Lithia Springs High School Assistant Principal Jessica Ainsworth was named National Assistant Principal of the Year by the National Association of Secondary School Principals during a surprise assembly Tuesday.
Ainsworth was hired as assistant principal in 2011, a time when Lithia Springs was among the schools with the lowest student achievement scores in the state.
“Honestly, it was such a task,” Ainsworth said. “I was just taken aback with ‘Where do you start?’ and ‘What do you do?’ ”
Having spent the previous four years as the education evaluator for Douglas County Schools, Ainsworth was charged with implementing Lithia’s School Improvement Grant (SIG), a federal program which provides under-performing schools with extra money for intervention and support services.
In 2012, Lithia Springs High School had a 65 percent graduation rate. Among the many ideas and initiatives Ainsworth introduced to improve the school was a six-pronged initiative called The MANE Thing, which blazed a path for academic success by focusing on classroom instruction, intervention programs, assessment and performance data analysis, attendance, behavior and supervision, and parent engagement.
“Your high school was not always the place that it is today,” said G.A. Buie, president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), to dozens of students in the school’s auditorium Monday. “When Ms. Ainsworth arrived, some students said they felt unsafe and the test scores and graduation rates weren’t necessarily where they needed to be. So, Ms. Ainsworth and her fellow administrators did what great principals do: They focused on the things that really mattered.”
Test scores, job placement and college acceptance rates began to increase. The school’s College and Career Readiness Performance Index (CCRPI), a statewide accountability system used to measure student achievement, was 57.3 on a 100-point scale in 2012 — about 16.8 less than the what the state’s score was. By 2014, the school’s score jumped to 70.9 — just 1.4 points shy of the state’s average, according to the Georgia Department of Education’s website.
Despite a focus on achievement data and test scores, Buie said the association was most impressed by the stories Ainsworth told about her students during a recent interview.
“I can tell you that her ability to look past the numbers and take care of the students is what sets Ms. Ainsworth apart from the rest of the assistant principals of the nation,” Buie said. “That’s the true marking of a great school leader.”
Even before she began working for Douglas County Schools in 2007, Ainsworth was no stranger to Lithia Springs High School. As a child, she would come to the school with her father, Marty Crispell, who was once a math teacher and the school’s at-risk coordinator. Her mom, Sandi Crispell, is currently a teacher for DCSS.
“I honestly fell in love with Lithia Springs at a young age,” Ainsworth said. “I would spend my weekends doing Saturday work detail with dad and monitoring the students.”
LSHS junior Naja Washington said she’ll never forget meeting Ainsworth as a freshman on her first day of school.
“I was lost and I didn’t know who Ms. Ainsworth was,” Washington said. “She came to me and she was like, ‘Sweetheart, do you know where you’re going?’ I was like, ‘I think I got this.’ (Then, Ainsworth said) ‘OK, well don’t be late. Have a good day and welcome to Lithia Springs.’ … I thought, ‘I’m going to remember her for the rest of my years.’ ... She’s the real MVP. She definitely deserved this.”
Ainsworth graduated from Alexander High School, holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Business Administration from Georgia State University and a Master of Education in Special Education from the University of West Georgia. She is currently studying for an Educational Doctorate in School Improvement from the University of West Georgia.
On July 1, Ainsworth will leave her position at Lithia Springs to become the district’s assistant director of assessment in the central office.
Superintendent Gordon Pritz said Ainsworth is “a relationship builder” who has infused a culture of hope within administration.
“You’ve used researched-based practices to help students progress, you’ve closed achievement gaps and you’ve engaged in their education,” Pritz said. “ You’ve served as a catalyst for change, but more importantly, I believe you’ve led with a servant’s heart, which is what this profession is all about.”
NASSP annually honors an assistant principal from each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the Department of Defense Education Activity schools. In April, state winners were honored at a three-day event in Washington, D.C. Three finalists were selected from the pool of state winners and were interviewed during the April event in Washington, D.C. Each finalist received $500 and Ainsworth will be awarded an additional $500, which can be used for personal professional development or for a school improvement project.