Spend a workday with Nancy Purcell and be prepared for perpetual motion.
The Sac State alumna is the principal of Fern Bacon Middle School in south Sacramento, and she is continually on the go. Whenever students move from one class to another, Purcell is there, talking with students, ensuring they get to class and heading off potential problems. At lunchtime, she’s talking with students, addressing their concerns, resolving their conflicts.
Welcome to the new normal for successful school administrators.
Selected two years ago by Sacramento City Unified Superintendent Jonathan Raymond to turn the troubled school around, Purcell has delivered. Test scores and attendance have improved. So has the mind-set of the school’s students and staff alike.
Purcell has gotten positive results because of her core belief that children of all ages are basically pragmatic and will meet expectations. Start with a self-fulfilling prophecy that they can learn, she contends, and they will. And her middle schoolers have done just that. In the space of two years, Fern Bacon’s Academic Performance Index went from 647 to 747. Last year’s gains in language arts and math scores surpassed those of all district schools.
Fern Bacon’s mission mandated from the principal’s office is that each student will be motivated to excel. This means a committed teaching staff that challenges kids to be the best they can be and parents who buy into the system by reinforcing that message at home.
The upshot has been stunning. But Purcell’s administrative track record prefigured no less. In the space of five years, she transformed Sam Brannan Middle School in South Land Park from mediocre to a California Distinguished School.
When Raymond tapped her for Fern Bacon, Purcell didn’t hesitate. “I was working in the central office and concluded that this was a challenge worth accepting,” she says. “I spent several weeks interviewing students, teachers and staff, and making clear my expectations of them.”
Granted carte blanche in hiring, Purcell’s administrative team and nearly all of the teachers are new and passionately committed to the mission that all of Fern Bacon’s students can learn.
Purcell recalls a tough learning experience of her own in pursuing a bachelor’s degree at Sac State. “My most vivid memory as a social science major was getting a near-failing grade on a paper from History Professor Frank Garosi,” she says. “He patiently reviewed the paper with me, detailing how to think and express myself critically. I have never forgotten his advice and have used it repeatedly to help kids throughout my professional career.
“There’s something incredible about middle-school kids,” says Purcell. Her Fern Bacon family surely would return the compliment.
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– Alan Miller