In the Principal's OfficeThis is a weekly series shining a light on principals in Charlottesville’s and Albemarle County’s public schools.
This article has been edited for length and clarity
At first, Cyndi Wells was an aspiring attorney. She even worked as a paralegal in high school.
But then, after working at an elementary school, the children captured her heart. Her father had a hard time accepting her career choice, she said, but then he came around after he saw how excited she was about going into the education field.
Now serving as the face of Paul H. Cale Elementary School, which houses 770 pupils, she said her past has positioned her to succeed as a principal, specifically her role as a lead coach.
“You learn to interact with a variety of other people,” Wells said of the lead coach position.
Her previous roles in Albemarle County Public Schools and elsewhere include director of professional development, assistant principal and teacher.
Q: Since you’ve been in the field, have you realized it’s everything you thought it would be?
A: I think I knew what I was getting myself into. (I had hands-on experience while in college.) I had opportunities in many different schools. So, I worked with gifted children. I worked in an art classroom. I worked in an upper-grade classroom. I feel like by the time I decided I was going to get my master’s in teaching, I knew what I was going to be doing.
Q: What was it like working as the lead coach, a position you held for a decade?
A: It’s a two-part position, one part of the lead coach is supervising a group of instructional coaches. And the instructional coaches are professional partners with teachers, so they work with the teachers on whatever their goals are.
And as a lead coach team, we supervise those group of coaches working with teachers. The lead coaches work with the administrators for the most part.
But within the lead coach, I worked for fine arts for five years. So, I would also work with the fine art teachers, art, music and creative writing teachers. And then I worked with professional development for a few years. I worked with Title I a little bit, and, most recently, with English as a Second Language and world languages — there were various content areas within the lead coach position.
My predecessor started the dual language program here, which put the school on the map. The thing I like about it is children spend half of their day in English and half their day in Spanish. It’s called 50/50 because it’s half the day. But it’s also demographically half native Spanish speakers and half native English speakers.
Q: You took over the principal role over the summer. What do you like about it?
A: It’s amazing because it’s like everything I did coming up to this point was the best preparation for being a principal. So, of course, being a classroom teacher, being an assistant principal, working in professional development, working in Title I, preschool, with gifted children, fine arts, like all of those things really beautifully led up to being back in school.
Q: What do you enjoy about your staff and building?
A: It’s a community that’s here. And having being part of the community from when my children were here to now working as principal — it’s a special place.
Q: Let’s shift gears a little bit. You have a dual language program here. Why is it so important to a school like Cale Elementary?
A: My predecessor started the dual language program here, which put the school on the map. The thing I like about it is children spend half of their day in English and half their day in Spanish. It’s called 50/50 because it’s half the day. But it’s also demographically half native Spanish speakers and half native English speakers.
So, the beautiful part is each part of the day, some students get to shine and bring their assets to school in their native language, and the other half of the day, they’re learning and working through that persistently. It’s developing multiple skills at the same time. So, I think that’s a beautiful piece.
Q: Can you elaborate?
A: Brain research also shows that the best time to learn a language is so much better to learn it when you’re young. It’s easier. We also have the Foreign Language in the Elementary School (FLES).
Those children get an hour or 200 minutes a week. It depends on schedule in Spanish. So, if you’re not in the immersion program half of your day, at least a good part of your week, you’re getting exposed to Spanish. And that’s more of the oral language development.
Q: I know you’ve only been on the job for five months. Do you think it will be a good idea to expand this program here at Cale to other schools in the county?
A: I think it’s a fabulous program. I’d like to expand it here at Cale, so that everybody had the opportunity to have an immersive experience because we have a long wait list, and we use a lottery process for people to get into the program.
It’s a site-based decision. It’s a lot of commitment because there’s — looking at what we do in English and how do we find something that matches in Spanish and also teaching Spanish language arts and English language arts. It’s different how they’re taught. There’s a lot of intentional work that needs to go into putting the program in place. And recruiting teachers is the hardest part.
Q: Not every child in the building is in the program?
A: No, they’re not. It’s about half our students because you have two English-speaking teachers and two Spanish-speaking teachers who collaborate. And then you have two or three English-only per grade level. So, those are our FLES classes. And these are immersion classes. So, everybody gets second language. But the immersion is definitely more time in the immersive experience.
Q: Why is there a waiting list. Is it because it’s so popular?
A: Absolutely. It’s popular. There are people who come through and say, ‘I’m buying a house in the Cale area because I want my child to be in immersion.’ And I’m like, ‘We’re so happy you’re here, and I need to let you know that it’s not a guarantee because we do a lottery process.’ So, it’s random draw.
There’s a waiting space because sometimes there’s not enough space or teachers. I try to make sure that the draw is even to try to match the demographics of number of girls and number of boys. So, that the classes are as balanced as possible.
Q: Would it be possible to have the program expanded to other elementary schools?
A: It’s a site-based decision. It’s a lot of commitment because there’s — looking at what we do in English and how do we find something that matches in Spanish and also teaching Spanish language arts and English language arts. It’s different how they’re taught. There’s a lot of intentional work that needs to go into putting the program in place. And recruiting teachers is the hardest part.
Q: With you being the new principal, what would you want to change about the dual language program?
A: The one change I did was it used to be an application process to get in. I wanted to change that. I want it to be an opt-out to get children an opportunity to be in the program. The program was founded to build equity for our Spanish-speaking children.
What I mean by that, is in the past, if you’re a Spanish speaker, or you speak another language, you have to speak English to be successful in school. What the immersion program does for our Spanish speakers, which is the majority of our second language-speakers, that allows them to bring their assets into school.
I’m the one who changed it from application to get in to now moving forward next year, you just fill out a form if you don’t want to be in it. And then we’ll do the lottery from there.
Q: This is a large elementary school, with 770 students. With this size, what challenges you face?
A: Space. Every classroom is being used. We are having some portable learning cottages put out in the back to expand for space. We had to move closets and move some things around the closets. For small groups, like intervention groups, we have some people teaching in closets.
Our hallways are busy at transition time. You can have 300 children. There’s a proposal to expand the school, and that would be great. [There’s an item in the capital budget to add on the school. That’s probably four or five years.]
Q: You want to talk a little bit about some of the conversations you’re having with students. In terms of why the school’s name change?
A: I actually had an assembly for all the children. I did let the parents know in advance. So, if a parent wanted to opt out, they were able to. I told the children, how many of you know we have a school board? A school board is like a government. They make decisions for our county schools. How many of you know there are 26 schools in our county? How many of you know 15 of the schools were named after people? We’re the first one to go through this process. We’re the first one because we’re the best.
The school division is going to be looking at all the names. I talk to them about how many of them have experience a change in their life. How many of you had a teacher or a new principal?
Some of them asked, ‘Why did our name change? And I said, ‘You need to talk to your parents about that, but the division decided that the school name should represent the inclusive and values that we have today because some of our schools are named after people 50 to 200 years ago.”
Q: What else did you tell them?
A: Then I said, ‘We get to decide our name. So, what are some of the things we love about our school? We’re not going to name it after a person. We’ll name it after themes or values or things that we love.’
So, they brainstorm ideas. We have a suggestion box that two of our students put together. We have an online survey. The division wants to hear from them. And we’ll be able to give your ideas to the committee.
Q: So, there was not a conversation about what was mentioned in the article — anything about the comments that the superintendent made?
A: No. We decided that’s a conversation that the family should have with their children. It’s the same way as how we approach a political election. The kids would come up with who they’re voting for. We turn that around on kids and say, ‘That’s a personal decision. Talk to your families about that.”
We decided there are a variety of opinions about the name change. We figured it was best for them to have these conversations with their families.
We did put frequently ask questions on our website to try to help families if they needed help having these conversations. Some kids just came in and said I heard our name is going to change. And some will tell you all the details about it.
This approach felt like the right one. I let the parents know about the content of the assembly in advance in case they didn’t want their children to participate.
So, I feel like when a decision is made, I'm going to move forward. I'm just embracing the positive potential that we have going forward to build our community. It makes me a little sad because my children went to school here. We knew it as Cale as I've moved here. There's a little sadness. Also, let's move forward.
Q: Did all parents let their child participate?
A: We had about seven who opted out. The assembly was for third, fourth and fifth grade. The kids were having questions. I came in the same time that the name change was announced. So, I was like, no this was not me.
Q: How are you adjusting to the climate here?
A: Taking it one day at a time. I love it. I can’t imagine not being here. I’m so happy that I’m here. It’s hard to have a staff and children go through so many changes: a new principal, a name change and expansion. It’s a lot to go through. But we’re doing it together. It’s an awesome place to be. I can’t imagine being anywhere else.
Q: Where do you stand on the name change?
A: So, I feel like when a decision is made, I’m going to move forward. I’m just embracing the positive potential that we have going forward to build our community. It makes me a little sad because my children went to school here. We knew it as Cale as I’ve moved here. There’s a little sadness. Also, let’s move forward.
People can expect I will give 150% to this job because every child that I see here, I treat like my own child. That's how I approach things. I think about what I would for my child. I make decisions that way. What would I want for my community because I live in this community. I feel like [they can] expect the best.
Q: Why are you sad?
A: It’s a name. My kids went to Cale. It’s so hard. Our identity is not changing — our name is. We will continue to pay tribute to what our school was and what’s it’s going to be.
Q: What should people expect from you?
A: People can expect I will give 150% to this job because every child that I see here, I treat like my own child. That’s how I approach things. I think about what I would for my child. I make decisions that way. What would I want for my community because I live in this community. I feel like [they can] expect the best.
Q: I like the fact that you’re happy to be here. But with every job, there’s this stress aspect of it. How do you shut down at night?
A: I don’t have that balance yet because I’m a first-year principal, as well. I spend time with my family and talking to my children. I have a very supportive husband.
Cyndi Wells became principal of Paul H. Cale Elementary School in July. The school houses 770 pupils.
Credit: Billy Jean Louis/Charlottesville Tomorrow