Principal of the Year Ray Mellberg
by Jennifer Rich
It's the end of a busy day at Willow Run's Henry J. Kaiser Elementary in Ypsilanti, Michigan and Principal Ray Mellberg is trying to finish writing a grant application when a woman near tears walks into his office.
They've just cut off her electricity and she and her six-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son, both Kaiser students, may soon be facing eviction. "Can you help?" she asks.
Mellberg moves into action. He and his staff start working the phones and before long the woman's landlord has been persuaded to give her an extra month while she looks for another apartment and a new job. She leaves smiling with a list of possible housing and employment contacts.
It's all in a day's work for Kaiser Elementary staff. The school, which provides 225 students ingrades K-5 an education five days a week, is much more than that to the many middle to low-income families who call the Willow Run neighborhood around the school home.
"We pride ourselves on being a community resource," said Mellberg, who recently was named Elementary School Principal of 2001 in Michigan. "We are here for the families because if you support the family, you support the child."
Willow Run Community Schools Superintendent Gayle Green understands well all that Mellberg and his staff have accomplished. "He does more than just lead the school," she said. "He represents the school to the whole community."
Years ago the school had problems with vandalism and burglaries and its wasn't unusual tocome to school on a Monday and find classrooms ransacked and graffiti on the walls or witness drug deals taking place right outside the school's doors.
"But no more,"Mellberg said. "You'll never see a break-in now. In fact, I get calls at home at night and over the weekends from people down the street who see strangers on the school grounds and want to report it. I usually give the police a callright away and they drive by."
He likes calling the school a "lighthouse" in the community. "We have become a safe haven. Our school provides a sense of security," he said.
Mellberg credits the school's teachers, parents, staff and community agencies with causing the turnaround. "We make everyone feel welcome here. They (community) know if they have a problem, they can call us. We want parents involved as much as possible," he said. The school is often used for community events like monthly meetings of the Willow Run Neighborhood Watch.
It is not unusual to see Mellberg or another administrator picking a child up from their home and taking them for their immunization shots or bringing them home from school if they've missed the bus. "We do what we can and if we can't do it, we usually know who can," he said.
Students begin their day reciting the Wildcat Motto -- a reflection of Mellberg's educational philosophy. "The students and all of the staff recite it with me: I am a Kaiser student. I can make a difference. My heart believes it. My actions shall show it."
Mellberg makes a point of being visible and available every morning as school starts and in the afternoons when school ends. "I greet everyone with a smile, a handshake or a hug. Sometimes I use all three," he said. Those in the community who often call Mellberg "Brother Ray" or "The Mayor of West Willow" can see the difference inthe upbeat attitude of the students.
Kathy Tomford said that Mellberg has been a strong influence on her son Aaron, a 12-year-old special education student at Kaiser. Shortlyafter he enrolled, he wanted to wear a suit and tie to school every day to look like his principal. "Aaron would not have made the progress in his education had it not been for his (Mellberg's) leadership," Tomford said.
About Jennifer Rich...
Jennifer Rich is the owner and founder of Rich and Associates, a public relations-marketing company that specializes in representing educational organizations and institutions and developing their unique voice in the marketplace.
Rich has more than 25 years of newspaper background, working as an editor and reporter for more than six daily newspapers.
She currently is representing Willow Run Community Schools, an ethnically diverse school district in eastern Washtenaw County, Michigan.
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