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'It's ok to be the tortoise'
by Garrett Valenzuela
Apr 10, 2013 | 2647 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Tribune photo by Garrett Valenzuela -- Spanish Springs High School Principal Tasha Fuson stands before a congratulatory banner created by the school's Leadership class after Fuson won Washoe County School District Principal of the Year.
Tribune photo by Garrett Valenzuela -- Spanish Springs High School Principal Tasha Fuson stands before a congratulatory banner created by the school's Leadership class after Fuson won Washoe County School District Principal of the Year.
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SPARKS — Tasha Fuson was aware she had received a prestigious award from the Washoe County School District on Friday, but on the eve of Spring Break it became very real to her when she returned from lunch to find an enormous poster hanging above her door, forcing her to duck underneath it to enter her office. The sign read simply: Congrats Principal of the Year!

Assortments of flowers and greeting cards littered Fuson’s desk as she casually sat down to discuss the four years as principal at Spanish Springs High School that led her to be named the Keyser Foundation WCSD Principal of the Year. Fuson arrived after assistant principal positions at Reno and Foothill (Las Vegas) high schools and entered Spanish Springs High when it was just eight years old.

“It’s funny to me because I did have this vision in my head and I kept explaining where I wanted to go and I kept explaining it to my teachers and assistant principals and they didn’t really get it,” Fuson said. “Then Year 2 comes and they start buying in a little bit more. Year 3 comes and they are starting to trust it a little more and Year 4 comes and I see we are doing what I wanted to do in Year 1, and they have really owned it.

“It has to be slow because you can’t jump in even though you know what you think needs to happen. If the whole group and community doesn’t collaboratively grow and go through that process, it is meaningless.”

Fuson analyzed the growth of the school academically, culturally and statistically in the time she has spent there, saying she and her staff took the “tortoise and the hare” approach. In a world where the ‘quick-fix solution’ seems to be desired most, Fuson said sustainability of success comes with time.

“I kind of came in with a preconceived notion that a lot of the things that we had done successfully at Foothill might be successful here,” she said. “That’s one thing you learn when you’re a novice, very quickly, is that just because it works in one place doesn’t mean it will work here. The culture is very different.

“All that work my kids and my staff have been doing is finally recognized and coming to fruition. We are seeing it on our accountability report, in the district’s framework and we have finally realized it is OK to be the tortoise because in the long run it is about those steady gains.”

Though it is early in her tenure at Spanish Springs, Fuson said one of the biggest accomplishments of her staff is the school’s Response to Intervention Program, which supports students’ skill deficits and aids keeping them on track for their diploma. Fuson said Spanish Springs’ program originally consisted of “sustained silent reading,” a strategy she felt was not in the best interest of students.

“Four years later, we have a very elaborate support system,” Fuson said. “We have Tier 2 and Tier 3 interventions in both reading and math. We have really been able to look at our kids and say ‘Where do they need the help? Where do they need the support and how can we build that into their school day?’

“Historically speaking, if you make it after school or during the summer the kids don’t come. You need to build it into the school day and I believe that was the foundation for our success. It was a slow process because what it looked like in Year 2 is completely different from what it looks like now. We continue to expand, look at where the needs are and continue to add supports.”

Still, Fuson said there is plenty to work on at Spanish Springs High because the school most recently registered a 79 percent graduation rate, which is higher than the district and national average. Fuson said the biggest challenge facing the school is getting more students across the graduation stage with Advanced or Honors diplomas and, in turn, emphasizing the importance of students’ senior year.

“I think because we are a school that has always kind of been in the middle, the expectation and culture of our school is all about graduation,” Fuson said. “What we are realizing now is that needs to be the floor and the ceiling is going to college-and-career readiness. We need these graduating seniors prepared to go to college. The culture of our school when you are a senior has always been shorter school days and less risk, instead of taking the rigorous classes they need to be taking.

“We are doing you a disservice by letting you have an easy senior year. You shouldn’t be taking your senior year off because you need to be prepping to go to college next year. Taking a year off is not going to get you prepared to be successful.”

Fuson said students are now required to begin thinking of college or career tech academies when they are freshmen and each year students are “scaffolded” through steps to get their resume, applications, school prospects, financial aid and things of the like compiled by their senior year.

Anyone who has walked through the busy halls of Spanish Springs High has probably seen Fuson conversing in the halls or working with administrators. She said her presence in the halls and interaction with the students is a vital component to her job.

“I think some people may not understand, and I didn’t really understand myself, just how influential the principal is,” she said. “It is amazing. It really is, that you have to realize you have a great responsibility. If you want the tone of your school to be a positive tone, then you have to model that by every single day coming in and showing your staff and kids you are happy to be there, excited to be there. You believe in what you’re doing — and the only way to really do that is to get out of your office, to be out in the hallway talking and smiling to kids.”

With her index finger pressing firmly against the plank of her desk, Fuson said she was not satisfied with how far the school has come. She wants more. Being named Principal of the Year was a “complete honor” for her, but her goal requires constant attention.

“To me, to be able to walk away and say that I was very successful would be for me to be able to say that every student on this campus when they left us had a plan,” she said. “I want for us to be able to offer a comprehensive, all-around school for our kids. Traditional school doesn’t always work for all students, and not all students are college bound. I think we need to set high expectations for all kids but also honor what their wishes are for their life.”
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