Meet Katie Guilbault Decker '89
Elementary Education Graduate
Katie Guilbault Decker ’89 has made learning fun again for stu-dents, teachers and parents at the Walter Bracken STEAM Academy in urban Las Vegas. As the recipient of the 2013 Magnet Schools of America Principal of the Year Award, Decker has transformed an underperforming, underprivileged school into one of the best in the state of Nevada.
But it wasn’t easy.
“It was a mess,” said Decker, who was assigned as its principal in 2001. “(Bracken) was one of the scariest schools in the district. Substitute (teachers) didn’t like to come here because SWAT used to practice here.”
Decker, who spent the previous 11 years as a teacher and an assistant principal in the Las Vegas area, saw an opportunity to improve the failing school. But not many shared her vision.“It was definitely a challenge,” Decker said of the early resistance she encountered from teachers and parents.“The staff that was here, their idea of instruction and my idea of instruction were very different.”Almost immediately, Decker decided that Bracken would become a “magnet” school—one that remains a free public school but has a focused theme and aligned curriculum. Magnet schools use an approach to learning that is inquiry- or performance/project-based, and do not have entrance criteria; students are chosen from a blind lottery-based system.
Because of the shift to more of a science, technology, arts, engineering and mathematics (STEAM) curriculum, she required all of her existing teachers to re-apply for their jobs.
“Everyone interviewed for their positions,” Decker said. “I looked for teachers with science backgrounds. Those were my first picks for interviewing.”
As a result of these sudden, drastic changes, she was met with “Decker Must Go” picket signs by her own teachers and some parents.
“It was a great first year,” Decker said, sarcastically. “Sometimes you just have to give people time. But my heart was in the right place.”
And those weren’t the only changes. She established new community partnerships, created vision and mission statements, blanketed her drab, almost-windowless school building with creative and colorful murals and instituted other features that rival some theme parks.
Some of the “fun” features include a yearly school garden project, an outdoor chess board, desert habitat, outdoor labs—even a mascot. All lessons and homework are posted online. Decker said she is constantly surveying her students, teachers and parents to make “innovative” data-driven decisions.
“Our school looks more like Disneyland than a school,” Decker said. “We get our results by having fun.”
The results have been nothing short of remarkable. Bracken is now one of the top schools in the state. It received High Achievement status from the state of Nevada for Adequate Yearly Progress and ranked among the top 5 percent of all schools in the district.
“We wanted to get better results, so we all needed to know what we’re doing,” she said. “Whatever we chose to do, we vote on it and decide. And once it’s decided, it was my job to ensure everyone would do it with integrity.”
When Decker began as principal, the school had only a 5.6 percent proficiency rate in mathematics; today, Bracken is the sixth highest math performer of the approximately 230 schools in the Clark County district. In November, Decker traveled to Washington, D.C., to receive a National Blue Ribbon Award—only one of three Nevada schools to earn the honor.
“Direct instruction is such a tiny piece,” Decker said. “Participation is what gets them through. We help (students) figure out what’s going on in their heads.”
Not surprisingly, Decker is not on the sidelines as a cheerleader in the day-to-day educational process.
“I teach every day,” she said. “I go in the classrooms. I am their coach and I am their helper. … If you are a teacher, then you are always a teacher.”
She said Siena Heights—especially the late Sister Eileen Rice—helped in-still those teaching values in her.
“I adored (Sister Eileen),” Decker said, getting emotional. “I would love to be even half of what she was. We used to joke that she never slept. She was probably one of the bigger influential people in my life.”
Beginning her 24th year in the Las Vegas educational system, Decker said she is where she is supposed to be.
“Las Vegas is one of the greatest locations,” she said. “There’s no snow days here.”And it’s full “STEAM” ahead at Bracken Academy.“The things we do, we made up,” Decker said. “We’re showing our community what a school can be.”