Brittingham leaves her mark on school

Headmaster Sharon Brittingham has spearheaded the transformation of Frankford Elementary from an underperforming institution into an academic exemplarity. On June 30 she will head out for good.
Coastal Point • SAM HARVEY: Sharon Brittingham, left, and Indian River School District Superintendent Lois Hobbs, when Brittingham received recognition from the district.Coastal Point • SAM HARVEY:
Sharon Brittingham, left, and Indian River School District Superintendent Lois Hobbs, when Brittingham received recognition from the district.

“July 1 will probably be very difficult for me. I will have to keep myself very busy that day,” Brittingham said. “I am very attached to the students, teachers and to the community here. Truthfully, I have had a lot of serious thoughts about whether I made the right decision or not.”

The woman who helped turn Frankford around is retiring after eight years as its principal, and turning the reigns over to a successor.

“Sharon’s an outstanding school leader. I was proud to have her as a member of the staff,” said Lois Hobbs, superintendent of the Indian River School District. “I will miss Sharon Brittingham. She’s a real asset.”

Brittingham will move on to Wilmington College, where she will supervise student and practicum teachers.

“I can make an impact on teachers before they even enter the building,” she said.

Brittingham will also do consulting work for Delaware school districts, advising upstart administrators, and she hopes to participate in Frankford’s mentorship program.

With more than 25 years of educative experience and a master’s in education from Widener University in Chester, Penn., Brittingham took over Frankford Elementary in 1997. The school’s “hardworking and dedicated” mentality, she said, predated her arrival. The challenge that year was to balance the expectations of a new principal, a new school district superintendent and new state and federal accountability mandates.

“There had to be a focus on continuous improvement,” the principal said.

Frankford, furthermore, has the highest poverty and minority rates in the district. Nearly 80 percent of its 430 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and many have to learn English as a second language. Add the drive for inclusive classrooms — taking special education learners out of isolated settings — and the school possesses all the ingredients needed to bake a querulous cake. But Brittingham and her staff do not grant griping a place in their halls.

“It would be easy to make excuses if we weren’t successful,” she said. “The teachers have high expectations for themselves and for their students. Teachers here don’t make any excuses.”

With the bar set high, the students increased their test scores by vertical leaps and bounds. In 2004, the last year for which statistics are available, 97 percent of Frankford third, fourth and fifth graders met or exceeded reading standards and 87 percent met or exceeded math standards. Both figures showed improvement over 2003.

Brittingham said the superior results stem from data-driven instruction. Frankford administers quarterly assessments to assure the resurgence of lagging students and the continued development of those ahead of the curve. Teachers also face evaluations.

In 2004, the close scrutiny led to widespread approbation. The U.S. Department of Education awarded Frankford Elementary a No Child Left Behind Blue Ribbon in November. This year, the Department of Education named Frankford a Distinguished Title I school. The honor is bestowed upon institutions that show improvement for two consecutive years or that narrow achievement gaps between student groups.

National recognition for the school marked the culmination of its climb from intractable to inspiring.

“[Sharon] is focused, she has goals and she moves toward achieving those goals with her staff. I believe that’s how she brought a below-average performing schools to great heights,” Superintendent Hobbs said. “She has taken the school to heights most people can’t begin to believe or understand.”

Frankford’s composition also accords the school’s community acumen undetectable in test scores or awards. Frankfrod has a diverse fabric — the student body is one-third black, one-third Latino and one-third Anglo — and incorporates blind, deaf and disabled pupils from around the region.

“Our children are very tolerant and very understanding,” Brittingham said. “We call our school a school for everyone. It just expands everybody’s compassion. For the teachers, it really expands their repertoire.”

Filling Brittingham’s shoes will be difficult. Superintendent Hobbs and Brittingham hope the outgoing principal can show her successor how to best lace up his or her new footwear. A replacement may be named this month.

“We’re really going to be looking for someone with that same motivation and that same idea that high expectations are important,” Hobbs said. “We’re hoping to name someone to have transition time with Sharon. I think it would be important to have some transition time.”

To guarantee some semblance of the current atmosphere remains, the Frankford Elementary staff and Brittingham sat down to make a list of “sacred cows” or elements that they value.

“If you’re a good leader, hopefully those things will go on whether you’re there or not,” Brittingham said. “We do have some of the things that are non-negotiable.”

That list, which includes Brittingham’s celebrated before-school and after-school programs, will serve as the starting point for succession planning. It also evidences her close, communicative relationship with Frankford Elementary teachers. Her ultimate allegiance, however, belongs elsewhere.

“My number one priority has always been the kids,” she said. “I think if you keep the kids as you’re top priority, everything will fall into place.”