Elena Bates hasn’t slept much since she was named acting principal of W.T. White High School in December.
Knowing she’s responsible for the well-being of 2,300 North Dallas high school students has made her restless. Bates works through the night to stay up to speed about incoming educational programs and ongoing renovations.
“I did feel overwhelmed, because it is a large campus,” she says.
Former W.T. White Principal Michelle Thompson resigned in January after more than four years at the high school’s helm, after she was offered a position as coordinator in school leadership at Dallas ISD’s central office.
DISD sought a familiar face to finish out the school year, and Bates considered W.T. White a second home. Her resume includes stints as the high school’s ninth-grade transition coordinator, English-as-a-second-language teacher, instructional coach and swim coach. Hired by the district in 2000, Bates cut her teeth at Marsh Preparatory Academy, where she later returned to serve as assistant principal.
Taking over W.T. White’s campus mid-year was daunting, Bates says. It also was an opportunity to grow as an educator and collaborate with other feeder pattern schools.
“I’m coming in with shared values, so it’s a supportive environment for our students and our teachers,” she says. “We have to look out for each other.”
A new principal isn’t the only transition that the high school faces. W.T. White is one of 10 DISD schools launching collegiate academies this fall. The districtwide program gives students the opportunity to earn as many as 60 hours of college credit before they graduate.
W.T. White partnered with Brookhaven College to offer classes that focus on business education and early childhood education.
“That’s been something I want to put effort into,” Bates says. “We have a great team of teachers who have taken on the leadership of developing what that looks like.”
Some of the renovations planned at W.T. White are to accommodate the collegiate academy, but others are just necessary because many of the school’s facilities haven’t been touched since it opened in 1964. The high school received $21.7 million in district bond funds, which voters approved in 2008 to cover the cost of construction and renovation at more than 20 district schools. DISD trustees took several years to delegate those dollars, finally settling on an interim bridge plan in March 2015.
At W.T. White, so far, the windows have been replaced and a 30-classroom wing is slated to open in August. There is a laundry list of improvements that the school needs, and the community has taken to the mic at several school board meetings to advocate for further renovations.
The athletic, fine arts and ROTC facilities are out-of-date are overcrowded. Even after the latest addition is complete, 10 portable classrooms will still be needed on campus.
“We do need facilities that promote, motivate and inspire our students,” Bates says. “I understand it is hard. It’s a 50-year-old building. There is change that needs to happen. We’ve always been one of the largest high schools.”
The district hasn’t yet decided whether Bates will be a permanent fixture at the school, but W.T. White feels at home regardless, she says.
“When the kids say, ‘It feels different’ or ‘It feels good’ or ‘I feel like we have pride in our school,’ that’s really important to me,” she says. “This should be something they remember when they face risks or have questions in college or their life of their career.”
Three questions with Elena Bates
What is your role as acting principal?
I just had a parent come in and say, ‘Oh, so you’re like the glue.’ So that’s a good metaphor. I’m helping the school finish out the year but making sure I am being a supportive leader to ease that transition. It’s hard in a large high school. Sometimes you feel like you only get to work with your own students and your own teachers and your content, so it’s hard to see all of what’s going on around the whole school. That’s what I’m trying to do, work together and be a family.
How did leadership become so important to you?
I’m very critical of myself. I always push myself to be better, to do better. I’ve learned a lot from working with our team at Marsh and working with Martha Bujanda, the principal there, to show vulnerability. It was really hard for me to say, “I don’t know, and I’ll find out.” I don’t want people to know I don’t know. I’ve always been someone who is open to growing and changing and evolving. I’m trying to raise a daughter who I would want to do the same thing.
What was your coaching experience like at W.T. White?
That’s something I’m really proud of that we were able to be successful. We had large numbers moving and advancing to regional meets. That was fun, because I tried to show things that leaders showed me. My swim coach was someone I always had admired and steered me to, “You are a people person. You would be a great leader.” So I tried to do things as a nod to him or emulate from him. We would have a breakfast at my house every morning before the competition. The parents and teammates were invited to get our day going together as a team, as a family. I tried to really help develop unity and pride.
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