‘Visionary Leader’ helps students see the light
Story by Laurie Merrill
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU Today Magazine
Eric Atuahene squeezed into a child-size chair between two first-graders at Quentin Elementary School in Avondale and peered at their drawings.
“What’s your message?” he asked a girl whose sketches showed one classmate sticking out a tongue and another calling someone an inappropriate name.
“It’s when someone makes you feel bad,” the child said, pausing, pencil in hand, to gaze upward into his face. “We’re not supposed to do that.”
It’s a typical day for Atuahene, Quentin’s 40-year-old principal and a Grand Canyon University alumnus. He visits classrooms at least three days a week and engages students and teachers in earnest conversation. It’s one of the most rewarding aspects of his job.
And it’s a typical lesson for Quentin students, who are immersed in positive messages and encouraged to meet their principal’s high expectations for learning, behavior and character.
“No one has the right to interfere with the learning, safety or wellbeing,” is the predominant rule at the nearly 1,000-pupil campus in the Littleton Elementary School District.
This is Atuahene’s second year as principal, and the new philosophies and goals he has set in motion and his desire to learn from powerful mentors already are making their mark on the Title I school.
“Good principals know education, they know classroom instruction and they know what is possible,” said Dr. Jim Rice, a lifelong educator and member of GCU’s Board of Directors. “They are visionaries. Eric is truly a visionary leader. He knows the direction he wants the school to move to, and he works well with teachers.”
The two met in 2012 when Atuahene applied for the Aspiring Principals initiative of the Rodel Foundation of Arizona. Rodel selects future leaders with exemplary traits, pairing them with some of the best educators in Arizona, and Rice was a member of the selection committee.
Atuahene has a profound respect for Rice, who enjoyed a 40-year career with the Alhambra Elementary School District and is now the Union Elementary District’s interim superintendent. “Dr. Rice was hugely influential with regard to the development of my leadership,” Atuahene said.
Finding a passion for and pathway to education
Ironically, education was neither Atuahene’s first career choice nor his major at GCU. He graduated in 1997 with a bachelor’s degree in biology and went out into the world as a lab technician.
GCU gave him more than his diploma. Its Christian-based foundation and the four years he spent playing soccer and earning all-conference honors under then-coaches Peter Duah and Petar Draksin helped form the building blocks of his character.
Atuahene’s passion to help others and make a difference in society grew as he worked in the private sector for companies such as Motorola and Intel Corp.
“I did that for some years,” Atuahene said. “It was basically lab work.
I just didn’t feel fulfilled.”
His wife, Andrea, a teacher, urged him to explore a career in education. He took that advice and was able to parlay his biology degree and subsequent certification into teaching science in the Phoenix Union High School and Saddle Mountain Unified School districts. Atuahene was hooked on the joy of helping children. He had found his calling but still wanted to do more. After teaching for three years, he set his sights on transitioning to administration.
In the Rodel program, he was paired with Carrie Prielipp, then principal of Sunset Ridge Elementary in the Pendergast Elementary School District and a Rodel Exemplary Principal.
Another mentor is Sandy Kennedy, former principal of Granada East School in Phoenix. He and Kennedy became partners in 2014 in Beat the Odds, a program created in 2007 in response to an Arizona report that predicted the possibility of an undereducated state workforce. It noted that, although the Latino school-age population is booming, its graduation rates have remained consistently lower than that of white students.
Beat the Odds mentors and attempts to empower new principals to raise student achievement in schools with low-income populations. Atuahene and nearly 50 other principals meet regularly for training sessions.
A-plus at Quentin: attitude, appearance, academics
At his own school, Atuahene is excited about a collaborative learning project he launched last year to meet a Beat the Odds goal. Quentin’s teachers created professional learning communities in which they have in-depth discussions about students they have in common to create the best teaching strategies for each.
“If you’re collaborating right, it affects the whole culture,” he said.
Quentin was built in 2004 in an attractive community of stucco and tile-roof single-family homes with a grassy park and playground nearby.
Yet more than 87 percent of its children qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. More than 80 percent are Latino.
The school has a dress code, and messages supporting good behavior appear on the bulletin boards, in school hallways and even in the bathroom. Integrity and respect were campus buzzwords during fall semester.
“Integrity means do what you are supposed to do, even when no one is looking,” Atuahene said.
During a recent school tour, he paused to greet a group of female students who smiled behind their hands to trap escaping giggles.
“Hi, ladies. Are your shirts tucked in?” Atuahene asked. “Do you have your passes?”
They nodded yes and yes.
“Thank you for meeting expectations,” he said.
The principal high-fived a grinning kindergartner, then called out to another student. “Hey, Isaac, make sure your shirt is tucked in,” as the boy stuffed the garment into his pants.
STARs and Sharks of the month
The district’s “Make Your Day” disciplinary policy has substantially reduced student visits to the principal’s office, Atuahene said. It urges teachers to be more proactive in handling situations and emphasizes rewarding students for good behavior.
Some students are designated as STARs (Students That Are Responsible) or Sharks (the school mascot) of the month. They receive paper bricks, stars and flower petals to add to a colorful, construction paper montage on a large hallway bulletin board.
Atuahene frequently pops into classes to touch base with teachers and students, many of whom affectionately refer to him as “Mr. A.” The visits “provide value and support to the teachers, and they are refreshing for the kids,” he said.
For example, he was on hand when master teacher Samantha Armstrong taught eighth-graders a lesson on neuroplasticity, the idea that the brain isn’t hardwired and fixed but is more like a muscle that can be exercised.
In Jon Alfred’s eighth-grade history class, Atuahene took a seat as the class was instructed to write an essay about totalitarianism with the prompt, “Were we in America just lucky, or did our democratic traditions keep us from evil thinkers?”
Back in his office, assistant principal Pam Duty poked her head in to inquire about a meeting that day. She also teased Atuahene about his long, button-down tan cardigan, saying he looked like “Mr. Rogers” from the old TV show or “Mr. Robinson” from the “Saturday Night Live” spoof.
Reform takes time, and Atuahene has learned he must be patient about it.
“This is my second year, Year 2,” Atuahene said. “I went in thinking I can change the world right away. Now, I know it’s not going to happen that quickly.”
Contact Laurie Merrill at (602) 639-6511 or [email protected]