period, during that at-home period, and there are resources that they had [that] were very different. And so, in a community like ours, we’re seeing that exact same trend that’s happening nationwide play out here.
“I think we do have to be really, really attentive to this and refocus our efforts on what this looks like going forward and how we can set goals that are able to be actionable and measurable to be able to do that,” Schwarzbek said. “I know our Director of Social Justice Klaudia Burton is working on some strategies to be able to address those things district-wide, not just here at the high school.”
Schwarzbek is optimistic the violence and unrest the high school experienced earlier this year is also on the wane.
“I think we’ve had a lot of success this second half of the year,” she said. “There’s a lot of facts that go into the change in the environment here in the school. I certainly give a lot of credit to community organizations like The Village, that have stepped in to help us with some of the conflict that was happening between student groups. But we’ve also just had a lot of shift here in the building in terms of really increasing structures.
“My mantra over the last few months and really going into next year is ‘high structure and high support.’ Where are those places where we can increase structure to make sure students have a sense of predictability, a sense of calm?” Schwarzbek said. “High structure really means they know what to expect when they walk into the building, and that we’re doing that consistently across the board. Those are some of the things that we’ve increased, like our pass systems in class and some of the times that we allow for passes and things like that, and that they feel safe in their learning environment.”
Schwarzbek has also been working with staff and administrators to increase support programs.
“We’ve had several community groups come in to help provide some programming for students,” she said, “and provide some groups and some mentorship and some things like that. As well as turning up other supports like our Graduation Alliance support program that we’ve started. So all of those things, turning up both of those, structure and support, at the same time, I think has really benefited our school in the second half of this year in a really positive way.”
These changes have all been part of East Lansing’s Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) initiative, Trojan True. PBIS is defined by the Center on PBIS as, “an evidence-based, tiered framework for supporting students’ behavioral, academic, social, emotional, and mental health.”
“We’re really at a tipping point,” Schwarzbek said. “I think in December and January to have the community say, ‘this is what we want and this is what we need from the school to be able to have a safe school, to be able to have a welcoming school, to have a school [where] all students [are supported] in their learning and growth.’ So my goal in the next few years is to really create this culture of warmth within our building that is able to permeate into all of the things that we do. And incorporates what I said earlier, this high structure and high support model.”
ELHS officially rolled out the Trojan True initiative this spring.
“That’s been a really positive step in that direction, to be able to say, ‘What do we want to be as Trojans here? What is a positive Trojan like? How can we be Trojan True in all of our spaces?’” she said. “And so those things are my goals to be able to help set the culture here in the building so our amazing teachers are able to successfully teach and deliver instruction when we have a calm, welcoming environment that everyone feels safe to be in.
“That’s a much better space for students to be receptive to learning. And that’s really what my goal is here.”