PROFILE: Education through leadership: Charissa Cole creates lasting impact at Creek View Elementary School

Published 9:52 am Monday, March 25, 2024

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By NOAH WORTHAM | Managing Editor

As Principal Charissa Cole helps direct students in the car rider line at Creek View Elementary School, she notices one child is having a difficult time carrying several bags of snacks for her class.

With a smile on her face, Charissa greets the student with a pleasant, “Good morning.” She then takes a load off the student’s hands and escorts them personally into the school building.

As she continues to assist the car rider line, Charissa smiles and greets incoming students by name, something she makes a priority to show her love for each child that enters the doors of CVES.

“I try to learn the name of every kid that comes in here,” Charissa says. “That’s so special to them.”

After the bell rings, its 7:45 and time for the morning news. Charissa rushes across the school to make the morning announcements.

“Good morning boys and girls and Happy Wednesday,” she says looking at the screen as if each and every student is in front of her. “Just a couple of announcements for today.”

After delivering the announcements, Charissa is off to the first meeting of many for the day to help personally oversee the development of teachers at Creek View.

It is those small details throughout the day from the school’s leader that recently led to Creek View Elementary School becoming one of the few in Shelby County to claim a National Blue Ribbon award, something Charissa is proud to bring to her second family.

Educational Journey

Whenever Charissa travels home, she tries her best to not talk about work, but education is something that has been engrained in her since she was little and is a family tradition that makes up a big part of her life.

“My dad was a math teacher and a principal—he’s one of my greatest mentors, he’s amazing,” Charissa says. “My mom was in education, she worked in the library then went to the central office as a bookkeeper. So, our entire family was in education. One of my sisters is a counselor and my older sister is a fourth-grade teacher.”

After growing up surrounded by educators and working in the field of education for 26 years, it’s safe to say that it has become a core part of who Charissa is.

“I think once you’re a teacher, you’re always a teacher,” she says.

However, she did not always aim to follow in the footsteps of her parents.

“First, I wanted to be a nurse—I guess I just love people,” Charissa says. “I love caring for people and helping. But then I grew this love for music and education.”

Fittingly enough, Charissa’s journey first began thanks to the efforts of one influential teacher who helped her find her passion in life and is still her favorite educator to this day.

“I fell in love with music in the fifth grade,” Charissa says.

Charissa grew up in Florence where she attended Wheaton Elementary school. Her teacher, Ms. McAfee, had a piano in her classroom and would play for the students. After spotting that Charissa had a passion for music, she told the choir director and band director and she eagerly joined both in sixth grade.

“That’s where it started,” Charissa says. “She just developed us and loved us so much and that’s when I fell in love with music.”

After her continuing to develop her love for music, participating in choir and band in high school and serving as the dance team captain, Charissa headed off to college where she furthered her talents at the University of North Alabama and secured her bachelor’s degree of music in music education.

A new home

After spending a short period of time working at a daycare, Charissa landed split music teaching positions at Thompson Elementary School, Meadow View Elementary School and Valley Elementary School. 

“I think teaching is one of the best jobs ever,” Charissa says. “You make an impact daily and weekly—you don’t only impact the students but their families and the world around us.”

After two years of moving between schools, Charissa was brought on board as the music teacher for Meadow View Elementary School where she taught for eight years.

“Getting to see the students that I started with in pre-k (and then) getting to see them perform as third graders was just amazing and incredible,” Charissa says. “Getting to see their love for music and their passion for music was so exciting to me.”

Charissa said she found teaching to be a challenging job but also one that was very rewarding.

“Teachers—it’s in them to do great things,” she says. “We want to strive to do better, we want to improve our strategies, we want to improve everything we do and we want to improve our students and also give resources out to our parents and help our parents help our kids. It takes a village, that’s for sure.”

After spending time as a teacher, Charissa had the opportunity to obtain her master’s degree and follow in the steps of her father and pursue the world of administration.

“My dad was a leader and I just thought, ‘Maybe one day I want to use this degree to be an assistant principal or principal,’” Charissa says.

Fortuitously, the door was opened for Charissa when she was invited to step in as the assistant principal as Meadow View Elementary School where she was mentored by Dr. Jody Brewer.

“I truly believe in mentors,” Charissa says. “I think that all administrators should have a mentor, no matter how many years you’ve been in administration.”

During her time as assistant principal, Charissa learned the tools that she still uses each and every day at Creek View Elementary School.

“She gave me lots of great opportunities and let me help with discipline, let me help with buses and let me lead faculty meetings,” Charissa says. “It was on-the-job learning.”

As she continued to serve, Meadow View grew and she was offered a full-time position as assistant principal at the school where she continued to help better the lives of her students and teachers until she was rewarded with an offer she couldn’t turn down.

“I did not want to take the first principalship that came open because I wanted more experience and (also) just making sure that everything was okay in my life to be a principal,” Charissa says. “And so, Creek View came open and it’s a mile from my house. I had been in Alabaster for 16 years, I felt like I knew all the families, the community and I felt like it was the right opportunity. I applied, I interviewed and I’ve been here ever since.”

Leading by example

When one considers the foundation at the forefront of every school, typically the image that comes to mind are the teachers; however, behind each and every teacher is the guiding hand of administration.

“In my daily role, I observe classrooms, teachers and provide feedback,” Charissa says. “I think the most important thing is to be visible and have informal walkthroughs in our classrooms. If you’re not in the classrooms, if you stay in the office, you don’t know what’s going on.”

In order to perform her role to the utmost, Charissa is never in one place for long.

“I just tell my office staff, if you need me, you know how to find me,” Charissa says. “I’m typically not in my office unless I have a scheduled meeting. For example, my bookkeeper will text me and say, ‘Where are you? You’ve got to sign something.”

Each morning, Charissa begins her day by checking her email to make sure she is aware of what is happening in the school. She then checks the substitute listing and makes sure that all of the classes are covered for that day before heading back outside to greet the students as they come in.

After the students have arrived safely in the school, she makes the morning announcements on the school news before beginning the list of scheduled meetings and teacher observations.

“After an observation, we have a meeting and typically I just ask them how do you feel your lesson went and how can I help you,” Charissa says.

After discussing and identifying an issue or area of improvement, Charissa then suggests next steps as well as resources for the teachers to help grow their success in the classroom.

“What I love about working with Charissa Cole is that she truly, truly believes that every child can learn and that every teacher can have great success,” said ACS Superintendent Dr. Wayne Vickers, who has worked with Charissa since she first began teaching in Alabaster. “She epitomizes that in how she runs her school, how she works with parents and how she gets so many great things done.”

Charissa not only assists others in any way she can, but she continues to spur others toward greatness through leading by example.

“I’m the one that gets to see her heart for her community, her heart for her students, her heart for faculty and staff—I get to see that behind the scenes more than anybody else every day,” her husband and Alabaster City Councilmember Jamie said. “I can tell you from years of experience that it’s not only genuine, but it’s genuinely inspiring. You can’t live with her and be around her without wanting to serve and that’s what a leader does—besides serve others—is inspire others to serve.”

Road to improvement

Today, Creek View Elementary School is recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School that excels academically, but this was not always the case and happened, in large part, due to the efforts of Charissa.

“It has definitely been a journey,” Charissa says. “When I first arrived, we were around 40 percent proficiency.”

After joining the staff as principal, Charissa began to think on how she and her staff could improve.

“We worked hard on looking at particular professional development that would help us with improving our reading and scores,” Charissa says.

The teachers at Creek View were on board for improvement and participated in development courses, AMSTI training as well as analyzing data and learning targets.

Utilizing reading and math coaches has also been a major aid to the faculty and staff at Creek View in improving the school’s academic proficiency.

“We meet with every teacher individually with our reading and math coaches and look at every aspect of (our students),” Charissa says. “I think that’s what really has transformed our school because now our teachers know how beneficial it is as well.”

Over time, academics improved at Creek View Elementary School as teachers and administration worked together until the reading and math percentile increased drastically to 90 percent.

“I was so proud and so excited and grateful for our teachers’ hard work,” Charissa says. “Getting that recognition was so powerful and meaningful for our teachers because they work so hard every day.”

Creek View was named an Exemplary High Performing School through the National Blue Ribbon School Program for being among the top 15 percent in the state.

“I’ve had some wonderful times working with her but the most exciting time was the day that it was announced,” Vickers says. “We were both so excited because when you work with someone that long, see that success come out and someone else recognize it, not only for the principal but the school as a whole—it is one of the most rewarding experiences you can have.”

With all the recognition that Creek View Elementary has received, Charissa doesn’t let it get to her head and continues to put the mission of humbly serving the students and her staff ahead of anything else.

“The mission here is building champions of our future,” Charissa says. “I believe in positive leadership, I believe in making sure that our students know that this is a safe place, that we love them. Academics really is second to me. We want them to want to come to school, to love school and (to know) that this is a safe place for them.”

Charissa says when they asked several students what they want to be when they grow up, the students tell staff that they want to be a teacher.

“They see such great role models here,” Charissa says. “Every person in our building wants to make an impact and to inspire others and that’s definitely what we strive for.”

A second family

Charissa’s journey from daycare to a musical teacher to principal helped shape and mold her into the person she is and helps her in accomplishing great things at Creek View Elementary.

“This is something that she’d never say but somebody like me can say about her,” Jamie says. “She could have had a long and fruitful career there (in Florence) because everybody knew her. She moved here to be with me and really started a career from scratch and then built on something that was definitely in her blood. She’s built a career here, that is very much hers and put her stamp on it in a way that, if we had not lived here and been starting over, she could have started from a different place.”

After spending 26 years in Alabaster and 10 years with Creek View Elementary School, Charissa says motivation continues to come from the students and faculty she serves on a daily basis—something that will never change.

“Creek View is my second family,” Charissa says with tears in her eyes. “You can count on them for everything.”