Principal facilitates leading and learning at Coyote Creek
HIGHLANDS RANCH – When you ask Gigi Whalen what she enjoys most about her job, she is quick to answer it is the students. “Being around the kids–who wouldn't want to spend their days with kids? It's the best thing!” she exclaimed.
Whalen has always loved children, and knew she would pursue a career in education early on. She received a bachelor’s degree from Eastern Michigan University, and earned a master’s degree from the University of Colorado-Denver.
Whalen brought a wealth of experience with her when she arrived in Douglas County, having spent 13 years working in public education, teaching elementary and middle school, and serving as a middle school dean. In 2009, Whalen became the Assistant Principal at Pine Lane Elementary School, and went on to lead Coyote Creek Elementary School in 2011.
Q & A with Gigi Whalen
What was your first job?
If you had the opportunity to pursue another career, what would you choose?
Advice for a college graduate entering field of teaching:
Who inspires you?
What is the last book you read?
Who do you believe will be remembered for their impact on society during the early 21st century?
What was your favorite subject in high school?
Are you a cat or dog person?
What was your first car?
Favorite store to browse?
Favorite Colorado getaway?
Is there something about you that would surprise your colleagues?
During her first year as principal at Coyote Creek, Whalen worked with the school’s staff, parent-teacher organization and school accountability committee to identify a learning model that would implement personalized learning. As a result, Coyote Creek is now completing its third year as a “Leader in Me” school.
Based on Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the Leader in Me model offers personalized learning to students, guiding them to find their passion and interests, which in turn, helps them achieve, Whalen explains. Additionally, students are learning how to use the language from the 7 Habits discipline to express themselves in authentic and purposeful ways.
“It’s great to have a common language throughout the school, plus many parents are also familiar with the 7 Habits,” said Whalen, adding that she often hears about kids using the terminology at home, embracing the ability to express themselves in a positive way. “Kids will say to their parents, ‘how can we make this a win-win?””
Another aspect of the Leader in Me model Whalen touts is the growth that occurs when all students are encouraged to take on leadership roles. “We have students that organize assemblies, assist with field day, and read the morning announcements. I haven’t read the announcements in more than a year. The kids step up and do so well with the leadership concept, all of the time.”
Whalen also attributes the success of Coyote Creek students to a long standing staff, a supportive community and the overall small size of the school. Coyote Creek has an enrollment of just over 400 students, making it the smallest neighborhood elementary school in the Highlands Ranch area.
A majority of the children who enter kindergarten at Coyote Creek remain enrolled at the school through their sixth-grade year. “I call these students Coyote Creek Originals; we have a tradition of giving these kids t-shirts so they can be proud of their connection to the school and serving as role models for younger kids.”
The feeling of a small town is ever-present at Coyote Creek. “We don’t have buses; children ride bikes and walk to school,” Whalen said. “I know most of the kids by name.”
Whalen’s philosophy for leading the school is one of purpose. “Find out where every child is, and take them from there–help them make at least a year's growth from where they begin the year, and personalize their learning to make it meaningful and sustainable.”
“We stay positive even when things are hard,” she concluded.