Former music teacher takes helm at Cottonwood

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Cottonwood Valley Charter School’s new principal Dr. Avery Ewing has taught music and science to elementary and middle school students in the Nashville area for the past nine years, acted as a principal-designee at a large urban public school for four of those years, took a year “off” to serve as a program manager for the local symphony orchestra and earned both a master and doctor of education degrees, the latter 1,000 miles away from Tennessee at the prestigious Northeastern University in Boson.

Ewing

Not bad for a man who hasn’t celebrated his 30th birthday yet.

He’s been hard at work again this summer gearing up for the coming school year at CVCS.

“I’ve been onsite nine hours a day, setting up a master schedule for all the classes,” Ewing said.

A charter school is one of the few educational institutions Ewing hasn’t had a chance to add to his resume, and that’s part of Cottonwood’s attraction for him.

“I wanted a different set of experiences. I have worked in all types of schools, but I have never worked in a charter school,” he said.

Being a principal at a public charter school involves its own set of challenges.

“A charter school is a great way to start an administrative career. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere,” he said. “The responsibilities (a principal) has at a charter school are much greater than at regular public schools associated with a district. They have human resources department. At a charter, you have a responsibility to make sure obligations to the taxpayers are met — and do what’s best for kids.”

Ewing plans to build on the school’s successes, especially in the middle grades.

“I want Cottonwood Valley to be a place where students and learning are loved. I want to seek out ways to improve student achievement. That’s our focus here,” he said. “Hopefully, if I do my job successfully, the data will show that.”

Ewing said the school already does a fantastic job teaching literacy at the lower grades, but he wants to be sure that students’ early successes carry over into fourth grade and above, where achievements tend to slip.

“Research has shown us there’s always an achievement drop between third and fourth grade. Kindergarten through third-grade reading levels (at Cottonwood) are absolutely amazing,” he said. “I’ve never seen reading levels that high. We have a very strong early elementary faculty. We need to make sure that sense of excellence extends to middle school. We need to see where we are missing the mark, and take strategic and targeted steps to change that.”

He points to Bosque School’s commitment to middle-schoolers. The administrators at the Albuquerque-based private college preparatory school teach courses to middle-schoolers about how to be positive contributors to society. Ewing said he would love to teach those same concepts at the charter school, maybe as part of an enrichment course.

Ewing plans to continue the Core Knowledge curriculum the school has used since its inception in 2001, but “tweak it” to meet the Common Core standards required by New Mexico’s Public Education Department. Core Knowledge, created by E. D. Hirsch, is an “education grounded in shared knowledge of history, science, art and music,” according to his foundation’s website.

“I happen to think Common Core is a fad,” Ewing said. “More states are pulling out of it. It’s possible to keep Common Core and Core Knowledge. Common Core is not a curriculum; it’s a set of standards.”

A highly-rated art teacher has been hired to continue the school’s studio-based fine arts program.

“The new art teacher, Jamie Jones, is from Odessa, Texas,” he said. “She is known as the best art teacher in the region, and she’s a phenomenal artist at the same time. She’s also licensed to teach special education and gifted/talented classes.”

As for music, local physician Dr. Eileen Comstock will continue teaching the school’s band students, and Ewing hopes he has time enough to teach a beginning violin class.

“I’ve been trained in the Suzuki method,” he said. The euphonium and violin are his main instruments, although, as a band teacher, “I can play anything.”

Ewing said he has looked at the school’s test data and aims to work on raising scores for both the lowest and highest segments of the school’s population, which translates into more effort to meet the needs of both struggling and gifted students. He will continue the school’s community reading program started by reading coach Kim Schaffer that schedules adult volunteers to read with children on a regular basis.

Ewing also plans to continue the charter school’s amicable relationship with the school district, having already met with Superintendent Randall Earwood and his staff.

“I met with Mr. Earwood, and we reinforced our working relationship.” Ewing said. “He welcomed me with open arms and offered his support. Jeffrey Matthews, the district’s information technology guy, was just over here today. He was very, very helpful. You listen to the horror stories about the bad, contentious relationships between districts and charter schools. It’s not true here. I invited him and his teachers to our professional development workshops. That’s a working relationship that not many charter schools have.”

Given he has so much on his plate, Ewing still tries to find to time to unwind, usually by playing the piano and working on acrylic paintings.

He is glad to be in the Southwest, having been born and raised in the Dallas, Texas, area.

“I’m from Texas,” he said. “Southwestern influences are there.”

He has even developed a taste for green chile since his arrival here.

“I’ve had a few green chile hamburgers,” he said with a grin.