Successful Students

NEA Secretary-Treasurer Sees Common Themes In Successful Schools

On her 2011 back-to-school tour, NEA Secretary-Treasurer Rebecca Pringle went looking for common elements in great schools serving students from low-income families. Two days and four schools into the tour, she says she’s found them:

  • A committed, empowered staff, working as a team.
  • Parents engaged in a meaningful way.
  • Labor and management working together to help children learn.

Pringle told educators at two Seattle elementary schools that she saw these key features in both schools, Hawthorne Elementary and West Seattle Elementary. Both are NEA Priority Schools and both are getting help from federal School Improvement Grants.

Pringle’s back-to-school tour began Monday in Evansville, Indiana, and concludes Wednesday in Las Vegas.

At every school she’s visited, Pringle has emphasized that no cookie-cutter approach will work to improve schools. “I talk about Hawthorne all the time,” she said yesterday. “I don’t tell people, ‘Do what Hawthorne did,’ because every school is different. But there are common themes.”

Pringle was joined at Hawthorne by Washington Education Association President Mary Lindquist, Seattle Education Association President Olga Addae, Seattle Education Association Vice President Jonathan Knapp, and Seattle Superintendent Susan Enfield. Hawthorne educators told them about the transformation they have carried out. This year, Hawthorne made “adequate yearly progress” as defined by the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Physical education teacher Jon Francois-Stone said it was frustrating in the past to “work so hard, and then you fail” in meeting the test score standard. This year, “it’s great, coming back and achieving.”

Teachers said the school’s district boundaries shifted last year, bringing in some higher-income students, but they stressed that they want to ensure that all students, no matter what their families’ social class, achieve better.

Teacher Charlene Smith-Brown said there have been big changes since she started working at Hawthorne 10 years ago. “When I came here, everybody did their own thing,” she said. Now, they work together. And everyone works extremely long hours. “I’m concerned about burnout, especially for teachers with young families,” she said. “I couldn’t do what I do if I had young children. But it’s the best job in the world.”

Pringle picked up on the burnout issue, telling the staff, “You are parents. You are community members. You have lives outside the school. We don’t want people working 20 hours a day.”

A critical element in Hawthorne’s transformation has been engaging families. Family support staffer Marcel Hauser said his role is doing whatever it takes to help a family bring their child to school ready to learn, whether that’s finding food, shelter, or help with domestic problems.

WEA President Lindquist said she was glad to hear that the staff is not just focusing on test scores data. “It’s good to hear you’re not just paying attention to the numbers, but to the whole child,” she said.

Later, at West Seattle Elementary, staff members spoke about the crucial work that family support staff, school counselors, outside agencies, and the school nurse do to make it possible for teachers to teach and students to learn.

The school helps families get everything from food to medical care. School staff also organizes well-attended family math and literacy nights where parents learn how to keep their children on track with schoolwork, even if the parents themselves can’t do it.

Educators told Pringle they are concerned that the federal money, which funds much of this work, will go away at the end of the three-year SIG grant, and there won’t be state or local money to replace it.

Family support worker Tracey Thompson said at this school, there’s deep respect among the members of the staff and between staff and families. “I feel that and I appreciate it,” she said.

The school has three family support staff, one of whom speaks Somali. The school has many Somali refugee children.

Thompson described a terrible situation last winter when the mother of a third grade Somali girl was stabbed by a deranged man on the street in front of the student and her two younger siblings. The mother survived, but the family was traumatized and the children would not leave their mother to go school. Thompson and her family support colleagues became the all-around advocates for the family.

The girl is back at school this year and doing well. And her father, who was still in a refugee camp when the attack took place, is reunited with his family. Thompson said he escorts his daughter to school and comes to all the family events to find out more about how he can help his children learn.

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