Norma Penny: A legacy of impact

After walking through the main entrance of Carter Lomax Middle School and down a hallway, visitors come across large silver letters on a wall.


Each time Melissa McCalla sees her friend’s name on display, she reflects on the lasting impact Norma Penny made in her 15 years as Carter Lomax’s Founding Principal. McCalla also thinks about how much Penny would have enjoyed being forever attached to her beloved school’s hub of literature. 

“She was a champion of reading and the importance of libraries,” said McCalla, the Chief Technology Officer for Pasadena Independent School District in Pasadena, Texas. “The library is at the heart of Carter Lomax and really connects to what Norma stood for as a leader. 

“She had a calmness about her and in the way she interacted with others. She loved what she did, she loved the work, and she loved making an impact on people.”

Norma Penny, who passed away unexpectedly in February 2021, approached each day as a principal with endless enthusiasm and a genuine excitement for learning and growing. 

Penny and her infectious spirit inspired the Gradient Learning School Leader of the Year Award, which she posthumously becomes the first recipient for how she led with courage, compassion, and a commitment to always help her community evolve.

“The concept of leaders inspiring people to be better and to grow and do the best they possibly can for their kids, that’s Norma,” McCalla said. “She inspired not just her teachers and students, but all of the people she had interactions with along the way.

“Some days it really does feel like she’s still here because her presence is still with us.”

‘There’s so much goodness in the world’

It’s a Friday afternoon before a three-day weekend in January 2021, and Norma Penny’s to-do list remains long.

There’s an administrative meeting starting soon, a staff development session to plan, and another “Coffee with the Principal” to schedule so that parents and caregivers can have the opportunity to ask her questions and hear any updates about their fifth- and sixth-graders.

“Though with me it’s more like ‘Dr. Pepper with the Principal,’” Penny said, laughing. 

Penny is smiling a lot on this day, which she said has a lot to do with the honor that Carter Lomax Middle School received a month earlier. In December 2020, Carter Lomax was one of two schools to become the inaugural recipients of the Rise Award, a national distinction given out by Gradient Learning that recognizes schools’ commitment to improve the quality of teaching and learning in their community.

“A huge honor,” Penny said. “It actually makes me want to cry with excitement because I know all of the teamwork that has taken place to get us to this point and all of the engaged learning that’s been happening in our classrooms. This signifies we’re moving in the right direction.”

Penny acknowledges that she doesn’t spend much time reflecting on her past success because she prefers to keep her focus on helping Carter Lomax become the best school it can be today—and even better tomorrow.

But the Rise Award allows her a moment to pause and look back on the thrill of opening the school as its Founding Principal, and recall the many fun memories she created in the 15 years that followed. Even in the most challenging of times, Penny always has a foolproof way to maintain optimism.

“I visit a classroom and I instantly feel better,” Penny said. “That is the best part of my job. There’s a lot going on in the world right now, but when you come in and you see the children’s smiles and hear their giggles, you realize there’s so much goodness in the world. 

“We are serving our students and we are helping them to become the best people that they can be. So one day, when we turn over the reins to them, we know we’re going to be in good hands.”

‘A touchpoint of her memory’

On Feb. 1, 2021, Norma Penny’s death at the age of 52 saddened all associated with the Pasadena Independent School District, which includes her husband, Vaughan Penny, a P.E. teacher in the district.

On Nov. 1, 2022, Vaughan was joined by daughter, Lexi, and son, Evan, for an emotional-but-joyful unveiling of the new Norma Penny Library at Carter Lomax Middle School. 

With green and white balloons at his side, Vaughan spoke to the crowd about how proud Norma was of her school and how much it means to the Penny family that Norma’s legacy of lifelong learning—and reading—lives on through the library. 

Melissa McCalla, second from right, with members of the Penny family at the dedication of the Norma Penny Library.

“It really honors the spirit of Norma so well,” said McCalla, who attended the ceremony. “This allows people to have a touchpoint of her memory.”

It’s difficult for McCalla, who was a fellow principal with Penny in PISD, to pick out one favorite memory of her friend. But there is an image that often comes to mind for McCalla, whose daughter was a sixth-grader at Carter Lomax during Penny’s final year.

“If you ever watched her with kids, she always bent down to talk to them and got on their level,” McCalla said. “She really looked them in the eyes and listened to them, and she cared about what they cared about. She was an empathetic leader while still holding a high standard for her students. You saw that in how kids developed and grew under her leadership. 

“I miss her. We all miss her. She was such a positive presence.”

Norma Penny is one of three recipients of the inaugural Gradient Learning School Leader of the Year Award. Learn more about the award.

About the author

Summit Learning
Summit Learning is a research–based approach to education designed to drive student engagement, meaningful learning, and strong student–teacher relationships that prepare students for life after graduation. Created by teachers with experience in diverse classrooms, Summit Learning is grounded in decades of research about how children learn. With Summit Learning, students gain mastery of core subjects like math, history, English, and science, while also carefully developing the skills and habits of lifelong learners. Summit Learning is independently led and operated by the nonprofit, Gradient Learning.