Considering his principal’s office is filled with countless hand-written notes from former students, creepy crawly bugs stuck to the wall, and a wooden Tyrannosaurus Rex sporting a Detroit Lions helmet, this is a principal who makes an impact on his students’ academic journeys into middle school and beyond.
McCalla is in charge of over 400 students at one of the two K-2 Dexter Community Schools in the district. Yet, he manages to remember nearly each and every one of them by name as he hands out high fives to children passing in the hall. Kids eagerly ran up and showed him the gap where they lost their latest teeth and pictures of the family’s newest pet on Dec. 10. One girl even brought him a gift as he greeted students getting off the morning bus. It struck me that McCalla is a person who goes above and beyond the duty of a principal to make kids feel special and safe in his school.
We Love Dexter staff spoke with McCalla on Dec. 9, discussing his nearly 9 years spent as the beloved principal at Cornerstone.
“It’s just an amazing place,” McCalla said. “And I feel that the kids feel it and the parents feel it. They know if they have questions that my door is open. We’re here to support families from all different levels. So, whatever you need, come ask, and we’ll always work hard to make it happen.”
McCalla said a very rewarding part of his job is encouraging students to enjoy learning and achieving the best of their abilities.
“It’s fun to be an elementary school principal. We make it fun here at Cornerstone. We make sure the kids love learning, love challenging, and know it’s okay to make a mistake. It’s a lot of really getting our kids to be creative and getting engaged in the learning. Education is changing, and it’s for the better. The staff here at Cornerstone are using those new ways to educate our children and are really a tremendous staff.”
McCalla said his popularity with students is largely due to his ever-present persona on the school grounds.
“I’m always visible. I’m here at school and at most of the events. It’s the little things I think. I call students by their name. I give out birthday pencils and birthday books on their birthdays. It’s just the little things. I try to stay as connected to our students as I can. We celebrate every loose tooth and every birthday. If they have an issue or concern, we talk to them. I think it’s talking that gives them the skills to grow up. Everybody makes mistakes. Here at Cornerstone, it’s all about learning.”
McCalla said he believes parents notice how supportive the Cornerstone environment is when they drop off their kids before school, attend parent-teacher conferences and go to other school events. He is quick to give credit to his coworkers when addressing his own popularity with the parents of Cornerstone students.
“I think they see how much their children enjoy coming, and part of that isn’t me, it’s our building as a whole. The adults in the building are tremendous. (I think) our students feel at home, feel safe and comfortable.”
McCalla graduated from Eastern Michigan University in the mid 1990s, teaching emotionally impaired students at both Saline and Chelsea area schools for several years. He also worked as a teaching consultant before being hired as the assistant principal of Mill Creek Middle School and Dexter High School for a year. McCalla took the helm of the Cornerstone Elementary School dreadnaught when former principal, Judy Harnish, retired.
Dexter Community Schools Superintendent, Chris Timmis, spoke to We Love Dexter staff on Dec. 10 about McCalla’s work serving the district.
“Craig’s a phenomenal principal. He’s one of the best I’ve ever worked with,” Timmis said. “He’s so open and welcoming to the kids. He knows the families, he knows the community and he supports his teachers. He’s phenomenal.”
McCalla said he appreciates how Cornerstone and Dexter Community Schools put kids’ best interests first.
“Dexter is really committed to students. Part of what I love about Dexter Community Schools is collaboration between all administrators, our teachers, paraeducators and secretaries,” McCalla said. “We all really put kids first and that’s something that really rings well with me, especially at Cornerstone. We know we have one common vision, and that is, ‘Was that decision best for the kids?’”
A sign stating that very vision hangs above his office doorway.
McCalla leads the school in a ‘word cheer’ each morning before class. A few students gathered around the school P.A. system on Dec. 10 to say the day’s word cheer during the morning announcements. “Z-O-O. I heard a moo at the zoo,” they said in unison three times over the intercom.
“We try to pump them up everyday,” McCalla said. “Early literacy is so key. We want students to enjoy literacy, we want them to enjoy reading and we want them to enjoy learning.”
The importance of literacy is also stressed every morning promptly at 8:06 a.m., when McCalla invigorates kids into getting ready to learn by leading them in Cornerstone’s school cheer. The call and response between McCalla and the kids echo through the halls. “We are Cornerstone, and we read!,” they shout.
Cornerstone emphasizes a different character trait at each monthly assembly. “We talk about being up-standers here at Cornerstone, someone who stands up for themselves and stands up for others.” McCalla said teaching children how to stand up has helped eradicate bullying.
McCalla said he’s had some memorable moments having fun at his own expense during assemblies. “We’ve had Big Wheel races, I’ve kissed a pig, I’ve jumped into a pool with my clothes on,” he said. He’s also hung out on the roof in a gorilla suit…until it started raining.
Math skills are also considered extremely important at Cornerstone. “Our teachers really do a great job making our students think in multiple ways.”
‘Zero the Hero,’ a legend known in Cornerstone’s math classes, will show up on days ending in zero. The mysterious superhero, who looks questionably similar to Principal McCalla, runs around classes and gets the kids excited about learning of the importance of numbers in the classroom and in everyday life.
McCalla said he has learned over the years how important it is to interact with his students. “What I have learned is how much connections mean to kids. It’s that connection with the student and with the staff. It’s something that’s not measurable. You’re not going to find it on a state test.”
In his two decades of working in education, McCalla grew misty-eyed, remembering one student at the end of a school year who especially stood out in his memory.
“I had this student come up to me who had had a hard year,” McCalla said. “He didn’t want to learn, he didn’t want to be here and had a tough family life and everything else. He looked at me the last day of school and said, ‘I just have to ask. Why do you care so much?’” And I said, “Just because you’re my student and it’s my job.” The student responded, ‘I just want to know because no one else has.’ “It solidified to me how much (connecting with the students) means,” McCalla said. “When you care, and the kids know you care, they’ll go through brick walls for you.”
Cornerstone heavily weighs administrative decisions concerning students on how the children will be affected.
“If it’s harder for us, but better for the kids, we’re going to do it,” McCalla said. “I feel very fortunate that it’s the teachers we have in our building, it’s the families we have in our community and it’s the students. All as a whole, we make this place great.”
Cornerstone Elementary School was built in 1995, however it looks notably brand new both inside and outside. McCalla says he owes the sparkling and squeaky-clean condition of the building to the hard work of Don Holiday and Roger Johnson, both custodians at the school.
McCalla knows what it’s like to have a child attending Dexter Community Schools. His own son is a student in the district.
Cornerstone Elementary is located at 7480 Dan Hoey Rd. in Dexter.
McCalla can be reached at email@example.com.