Mike Jeffers, 44, who will take over as principal at Hickman High School on July 1, is ready to immerse himself in the traditions of another school. He has worked at Truman High School in Independence for his entire 21-year career, most recently as head principal. Andy Kohl, associate principal at Truman and recently hired as principal of Rock Bridge High School, told Jeffers about the opportunity at Hickman. The prospect of change intrigued Jeffers, and the culture and customs at Hickman made it an ideal choice.
Q: What led you to be a teacher?
A: It was really a teacher I had in high school. He inspired me to become a teacher, especially in the area of speech and debate. That was something that meant a lot to me as a student, and also I was involved in music and band and was really a student of history and politics. So this teacher really led me to pursue that.
When I was in college, I toyed with the idea of going into law. I had an experience with shadowing and realized that it was not for me. I decided I would go into preparing students who would go into law.
Q: What do you like about working in a school environment?
A: I enjoy working with students, parents, teachers and staff in a high school.
Q: What previous educational experience do you bring to Hickman?
A: I started out in 1984 as a speech and debate teacher and did that for 12 years. I earned my masters at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and then started working at Truman as an assistant principal. Eventually, the head principal got a position at the central office, and I moved up to head principal at Truman.
Q: What would you consider your greatest achievement at Truman?
A: Several things. We have done a lot more with student recognition. One of the other things we’ve done at Truman that I’m particularly proud of is the Learning First program. Basically it’s a kind of no-pass, no-play type of approach. We were finding that a lot of our students were ineligible that semester because of grades. Students need to be passing classes to participate in activities . What we found is after the first year, we went from 75 students ineligible that semester to one. A lot of what we also did was try to make MAP (Missouri Assessment Program) more significant for students.
Q: What is something you would like to see continue at Truman?
A: I hope they continue their work with a lot of adjustments we made to the grade level expectations as far as curriculum. I’m leaving a very capable team of administrators there that can do any of that work.
Q: What brought you to the Columbia Public School District?
A: It was the right time, and it was a perfect opportunity. Hickman is an outstanding school — there’s a real commitment to students.
One thing that really was attractive about Hickman is that it’s a school of tradition. All these modern schools they’re building are great … but this building has a tradition.
Q: What challenges do you think you will face in Columbia?
A: The main challenge is for me to get to know the community. I hope to spend a lot of time the first year getting to know the community and the staff and the students. You’re part of the system, and you have to know what the system is. That’s a huge challenge to get to know that.
Q: What are you goals as the head principal? How do you plan on improving student achievement?
A: Principals are the first line of accountability. Principals have become more active in what’s going on in the classroom. I want to maintain the tradition of this school.
Obviously, Columbia Hickman is a school that has very high achievement and very low achievement. It’s not different than the majority of schools in this country that are struggling with that right now.
There is going to have to be a lot of discussion, but it’s a discussion that has to happen district-wide and a discussion about what we’re doing from the time they leave elementary school. When the achievement gap starts to fall is usually when they approach the middle school level.
The important thing is you can’t point fingers. It’s a K-12 conversation in how we approach the achievement gap. And also look at what you can do in the community to support and create awareness and trust. What I’ve found in students who are not performing well is there’s not a real high level of trust with the schools.
Q: How would you characterize your style of leadership?
A: I would call it more servant leadership. I’m always prepared to do anything and everything my staff has to do; anything I ask them, I’m prepared to do myself. My leadership policy is that you lead through respect and trust and building relationships with people. I’m not one of those authority-driven people. I don’t believe you motivate anyone by using a title. It’s about building trust and community and strong relationships with them. That leads to results.
Q: What three characteristics do you possess that make you a good principal?
A: I listen, I believe in an open door and I believe that all students can succeed.
Q: What is your initial reaction to the student body at Hickman?
A: I was out in the halls during passing time, and I’m very impressed by the feel of the building. It seems to be a very accepting and respectful student body, and that’s important. They seem to have a lot of respect for the staff. There’s a nice feeling of ease, and even with as many students that are here, it didn’t feel like it was just an over-crowded mob. It was very school-like, and the kids are very amicable. I thought that was really a reflection of the staff and how they respect the school they go to.
Q: How would you describe your working relationship with Mr. Kohl, the associate principal at Truman who was chosen to be the head principal at Rock Bridge High School?
A: We are great friends, and I have a great deal of respect for his leadership … I enjoy working with him because he is the real deal and a person of the highest integrity. I look forward to the coming years. Q: Being somewhat familiar with the area, what is your favorite thing about Columbia so far?
A: I like Columbia because there’s a nice diversity of old and new, that kind of attracted me. I love going downtown to see where the university is. Of course, having a university here will be a great thing to have.
Q: What are you excited to be able to do in Columbia?
A: I am looking forward to continuing my graduate work and going to MU. I have heard nothing but high praises for the doctorate in education program. On a personal level, I hope to learn about the community and explore the activities and culture of Columbia.
Q: What will you miss most about Independence?
A: Being a part of a metro area with so many things to do.