Charting a New Course
The changes taking place at Oak Hill Elementary School in High Point, North Carolina today are among the most remarkable the school has experienced in its 100-plus year history. The school’s recent transition from one of the lowest performing elementary schools in the state proves that educators who partner with parents, community organizations and businesses can produce an academically prosperous and culturally vibrant school despite significant challenges.
“This has not been an easy road,” says Principal Patrice Faison. “We don’t have it perfect, but I’m confident that our students are growing thanks in part to our teachers, parents, volunteers and community support – all of us working together.”
Located in a high poverty area, Oak Hill has 450 students in grades preK–5, where 98 percent of them receive a free breakfast and low-and-reduced lunch. Atop economic challenges are those dealing with students and their families who speak a combined 17 languages. Demographic reports show a recent, steady increase of students speaking English as a second language, with 50 percent of students categorized as ESOL – English for speakers of other languages. In addition, the percent of LEP (Limited English Proficiency) students in tested grades doubled from 2005 to 2009 – from about 20 to 40 percent. To get students to read and write English at their grade level meant engaging the help of parents.
“When I came here, one of the first things we did was change the décor,” says Faison, who together with most the school’s 25 teachers arrived fresh at Oak Hill last September as a result of a School Improvement Grant (SIG) from the state ($2.88 million over three years). “We made it very inviting to parents because we have to be partners with them.”
To get Hispanic, Pakistani, Vietnamese and other parents interested in visiting the school, Faison and her staff canvassed the neighborhood handing out flyers which listed open house days, free GED and adult language classes, and workshops addressing school issues like bullying and classroom discipline. Students and staff also decorated classroom doors and walls to reflect the cultural diversity of school families.
“We see parents as an extension of what we do,” says Faison, a member of the Guilford County Association of Educators (GCAE). “We want them to see us as an extension of what they do.”
Students not only have teachers and parents advocating for them, they have the full force of GCAE’s membership — 3,100 strong.
“All our members stand in solidarity with Oak Hill,” says GCAE President Tijuana Hayes. “From day one, we have worked closely with the superintendent and teachers to improve the school and help boost student achievement.”
Union leaders have attended school board meetings and done numerous school visits seeking facts, opinions and observations from school employees, parents, and others, says UniServ Director Frederick Pruit.
“GCAE members have been involved in every phase of the SIG application and implementation process,” Pruit says “We went to the community forums when the district first discussed with parents how it (turnaround process) would affect their children.”
Avid support of the school also includes a wide range of community businesses and organizations. From McDonald’s to churches, banks and the rotary club, the school’s status quo is improving by leaps and bounds. Even the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival and Piedmont Opera have become partners with the school, performing Romeo and Juliet and Jack in the Beanstalk, respectively.
“One of the biggest successes at the school has been our volunteer group,” Faison says. “My superintendents have been very supportive, and our teachers are second to none, but the types of things the volunteers do you can’t mandate.”
Located one block from the school is Ward Street Community Resources. One of organization’s board members, Gina Jacobs, has revitalized the PTA and “brought the community to us,” says Faison. “She’s extraordinary.”
As Ward Street’s Oak Hill Liaison, Jacobs spends at least 20 hours a week recruiting volunteers to assist with school projects, raising donations of food and clothing, and identifying tutors to help students and parents with math, reading, writing and computers science.
With the support from the community, local businesses, administrators, union leaders and educators, Oak Hill Elementary’s turnaround has placed the school on a new course towards success.