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placeholder October 9, 2017   •   VOL. 55, NO. 17   •   Oakland, CA
Elementary Schools Information Guide

Ken Willers, who is being honored this month with the National Distinguished Principal Award, surrounds himself with inspiring images and words — and more than a few toys – in his office at the School of the Madeleine in Berkeley.
MICHELE JURICH/THE CATHOLIC VOICE

Berkeley principal receives national honor

Mr. Willers goes to Washington

A Diocese of Oakland school principal who Tweets at @21stCenPrinKW is one of three Catholic elementary school principals to be named as winners of the 2017 National Distinguished Principals Award presented by the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

Ken Willers, who is in his eighth year as principal of School of the Madeleine in Berkeley, will be presented his award in Washington, DC, next week at a two-day celebration scheduled to include a visit to the Capitol and the White House.

 
School of the Madeleine
1225 Milvia St.
Berkeley, CA 94709
510-526-4744

Twitter: @21stCenPrinKW
Twitter: @the_madeleine
 
The National Catholic Educational Association chose Willers as one of three Catholic elementary school principals to receive the award. The Catholic school principals are joined by a winning principal from each state.

Willers is the first to say the recognition is not his alone.

"I know it's a much larger acknowledgement in what I've done in my life as a principal and what I have come to grow into at the Madeleine," he said.

He had some excellent ancestors.

"We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us," he said. "Our role as a leader is to be a steward. What we are asked to hold does not belong to us. We asked to hold it, build on it, make it better. When you hand it off to the next successor, then they are standing on your shoulders. That is what leadership is about."

Fostering a collaborative working environment with exceptional colleagues is critical.

"An effective leader knows you're successful because you surround yourself with competent people," he said. "You create a culture of trust and collaboration.

"Without that, you're just the boss."

Willers has a national reputation with Catholic educators' association, receiving awards for his leadership and the leadership of the Madeleine school board. The Berkeley school is about fully enrolled. Up-to-date technology is available to pupils and teachers in all the classrooms. Developers seek them out to test new products. They had a visit from an astronaut last year.

But it's not about that, Willers said.

"It's about the mission," Willers said. "It has to be mission-centered. It is never about the money. Everything has to start with the mission, integrate the mission and end with the mission."

Before embarking on a project, Willers said, it's important to ask: "Why our mission will be advanced?" If that cannot be answered, the project is a no-go.

"The environment has to reflect how students learn," Willers said. "Our new garden is symbolic of a very committed community to have something like that to be created."

The Dominican Garden, a garden and amphitheater dedicated last month, was the pupils' idea, Willers said. They were asked, he said, What would you do to make the playground a better place?

"That's what they came up with," he said.

The garden is dedicated to the Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose, who were the school's founding teachers. The Madeline opened in 1937 with four teachers and 156 students.

"The Dominican Sisters' roots will run as deep as the roots of those trees in the Dominican Garden," he said.

The school remains an affiliated school of the Sisters, and one Dominican sister teaches kindergarten.

"We're a Dominican school, founded in the tradition of prayer, study, community and service," Willers said. "Our connection to the Dominican Sisters is by keeping that in front of us all the time."

Those Dominican charisms have a place of honor in his office, which is decorated with Disney characters. It's not just because he likes them — although Walt Disney and Steve Jobs are among his inspirations. Those toys could spark a teachable moment.

The characters from the movie "Inside/Out," a story about emotions, for example, might be props for one of those moments every schoolchild dreads: being sent to the principal's office.

Willers, 56, is a native San Franciscan who spent a dozen years with the Salesian order. He discerned his calling was to elementary school education.

In recognizing Willers, the Catholic education association noted his commitment to "the Church's mission of providing quality Catholic education and ensuring the next generation of Catholic families will be served by it."

What does Willers see as the elements of a successful Catholic school?

• Know your mission. Everything starts with the mission and ends with the mission.

• A culture and climate of collaboration. Empower those around you to take the lead. Get out of the way. Confront complacency.

• Transparency. The school publishes an annual report.

• Cheerfulness and optimism.

• Invest in teachers.

• Innovation is a mindsest. "You can't be cautious. You can't wait for consensus. Can't depend on approval or validation. Can't focus on problems," he said.

• Success. Network with success. Learn from success. Share your success. Celebrate others' success.

One of the ways Willers networks with success is online. He's @21stCenPrinKW.

 
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