It’s not uncommon to see Legacy Traditional School – Gilbert Principal Valerie Merrill sitting on the grass with her students during a football game or spending her Saturday cheering for the school’s cross country team during a meet.
Merrill is probably the most visible people on campus, whether she’s encouraging students at a sporting event, speaking with parents in the front office or working the register in the cafeteria because the cashier is sick.
Her ability to interact with students, teachers, parents and the surrounding community has spurred a culture change at a school that was in need of strong direction, attention and Merrill’s own personal touch.
In two years, Legacy Gilbert has added 300 students, increased parent and teacher satisfaction, and transformed the school into a family friendly place that engages families and the rest of the community.
These dramatic changes have led to Merrill’s selection as the Arizona Charter School Association’s 2016 Transformational Leader of the Year.
Merrill’s inspirational leadership has allowed her to serve as a role model for everyone involved with the school.
“Her positivity, encouragement and integrity, the things she does when no one is looking, is pretty amazing to us,” said Barbie Hudson, a third grade teacher at the school. “Having a leader like that made us step up our game.”
Merrill is in her third year at Legacy Gilbert and fifth year working for the charter network, which has 11 campuses in the Phoenix area, Northwest Tucson and Casa Grande.
She is also a former teacher who was once named Teacher of the Year in the Higley Unified School District.
“I think it’s important for children to see that there are adults outside of their immediate family who care for them, who support them and who want to see them do their best,” she said. “I’m their biggest cheerleader.”
Merrill quickly rose through the ranks once she arrived at Legacy, working as an instructional coach at the charter’s Chandler campus before moving to its Laveen school to become assistant principal.
“She is sharp, she knows this craft and she shows signs of being an exceptional school administrator,” said William Bressler, Legacy’s chief academic officer.
The Laveen campus’ letter grade in the state accountability system improved to an ‘A’ with the help of Merrill’s leadership.
The principal’s position opened at the Gilbert campus and, after a series of interviews, Bressler knew she was the right person to help implement changes at the campus.
“One of the largest challenges here in Gilbert was connecting with the community and stakeholders,” he said. “It wasn’t the climate and culture that met our expectations for Legacy Traditional School.”
Merrill noticed the culture immediately and knew a change was needed.
“We didn’t have that family friendly feel that Legacy portrays to the community. Our very first goal was to make sure families felt welcomed, that our families want to come here,” she said.
Merrill took the first step by inviting parents to the campus for lunch, volunteer opportunities and other events. She also connected with key leaders in the surrounding community.
“We wanted to make sure that our school emulated the community that we live in,” said Merrill, who also lives in Gilbert.
She also sought to change the teaching culture at the school and began seeking educators who were willing to go beyond the minimum expectations to help the students.
“In reality, that’s how we treat and cater to our students, so it’s important for our teachers to feel that way too,” she said.
Parents and others associated with the school have taken notice.
“You can really tell that they care about the kids here,” said David Terrill, a parent who coaches football at the school. “From the teachers to the principals, it’s across the board. They just really care about how kids feel and how their day is going.”
Terrill credits Merrill setting an example that’s permeated through the rest of the school, from the teachers and staff to the students.
“To me, she’s the face of the school,” he said. “And she handles it very well.”
Meet Our 2016 Charter Award Winners
Academy of Math and Science – Prince is a K-8 charter school serving 420 students in Tucson. This STEM-focused school has high academic rigor for students while providing a well-rounded college-prep education.
Valerie Merrill is the principal at Legacy Traditional School – Gilbert, a K-8 charter school serving 1,200 students in Gilbert. Valerie is an inspirational leader and a quintessential role model for everyone involved with the school.
Betsy Rosenmiller is the finance director at Metropolitan Arts Institute, a charter high school serving 250 students in Phoenix. Although Betsy has a background in business administration, her passion is art.
Richelle Lewis is a third-grade teacher at American Leadership Academy – Queen Creek, a K-6 charter school serving 760 students. Richelle understands and embraces that all students learn differently.