This is the first in an occasional series on principals who are turning around local schools.
Principal Nancy Purcell rose abruptly from her chair in the midst of a meeting with other administrators at Fern Bacon Middle School last week, grabbed her coat and sprinted toward the hall, walkie-talkie in hand.
Some sort of emergency?
Not at all. Just the ritual, conducted five times each school day, when students pass from one class to another.
Dressed smartly in black slacks, a sweater and pumps, Purcell took her "station" in the hall, offering advice, encouragement and pats on the back as students stopped to greet her.
When the bell rang again, there were no stragglers in the corridors. Every classroom door was closed.
The Florin-area middle school has transformed since Purcell took the reins in 2010. Discipline referrals and suspensions are down, and student scores are climbing.
Purcell, 57, was tapped by Sacramento City Unified Superintendent Jonathan Raymond to become principal of Fern Bacon as part of his plan to turn around the district's most troubled "priority" schools.
Students at Fern Bacon are almost all from impoverished families. Nearly half are English-language learners. Many were failing academically.
Before Purcell and her team took over, many teachers didn't expect their students to learn, said Sean Chambers, the school's dean of students.
"I was intrigued by the challenge," said Purcell, who was previously principal at Sam Brannan Middle School, a high-performing school in South Land Park. "The expectations were so low. If you don't have that in place, teaching won't stick."
The key to success is building a strong team of teachers and administrators, Purcell said. "It's about having the right people on the bus in the right seats."
Eighty percent of the school's staff has turned over since Purcell arrived. Most decided the school was no longer a good fit, she said. Purcell replaced the teachers who left with others who followed her mantra: "Kids can and will meet expectations."
It took three years, but the principal says she has the right team in place. Students' scores offer proof. In 2010 the school's Academic Performance Index score was 647. This year it is 747.
"She built her team like a general manager for a professional team," said Chambers, who played and coached basketball for many years.
He calls Purcell the most knowledgable person he has worked with when it comes to running a school. "Nancy knows 100 percent what is happening on campus at all times," he said.
Despite the high expectations, Purcell's staff says she is a warm and supportive presence with a knack for building relationships and leading by example.
"She is amazing," said math teacher Rich Haley. "Guaranteed one of the best principals around. She has a deep-rooted belief in students."
But Purcell had to make the students believe. So she set out to change the culture of the school. "I'm going to love you like you are my own child, but I'm going to hold you accountable that way, too," she told students at orientation.
Purcell added instructional time, requiring additional classes if students were struggling in a subject and opening a Saturday academy.
She involved families by offering home visits from teachers, parent workshops and a monthly parent meeting called the Bulldog Cafe.
"Parent engagement is critical to a child's success in school," said Purcell.
Purcell calls working at a priority school "a lifestyle and a commitment to making sure kids are being served."
That commitment can mean long hours for everyone involved. "It's not uncommon to see them here on a Saturday," Purcell said of teachers. She said they meet by department or grade level one hour a week, but sometimes come in Saturdays for further collaboration.
Haley said he usually works 10 hours a day and knows others who work longer. He said teachers put in the hours because they have "a passion for teaching." "A lot of people say every kid can learn," Haley said. "Here we mean it."
Education is definitely a lifestyle for Purcell, whose husband, Greg, is now principal at her old school, Sam Brannan.
The pair were sweethearts when they attended Kennedy High School. They both went on to Sacramento State and became educators.
Purcell spent her first year as a teacher at Fern Bacon, two more as a resource teacher at other schools and 15 years as a principal.
Parents seem happy with the results at Fern Bacon; the school's enrollment is 670 and rising with 120 new students in two years.
"It speaks volumes when you do things well and people recognize it and they want to be part of that kind of school," Purcell said.
She said there is plenty of room for more as the school has a capacity of 1,100 students. "We are taking all comers," she said.