FRANKLIN — For nearly two decades, Joyce Hakey has gotten up in the morning at her Fairfax home and gone to school, not work.
That’s how Hakey herself described her job as principal at Franklin Central School (FCS).
Now in her 18th year as principal, Hakey is traveling to Washington D.C. next week to be honored as a National Distinguished Elementary Principal of the Year. She is one of 62 elementary and middle school principals from across the nation who will attend a banquet on Oct. 12 at the Capital Hill Hotel for a special ceremony, followed by a two-day program.
The award, announced earlier this spring, is given out by the Vermont Principal Association (VPA) each year. Winners are first nominated by their peers, with the winner chosen by VPA.
“That school is her heart and her soul. We can go on and on about test scores, and advocating for kids, but the bottom line is she truly loves that school and that community,” said Swanton School Principal Dena St. Amour.
St. Amour has worked along side Hakey for the past 12 years, first as Curriculum Coordinator at Franklin Northwest Supervisory Union (FNWSU), and now as a fellow principal. But to her Hakey is more than just a colleague, she’s a friend.
Asked to describe Hakey, St. Amour laughed then said, “Well, she reminds me a little bit of a bulldog sometimes. She’ll fight tooth and nail to make sure that the best always happens for her school, her staff and her kids. It’s her family.”
Proof of that statement can be found just by stepping into FCS. Inside the small, one hallway school, is a splash of newspaper clippings, awards, photos and plaques. It’s as if the family refrigerator doubled in size and expanded into a school lobby.
The wall coverings document the accomplishments of the school’s students and staff. Headlines from newspaper articles showcase student and school awards. Retired teachers and staff have their own spot on the wall.
“She makes sure she posts everything and has everything up for the whole community to see when they walk in,” Deb Boucher, a former staff member of Hakey’s said. “She puts up pictures like it’s her house.”
Recognizing the value of each member of the school goes far beyond the school wall though. Hakey’s approach to her work is shaped off this mindset. From her correspondence with parents to the mundane communications that comes with being an administrator, Hakey always treats others with a rare level of respect.
“She’ll always pick up the phone, or go see you face to face. I always pick on her because Franklin is real easy. There’s some days I won’t even see teachers in this big building,” St. Amour said, referring to Swanton. “But in Franklin you got that one hallway, and if Joyce wants to see a teacher, she’s not going to send an email, she’s going to go down and see them face to face.”
Hakey uses that same approach with parents. She stresses the importance of working with the parent to help a student achieve success.
“When the school and home are working together, every kid is going to be the most successful,” Hakey said. “We try really hard to walk that talk. We’re going to do whatever it takes to have parents involved.”
On one occasion Hakey spotted a parent outside in the yard.
“They hadn’t made an appointment yet for parent teacher conferences, and I happened to be driving by,” Hakey said. So she rolled down her window, and set up an appointment with them.
“The teachers were picking on me, but you got to do what you got to do, you got to walk your talk, and you have to have parents involved,” Hakey said.
The importance of relationships is a key part of Hakey’s leadership success. That was made clear by Sue Sartwell, the administrative assistant at FCS. Sartwell has worked with Hakey for her entire tenure as principal. Before that, she knew Hakey when she served as middle school principal at Missisquoi Valley Union High School and Sartwell was the parent of a student there.
There’s been a few times Hakey has knocked on parents doors. “She’s not afraid to do that because she knows the importance of the relationship with the parents. If you form a relationship with the parents, there’s a face behind it, and they know they are held accountable, as well as the child, so I think that’s really worked well for her,” Sartwell said.
From the staff, to the parents to the community, Hakey’s known for getting everyone involved at Franklin school. One example is the annual senior dinner. Each year, the school invites any senior citizen living in Franklin to come to the school for a dinner hosted by the sixth graders.
“It’s just like having your family over for a big feast,” Hakey said.
During Halloween, the school does reverse trick-or-treating in the community. The kids bring fall decorations and poems they’ve written to local businesses. The students also never miss marching in the Memorial Day parade.
When Hakey was hired as principal at Franklin, she brought with her a depth of experience. From 1991 to 2001 she was MVU’s middle school principal. Before that, she had served ten years as a high school teacher in Essex. Despite her resume, Hakey said she was still nervous when she first took on her current role. “I was so nervous because I had no experience with elementary schoolers,” Hakey said.
That’s when Hakey received the advice she still lives by today. The advice, given by her husband who passed away earlier this year, has shaped her work.
“He said, ‘You’re going to have to remember that people are your business.’”
“’You’re going to get really busy, your going to have more and more demands on you, and your going to have to remember that those relationships come first, whether it’s the relationships with the kids, the parents, the staff, the community, that has to always be number one, and they have to feel that,’” Hakey recalled him saying.
Hakey admits they aren’t always easy words to live by.
“There will be times when someone will come to the door and say, ‘You got a minute?’” Hakey said. “Sometimes, I’ll want to go, ‘No, I just want to get this done!’ But that’s when his words come back to me, and I’ll tell them ‘sure, come on in.”
Her approach has earned her the praise of FCS teachers.
“Joyce is a dedicated leader who pays attention to the details that others seldom do,” said Ashley Bachelder. “This is what sets her apart and has helped lead to the huge success of our school. She is committed to our students, parents, staff, and entire community in a way that lets us know that she will never stop working to make our school great.”
Another teacher, Cheryl Ostrander, said, “Through her leadership, Joyce encourages everyone, students and staff, to learn, to grow, and to excel.”
“She always strives to push both teachers and students to do their best,” said Brye Trainer. “Helping facilitate discussions that push for change to better our teachers, students, and school climate is common practice for Joyce.”
“Joyce’s impact on my teaching has been her encouragement to look at my practice in terms of what’s working well for students and what might need to be changed or tweaked, always looking through the lens of what will be best for students,” said Heather Digby. “She is not someone who jumps on every bandwagon but instead makes purposeful changes.”
Hakey’s award has drawn attention she has hurriedly worked to divert away from herself and toward the community as a whole.
“Honestly, I was really having a hard time with this award in the beginning because I don’t like being in the limelight. It almost feels wrong to give one person an award. It truly is a team effort, and in Franklin the team is everybody. It’s the parents, the kids, the staff and the community, and I’m just lucky to be here and be apart of it,” Hakey said. “That’s why everyday, I still love coming to school and never going to work ever!”