Melissa Brubaker - Hardwired to Help

By Brad McEwen

Anyone who spends a few minutes with new principal Melissa Brubaker—especially inside the walls of Albany’s Alice Coachman Elementary, where she’s constantly interacting with students, greeting them with a smile and engaging them in conversation—can see her enthusiasm, can feel her passion.

She literally beams as she talks about her students and their potential for success, and her zeal for helping change the lives of each and every one the children who fill the school’s classrooms and halls is contagious.

As she scrolls down the list of the exciting new programs and innovative ideas she’s looking to employ to help the struggling school make strides academically, it becomes evident that Brubaker is not just committed to seeing improvement on test scores, but that she is wholeheartedly committed to bringing about positive change in the lives of the students at Alice Coachman and beyond.

It’s really no wonder that her enthusiasm is so noticeable as Brubaker’s latest career stop has been years in the making.

She’ll tell you she doesn’t know where that desire to help others comes from, that it just seems to be hardwired inside her. But a quick look at her past reveals that the Largo, Fla. native, who grew up in Asheville, N.C., has spent nearly all of her adult life trying to enrich the lives of others, especially those who might not have gotten a fair shake in life. Taking the helm at Alice Coachman is just another step on that journey.

“When I was in high school I wanted to be a recreational therapist,” the first year elementary school principal shared during a recent sit down. “I don’t know where that necessarily stemmed from, but my goal was to work with at-risk youth in the wilderness and lead outward bound trips.”

The self-professed “outdoorsy” girl eventually followed that dream to Western Carolina University, “the hub for all this outdoor leadership,” and went about the business of leading groups of Boy Scouts on high ropes courses and working as a rafting guide when not in class.

As fate, or maybe a divine intervention, would have it, Brubaker’s life took an interesting shift as she neared graduation and her desire to serve others took on a new focus. While her fierce desire to help people didn’t change, the clinical internship she completed in Charleston, S.C., altered how and where she would direct her efforts.

“That’s where everything kind of changed,” she recalled. “When I did my internship at the Medical University (of South Carolina), I did dual-diagnosis; (the patients) were addicted to drugs and (had mental disorders like) schizophrenia. Or, they were really wealthy women who lived down on Kiawah Island who were depressed and treating it with pills and alcohol.

“They would come in, committed from court, (and) they would still be coming off whatever drug it was they were on, so it was a real eye-opener for me to see that whole process.”

Not long after discarding her original plan for changing lives through wilderness adventures and taking a full time job at the crisis center, Brubaker also witnessed, much to her dismay, the cyclical nature of crisis centers, where the patients—many of which were court mandated—would repeatedly enter the facility.

“I really thought that I was making a difference, and then the next week they would come right back in,” she said. “So, you might help one person out of 100. I realized then that you have to do something before they get to that point.”

Armed with a new desire to intervene in someone’s life before it reached the crisis-center stage, Brubaker eventually took a job working at a locked, co-ed, “high-management group home,” where she began working with juveniles who were struggling with various mental and behavioral disorders.

Although she enjoyed many of the aspects of working in the group home--learning about the myriad forces at work in a young person’s life--and was able to impact change, Brubaker said the experience was really noteworthy for again shifting her focus toward other ways of helping.

“I realized, ‘Alright, even my dream of doing this outdoor training and working in a group home, you can’t make a difference there either,” she said. “I mean you can, but changing something so ingrained is very difficult.

“So from there I went into school counseling and I thought that was the key. I was going to go into the schools and I was going to change lives from the counseling desk.”

Brubaker recalled with fondness her time working as a high school guidance counselor, eventually becoming director of counseling, but again she found there was something missing in that role, which turned out to be more about registering students for classes and helping them get ready for college, than it was about changing their lives.

“I’m generally a very happy person and I found myself very frustrated and feeling like ‘This is not making the difference that I wanted,’” she said. “It took me eight years to figure that out. So I went into administration.”

Not surprisingly, Brubaker flourished in her administrative role, spending some incredible years as an assistant principal at East Coweta High School, the same school where she had worked in guidance.

“I realized that as an administrator I was not chained to a desk and working on transcripts and college applications and all that paperwork stuff,” shared Brubaker. “Not being trapped to a desk was so freeing. The job may have been harder but it felt easier to me because I was out interacting with the students. I actually got to know them so much better than just sitting there doing recommendations, which is kind of ironic.

“I got a lot of joy out of that position.”

Although her thirst for helping others was somewhat sated at the high school level, personal circumstances led her down yet another road, bringing her to Albany so the young mother could be closer to her husband Andy, who had left his post at Andrew College and taken a job as Executive Director of the Southwest Georgia Chapter of American Red Cross.

As she tells it, living apart while trying to raise a family had gotten difficult and she simply needed the support of the entire family living together. As a bonus, Brubaker said she found a community she not only fell in love with, but one where her drive to alter the lives of young people for the better was sorely needed.

Brubaker’s first stop in the Good Life City was Southside Middle School, where she encountered a younger student population than what she was accustomed to and a student body that was, in many ways, more open to her influence in their lives than the high school kids had been.

“I thought I was happy being an administrator at the high school,” she said with a wry smile. “I thought that was like the most amazing thing. I figured I was going to be a high school principal; that was then my goal.

“But then I got to the middle school. I REALLY enjoyed the middle school.”

By all accounts Brubaker forged strong relationships with educators throughout the Dougherty County School System—especially within the Monroe High cluster of schools—during her two-year stint at Southside, while also having a positive impact on the school’s student population, which she had embraced entirely.

“I love my Southside Family,” she said.

Despite that deep connection to Southside, where she was making a difference, there was still another change on the horizon in Brubaker’s future—one that has put her even closer to goal of affecting lives.

Brubaker said that when she first spoke to outgoing Dougherty County Schools Superintendent Butch Moseley about taking over at Alice Coachman, it was a relatively easy decision to accept his challenge to get the school off the state’s list of chronically failing schools, despite her lack of elementary school experience.

As she saw it, moving to the elementary level, at a school where roughly 97 percent of the student population was living in poverty, afforded her the chance to do even more to enrich an even greater number of lives.

“I honestly do think that I have the ability to make a bigger change here because of the same reason that I moved from the hospital to the group home, to the high school; I think it’s the same thing,” she said. “You have an opportunity to help a child before they get set in those ways. I don’t think that I want to get into pre-K, but if we could help even earlier, that would be ideal. We have to have more programs to help intervene before they get to school.”

Of course having a desire to make a child’s life better, and actually impacting true change are two different things. Yes it will require drive and a little bit of grit, but it will also require out-of-the-box thinking, adapting on the fly, and gaining buy-in from a sometimes skeptical group of teachers and faculty.

From a purely academic standpoint, Brubaker’s task is clear—get better results. Or more directly, improve the school’s CCRPI (College and Career Ready Performance Index) score, which is a state rating system used to measure a school’s overall performance.

“We need to get above 60 to get off the target list,” says Brubaker. “We can do that. Absolutely. If I did not think we could I would not have accepted this position.”

To begin with Brubaker has done what anyone in her position would do, immediately evaluating the way in which the school’s faculty goes about the business of teaching.

Because she possesses a creative mind and a willingness to try new things (to go along with her dogged determination) Brubaker, with an assist from a volunteer group of teachers dubbed “The Re-Vamp Team,” has already begun implementing changes to the way the school administers the basics.

In one move that seems radical to some, and was viewed that way by many inside Alice Coachman, the school has abandoned the AR program which used throughout the school system to improve reading skills.

That change was not made lightly, but in making that decision, Brubaker gave others a glimpse of the lengths to which she is willing to go to alter student outcomes.

“We’re not going to do AR,” she said. “To the whole community that is going to sound like, (gasps and feigns shock), ‘No AR!!’: because people are sold on AR. But AR has done nothing for us. It has not improved our test scores. It has not improved our Lexile level (a reading measure that matches books with reading ability).

“So, we are moving to incentives purely based on Lexile growth. We’re measured on where our students are with their Lexile level, reading level.”

Already in the works are additional changes, including altering the structure of the learning day so all subjects are taught through the main focuses of English Language Arts/Reading and Math.

“We’ll use social studies in our reading and ELA to support that with passages and then we’ll use science to help support our math classes, but really focusing on those two big areas that our students need a lot of help with,” explained Brubaker.

Thanks to having sent two teachers to the National At Risk Youth Conference, Brubaker and her team are also going to implement something called SOLE (Self-Oriented Learning Environment) time to give kids the freedom to explore their own ideas in a “Montessori-type of structure.”

Additionally, next year will feature the implementation of Hustle University, which is a program administrated by a consultant to help strengthen relationships between teachers, students and students’ families.

Perhaps the most innovated thing Brubaker and her team will unveil in the coming year, however, is a program whose theme is at the heart of the principal’s focus on helping students get in the right mindset for learning.

The concept, which Brubaker says was inspired by renowned educator Ron Clark, will feature all of the Alice Coachman students being divided into family groups, made up of 10-12 students ranging from kindergarten through 5th grade. The family groups will then be sorted into houses, a la Harry Potter, and each house will not only compete in fun activities like field day and reading challenges, but will also spend time caring for one another, which Brubaker sees as a critical piece of a student’s development.

“It’ll be about 10-12 (students) in each family group and we’ll have hygiene kits that the teacher can help with just wiping the face off, brushing teeth, deodorant for some of our older students because they already need deodorant—just helping them pull themselves together for the day,” Brubaker shared. “We’re also hoping to build some empathy in those groups with our older students helping with some of our younger students. Empathy is one thing that I see lacking-just that altruistic idea of helping everybody for the good of the whole group. And so the family group is another way to try to build that.”

Those initiatives are only a handful of things Brubaker is looking to employ, and in many ways the specific programs aren’t the important part. The overarching theme at the heart of many of her ideas is a willingness to do whatever it takes, including stumbling on bad ideas, to put the Alice Coachman students in a position to improve.

“There’s obviously no silver bullet to solve our problems—our literacy and our math—but we’re trying to find something completely different that will put us over that threshold; the traditional methods haven’t made changes,” she said. “I’m excited about it.”

While changing the daily class structure is important from a teaching standpoint, Brubaker’s ideas also take into account the students’ realities outside of Alice Coachman.

A firm believer in understanding how a student’s environment impacts their ability to learn, Brubaker explained that for a large percentage of the Alice Coachman population—and for a large percentage of the entire Dougherty County school population—circumstances outside of the school greatly influence performance in the learning environment.

“If we run into a bear in the woods, we get really hyped up and anxious and nervous and scared,” explained Brubaker. “Then as soon as we’re out of the situation we’re able to calm down and relax and go about our lives. Our students live with a bear in the yard constantly.

“They have that stress all the time and they can’t turn it off when they get inside the building. We’re asking them to focus on academics and math and science and English and they’re figuring out, ‘how am I going to eat this afternoon; is that kid down the street going to come and try to fight me this afternoon; is my mom going to have her job because she had to come out here again for my discipline today?’

“They have that constant stress on them and we’re expecting them to be able to flip that off and focus on what we want them to do.”

It’s for that reason that Brubaker has instituted “mindfulness” this year, giving students an opportunity to get centered for the learning day through meditation, posture and breathing.

Another major barrier Brubaker is working to overcome—one that goes beyond the X’s and O’s of teaching subject matter, and has just as much impact on a student’s future success as whether or not he or she passes a test—is lack of self-esteem.

“That’s the main thing,” she said matter-of-factly. “We’ve really got to build our students’ self-esteem. Self-esteem is an issue in our building and I think that’s one of the reasons that we struggle academically. Our students automatically think, ‘I can’t do this,’ and so it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. We’re trying to change that for them.

“We know we have amazing kids who are creative and bright.”

What’s interesting about Brubaker putting her attention on a student’s life outside of the classroom is that in doing so she has the chance to generate the kind of impact she’s been looking to make throughout her career.

Yes, she is helping students learn, and helping improve test scores, but what she is doing goes beyond classroom.

Brubaker is building trusting relationships with the students, and more importantly with their parents, which has a larger societal impact.

By doing things like reaching out to parents to keep them informed and making sure they know the teachers at Alice Coachman care deeply for their children, what Brubaker is doing is having an exponentially positive affect.

“Our goal here is to try and prepare them as best we can, keep them in school, and do whatever we can to try and help them be successful,” she said. “That is what we are trying to do. And part of that is building relationships, so that we have that connection with them and their parents, so they can support them.

“A lot of our parents are maintaining two and three jobs, have multiple children and other family that are in their home as well, so we’re trying to find ways to support them so they can support their children. The majority of our parents want their kids to do well.

“We try to help take down some of the barriers and let them know that we are also in the same position trying to help our children be successful. We’re trying to help them know that this is a safe place to come, that we are here and love their children just like they do.”

That Brubaker absolutely loves the students at Alice Coachman is really without question, and at the end of the day, love for her fellows, is what Brubaker has been providing throughout her journey.

Although she’s taken an interesting route to get where she is now, Brubaker is convinced she’s where she needs to be and that she has the proper perspective to see how her work can truly impact lives.

“I like that I’ve gotten the whole spectrum,” she said. “Coming from high school and working backwards gives you that perspective of where they need to be.

“I had nine years at the high school, two at the middle and now elementary, so I know the importance of what happens here.”

In her own words Brubaker says she has come “full circle.” As a teenager she had a simple dream of helping people and now more than 20 years later she’s leading that change for an entire community.

When she says, “This is where I need to end up,” there’s no mistaking that conviction.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen