Yesterday was a hard day. When tragedy strikes, I always want to find my kids and hold them close. But yesterday, I was slated to participate in Principal for a Day, organized by the City of Phoenix as part of their Phoenix Achieves program (@PHXAchieves).
My assignment was Campo Bello Elementary School. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would the kids be worried? Would the staff be on alert? Would this be a productive day for anyone?
What I found was healing. What I found was hope. Campo Bello is a K-6 school in a low-income area of the Paradise Valley School District. It has about 74% Hispanic students, and 82% on Free and Reduced Price Lunch. And it has a lot of heart.
On a day like yesterday, that heart shone.
But it was clear to me that the school’s atmosphere is this warm, caring, and conducive to learning every day of the year.
I arrived in the morning to meet Principal Withers at the drop off gate, where on most mornings he greets each family and chats with teachers and staff as they have questions about the day.
The Principal was always calm, always engaged, and always had an eye out for the families to make sure he didn’t miss any of them. Chatting with me or a teacher didn’t cause him to miss, or dismiss, one family that walked by. One student asked if the Principal would fly the flag at half mast, which he did.
He has managed to create a secure system for parents to walk their students into the school, and created a mini-library along the pathway in, that is only for the parents. He’s very clear on this. He is committed to having books that parents can read – in Spanish and in English – so that his students can see positive models for reading at home.
My tour of the school included so many examples of his commitment to teachers, and his commitment to ensuring that the district’s oldest building gets as much TLC as possible. Through community partnerships that he arranged, the school got a makeover in the art room, a beautifully landscaped small inner courtyard (with room for a teacher cook-out on parent-teacher conference days!) and a lovely larger courtyard with tall shady trees and newly-renovated vegetable garden boxes (much of the work here was also done by the STEM class.)
On the first school-day of each month, that larger courtyard hosts a brief school celebration. It was packed with awards for academics, behavior, and a performance by the 4th grade chorus that put many high school concerts to shame.
But what about learning? I’ve seen many schools with a lot of love that have a hard time turning that love into academic energy. I’ve been to many schools that show me one or two classrooms, with varied levels of “time on task.” Principal Withers took me to every classroom. And in every single one, students were engaged. Most of the classrooms had multiple adults, so they could create smaller groups. The school has enough laptops, mini-pads, or iPads for each student to have a device at the same time. Several of the classrooms had sections of students working individually while the teacher engaged with a smaller group. I watched one young girl practice her reading with a mini-pad and earphones, truly working at her own pace to finish a book and answer questions that were tailored for her reading level. When she got the questions right, she got a trophy on the screen and a big smile on her face.
In the most recent school year, 38% of the students passed their grade level reading tests, and 37% passed their grade level math tests, which is right at the state average. (It’s a little lower than the Maricopa County average.) That’s not bad, for such high levels of poverty that the students face. What’s impressive, is that they had gained 10% on the year before in both subjects. Now, I’ve been doing this data stuff for awhile. Getting scores up in both subjects at the same time is hard.
It means that there is a commitment to seeing the “whole” child – not just playing to strengths, or “teaching to the test.” Which leads me to one of the most important elements of a school leader, according to research study after research study: How they use data. Principal Withers’ background before a career shift to teaching was in Information Technology. So, it’s no surprise that he has a real-time spreadsheet with each student and how they are doing on multiple fronts, color coded so he can quickly analyze progress.
The two elements together – deep compassion and community engagement, coupled with intense focus on data and academics – are often seen as too hard for a school to do at the same time. What I experienced yesterday, and what their data shows, is that it is possible.
And that’s what gives me hope.
As I think about how as a country and as individuals we can do better and be better, my experience yesterday had a healing effect. We already are better.