When a school becomes like family

As a leader, principal Jigna Patel understands the importance of capacity building to meet the needs of her school's community.

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For Jigna Patel AM ’05, moving to Charlotte, North Carolina, the city her family calls home, was an easy decision. What she did not expect was to find a second home at the school where she works. Patel has been at Lake Wylie Elementary School for 12 years, first as an assistant principal and now as principal. When the former fourth grade teacher transitioned into school leadership, she wanted to increase her impact by building the capacity of teachers and thus reaching more students. “As a leader, I’m only as great as the teachers in my building. Teachers are the ones at the core, doing the work every day. Without them, we wouldn’t have a school,” Patel said.

With many changes imposed by the pandemic, Patel saw how difficult it was for teachers to connect with their students in the virtual classroom, so she found unique ways to foster her students’ and families’ connection to the school. Patel invited families to submit requests for in-person visits by school administrators while students were mostly remote. The program, Principal on Wheels, was such a big hit with her school community that it will carry on into the upcoming school year even as students return to campus. “It’s fun and it’s important for students to know that learning happens all the time and that we’re invested in them,” Patel said. Also continuing into the new school year is her administration’s focus on family communication. “In the past, we’ve always said come into our building when our parents are working. It’s hard for them to come,” Patel said. After seeing the high attendance and engagement rates with virtual parent meetings, parent sessions will continue to be offered online. The school already held a back-to-school session for parents to answer common questions like start and end times, classroom locations, and what supplies to purchase.

Patel has been described by her staff as someone who communicates expectations clearly and acts in fair and consistent ways. It is apparent that she holds herself to the same standards when it comes to being a principal. Despite a 30-minute daily commute, Patel recognizes the importance of being a leader who is grounded and committed to her school community. “It’d be easy to move to a school closer to my house, but I feel like I can make a difference at the school. It’s a family school, and you just can’t up and leave.”