Lebanon — Harney Elementary Principal Janet Yonts received a letter earlier this year that came as quite a surprise. She had been nominated for the principal of the year for district five — which includes Boone, Hamilton, Howard, Madison, Miami and Tipton counties —and the Indiana Association of School Principals had selected her to move on to the next round.
And last month she received another letter that perhaps was an even bigger surprise. She had been selected as the principal of the year for the district.
“It just kind of came out of the blue, and I was surprised,” she said. “I don’t think we really get into this career to be an award-winner, but I guess it does feel really, really good to be recognized.”
Yonts has been the principal at Harney for the last seven years. Before that, she served as an assistant principal at both Maplewood and Robey elementary schools in Wayne Township in Indianapolis for a total of seven years. She has also been an elementary teacher in Pike Township and Indianapolis Public Schools. But Harney has been a place of great growth and success for her.
After learning of the initial nomination, Yonts had to fill out some résumé-like forms and answer many detailed questions about her leadership and legacy at Harney. She credits the staff at Harney as a big part of her success. One of the questions asked about how she promotes creative or progressive leadership in the school building. A strength of hers is looking at where the school needs to go, but having a staff that takes ownership of her ideas is what makes it work.
“It’s not me; it’s our staff,” she said. “I tell you, it brings tears to my eyes. They’ve made it easy to be a principal. The work isn’t easy, but having a staff willing to try new things, to work through things together, to look at something out of the box ... I don’t think I would be half the principal I am without the great staff and support of the district. We make a good team.”
Yonts was nominated by Julia Brown, speech language pathologist, and Eileen Potenza, developmental preschool teacher. Their nomination stated Yonts was an excellent candidate for the award due to her passion for education, her visionary point of view, and her inspirational leadership. They pointed out that Yonts serves as the elementary principal liaison, and she shares personal work with other elementary principals. She is trained as a RISE teacher evaluation coordinator and continually provides appropriate and constructive feedback to help staff grow. She coordinates and acts as the administrator for the developmental preschool, present at Harney for four years. She serves as co-coordinator for Title 1 services. She immediately answered parent questions and provided a video to parents regarding school procedures and protocol after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. She attends the monthly All Pro Dads events, promoting positive parent-child relationships. At the state level, she serves as IASP vice president for district five.
“She should be considered for the award based on her excellent display of strength when navigating through new (Indiana Department of Education) changes, her always upbeat and positive attitude on long days, her encouragement to all staff members to continue to grow in their love for education, and her courage to take on difficult situations for the good of the community,” the nomination states. “Mrs. Yonts is a wonderful example of a principal who has dedicated many late nights, early mornings, weekends, and summers to help her staff become better educators to provide the best quality education for children in Lebanon.”
Yonts said the application was “very easy” to complete because Harney is a wonderful school. She included a lot of information about how the staff has gone above and beyond to help student learning. She initiated Tuesday Tutoring over the summer, which helped 70 students keep their reading skills up over the break from school. She started 90-minute literacy blocks within the school day, calling it CHIRP time. A stuffed cardinal tweets into the paging system when it is CHIRP time, and students go to a special place to read, receiving reading intervention. The next year, they switched to math intervention blocks.
Yonts’ motto, she said, is “What is best for the students is not always convenient for us,” but if in the end there are good results, they should replicate the practice.
Yonts believes she was selected as the district honoree because she tried to weave her answers as a story, and she wrote from the heart. Yes, she included all of her memberships, community involvement, professional activities and publications. But she also wrote about what’s close to her heart, like including the pedometers in physical education classes and tweeting to keep parents and the community aware of what’s going on at Harney.
“What am I supposed to be doing as a principal? And what am I doing extra to impact our community and our staff? Those are the things I really tried to explain from the heart,” she said.
She also shared about how she puts student learning at the forefront. When asked to write about how she is a risk-taker to improve the school, Yonts shared a story about Valentine’s Day. On her first Valentine’s Day at Harney, there was a large number of flowers and balloons delivered to the school from parents for their children. The counter was crowded and the phone was ringing with parents asking if their gifts had been delivered to the classroom.
“I was flabbergasted at the amount of time this took away from the secretaries, and the expectations for us to become flower delivery persons,” Yonts wrote.
So she sent a note to all parents and staff that read: “Dear Parents, I care so much about your child’s ability to learn that I must inform you that we deliver instruction and not flowers. Please refrain from sending these distractions to school. They are unsafe to take on the bus, and they cause disruption in learning. Thank you for helping us to help your child learn.”
“Word travels fast in a small town, and soon my superintendent was flooded with distressed parents,” she wrote. “He chuckled in sharing these accounts, but he supported my decision and followed up with including this in the parent handbook for the next year.”
Lebanon schools Superintendent Dr. Robert Taylor is one of the four people who wrote a letter of recommendation for Yonts, stating she has been on the forefront of many educational initiatives, not only at Harney but for the corporation as well. Recommendations were also written by Candace Ballinger, a Harney kindergarten teacher; Cayleigh Dial, a Harney fifth-grader; and Kyle Endres, a former Harney teacher and current banker at the State Bank of Lizton.
Dial wrote that Yonts is a “stupendous” principal and always goes above and beyond in her duties. The most amazing thing, she wrote, is when Yonts deals with hardships, like her battle with cancer, she still persevered and put Harney first.
“She always makes school seem fun, even when we are learning,” Dial wrote. “To many students, Mrs. Yonts is a friend more than a principal. I recommend giving a special award to Mrs. Yonts because she is the best principal you will ever find.”
Yonts held a victory party last Saturday in light of several positives in her life right now: this recognition, defeating cancer, having a birthday, and receiving her doctorate degree. Yonts was diagnosed with cancer in 2010. And she walked the stage for her doctorate degree on Aug. 3, receiving a degree in educational leadership from Purdue University.
Yonts will be recognized, along with the other 11 district principals of the year, at an IASP ceremony on Nov. 24. From those 12, one will be selected as the Indiana principal of the year. The winner will be announced at the ceremony.