As principal of Everman's Bishop Elementary School, Nikita Russell deals with plenty of administrative duties, but she's never too busy to read Laura's Star to kindergartners or show visitors a hallway-long "Rock Star" poster that highlights students' math achievements.
That is because Russell truly believes in her students, teachers, and community. Her confidence has been rewarded by high achievement in what some might consider an unlikely place -- a Title I school where 85 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
Her hard work has not only earned Bishop Elementary an exemplary rating from the Texas Education Agency three years in a row, it's also earned Russell the honor of being named a Texas National Distinguished Principal finalist by the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association.
"People don't expect our kids to succeed, but we expect it, regardless of their background," Russell said.
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A Dallas native with 16 years' experience, Russell taught in Dallas and Mansfield before coming to the 5,060-student Everman district in 2005 as an assistant principal.
Bishop has about 570 students in pre-kindergarten through fourth grade, and though it is a Title I school, it has little turnover among students or teachers, Russell said.
In her first year at Bishop, "we were good, but our math numbers were not where we needed them to be," she said. In math, 74 percent of students were passing, good enough at the time for a recognized rating. She began laying out plans for long-term success by reaching out to her teachers.
"The first thing, I felt we had to build a relationship with the teachers," she said. "We had team-building sessions and motivational speakers. We needed for us to be a family."
Then Russell introduced small focus groups for educators to study and brainstorm together. The teachers embraced it, she said, and began poring over student data and considering what their students needed.
"We were making sure the staff had training to educate our kids," she said. "We got everyone involved, including the parents."
After-school tutoring became commonplace, from Russell's office on down the ranks.
Their hard work started to show benefits. The passing rates in math and other core subjects are now in the 90s, as required for an exemplary rating.
"Bishop is just one of these perfect little places that works," said Cathy Sewell, Everman's assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.
She credits Russell with much of the success.
The school's enthusiasm has also caught on in the community. Last year's end-of-year all-school family picnic drew 800 people.
"She's really worked on student engagement," Sewell said. "She has greatly increased academic performance and learning."
Next year, Russell is moving up to an administrative job in the district and will not be at a school. She will be director of federal programs, a new position.
Students said they will be sad to see her leave.
"Yes, but it's a good thing," said Chance Walters, 10, a fourth-grader, "because she's leaving just like I'm leaving."
Chance will move up to fifth grade at Dan Powell Intermediate School next year.
"We'll both still be in Everman, though," he added.