As principal of Westfield Middle School in Bloomingdale, Deborah Kling knows test scores and data are crucial to her school's success.
But even more important, she says, is ensuring students and staff feel cared for and have fun each day.
This philosophy is why the Illinois Principals Association named Kling as DuPage County Middle School Principal of the Year this spring.
"Quite simply," she gets results, said Bloomingdale School District 13 Superintendent Kim Perkins, who nominated Kling for the honor. "She has been masterful at enacting change."
The group also gave DuPage County honors to Robert McBride of Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, High School Principal of the Year; Kathy DeMarzo of Lincoln Elementary School in Wheaton, Elementary School Principal of the Year; and Jason Schmidtgall of Waubonsie Valley High School in Aurora, Assistant Principal of the Year.
All four were honored at a board meeting at their respective school districts, and at a breakfast hosted by the Illinois Principals Association.
Kling has been in education for 38 years, coming to Westfield in 2006 from the assistant principal post at St. Charles North High School. Perkins said in his nomination essay that statistics show the progress Kling has shepherded at Westfield, a school of 435 students.
"When she came in 2006, the student pass rate on the (Illinois Standards Achievement Test) was 79 percent, student bullying and disciplinary referrals were excessively high, and the school's culture was not viewed by all as being appropriately student-centered.
"Today, 96 percent of students meet or achieve state standards, student disciplinary referrals are down, the student suspension rate has dropped to 1 percent, and student, parent and community surveys point to a very supportive school climate," he added.
But Kling is quick to give credit to both her students and staff, saying that her honor is "really the journey of a little middle school in DuPage County."
Kling worked to infuse some fun and incentives into standardized testing for students, as well as data studies for her teachers.
Shortly after her arrival, District 13 introduced MAP testing -- or Measures of Academic Progress -- each spring and fall. At Westfield, the school created a complimentary program called "WORMS": Working on Raising MAP Scores. As part of the process, whenever students would show improvement on interim assignments and tests between the spring and fall assessments, they would get a gummy worm. They also had colored score cards for progress in math and reading.
Kling jokes that she had to buy gummy worms in bulk, but the students' real reward was seeing their own progress.
"It just caught on," Kling said. "The kids were just so excited. The math and reading cards became badges of honor long after the candy was gone. You'd see them taped on their locker, on their desks."
The principal employed similar visual aids with her staff, making "dot charts" for each teacher as a data exercise. As part of the process, each teacher had a list of every student in his or her class. They were allowed 10 to 12 dots, which they were allowed to place next to the name of students with whom they had the strongest relationships.
"We started looking at who didn't have dots, or who only had one dot," Kling said. "Then we asked 'What do their scores look like? What are their proficiencies?' Soon teachers found themselves making vows like 'I'm going to say hi to that kid every day in the hallway, or make sure I engage them in class, so they know someone cares about them.'"
Kling said she plans to retire after next school year, but admitted it will be terribly difficult since she loves her job so much. But she says stepping down at a high point is ideal.
"You have to go out when everything is amazing," she said. "All you can do is build the culture and climate to make students feel safe, trusted and loved and they will learn ... The greatest thing is accomplishing this transformational change, knowing its deep and has roots, and you have a posse of teachers that will carry that on. Knowing they believe 'This is the way we do it, this is who we are.'"