Describe your feelings on the importance of literacy in schools in America.
Literacy, the ability to read and write, is the building block of education. Children who do not get the basic foundations of literacy as a young child will be playing catch up in school their entire lives. If your reading and writing skills are below grade level, it impacts every component of that child’s education; math social studies, science, every subject. Many of our children are coming into Kindergarten straight from homes with no pre-school experience what-so-ever. These children usually end up playing catch up from day one. That is why it is so important to have highly trained teachers who have been trained in a phonics based curriculum.
How has your school successfully used IMSE OG trainings to help students and teachers? How many teachers have received training and how many students have been positively affected?
OG has been our primary phonics program at Greenwood since the fall of 2015. Overall we have had 12 classroom teachers, 2 special education teachers, 1 literacy coach, and 1 proficiency tutor trained in OG. That has impacted over 350 students at Greenwood over the past 2 years. Greenwood is a school where 75 percent of our students receive free or reduced lunches. Greenwood is a school where many of our students have no income coming into their households, but then we also have children that live in $200,000 homes. We are a very ethnically diverse school as well. Approximately 25 percent of our students are African American. We also have a high population of Latino and Arabic students as well. Research has shown that students living in poverty are more likely to struggle in school and come to Kindergarten academically behind their peers. This was a trend that data had backed up for years. Once we started using OG, our student academic data saw increases like we had never experienced!
Our Kindergarten scores went from having 35 percent of our students at the grade level benchmark in the fall to 83 percent in January to 93 percent at benchmark in May. Our previous high for student at our grade level benchmark in May was 66 percent.
OG was a difference maker! The phonics based activities that are a part of OG are beneficial to all of the children in our classrooms and not just those students who are academically behind.
Why did you want to become a principal? Was there a life-changing or life-defining moment?
I had two teachers at my high school that inspired me to go into education, Mr. Colwell and Mr. Stoll. These two teachers stood by me and took an interest in my life as I was growing up at Edison High School. My staff always laughs and pretends to be shocked when I tell them this, but I was not the easiest child to educate for some of my teachers when I was in high school. Mr. Colwell and Mr. Stoll were always there for me when I needed them and when I did not think I needed them. Even at my lowest point, they never turned their back on me. I remember one field trip that Mr. Stoll took us on my senior year to Kelley’s Island. My friends and I got into some shenanigans on the island. I remember walking onto the bus and having to face him. He did not yell at me or spend 20 minutes lecturing me. He simply told me he was disappointed in me and that he expected better from me. That about killed me because of the respect I had for him. That is the kind of impact I have strived to have on kids as a teacher and as a principal.
Kids need to have someone in their lives that is going to advocate for them, but hold them accountable as well.
What’s the best part of your school day as a principal?
The best part of my day as a principal is time spent with kids in the classroom, hallways, lunch room, and at recess. I do not like sitting behind my desk during the day doing paperwork. THAT is the worst part of my job. I want to make sure that I am a visible part of everyone’s day at Greenwood. Kids and teachers never know when I am going to be popping around a corner or stepping into their classroom. This keeps them all on their toes AND makes my job easier!
How were you able to organize an entire community to get behind a school-wide literacy initiative?
The first and most important step in accomplishing anything as a principal is to establish relationships. Relationships with students, relationships with parents, relationships with central office staff, and, of course, relationships with your staff. Principals who run their buildings with a “do what I say, because I said so” attitude, who don’t take the time to get to know their families and their staff members, who think that some jobs in the building are below them are generally not as successful as they could be at their jobs. I have been principal at Greenwood for 10 years now. I know my staff’s family, I know their kids, their husbands, their wives and in some cases their parents. When someone is having a problem at home, they know I will be there to listen. They know I will let them leave early or come in late to take care of an issue. They know I have their backs in situations with parents. They trust me and I trust them. Another key ingredient in establishing a harmonious community at your school is who you hire to work in your building. When we go to hire someone at Greenwood, we are not necessarily looking for the smartest person in the room, we are looking for someone with a personality that will fit our building. If you hire someone that has all the perfect answers to your questions, but just doesn’t seem to have the right character/personality traits, you are probably going to swing and miss on your choice. Teaching methodology and practices can be taught and learned, personality traits cannot. I feel like we have done an all-star caliber job at selecting our staff here at Greenwood. Once you have established your trust and relationships and have brought in strong new staff members to the building, you are able to propose building wide initiatives without receiving too much kick back. Making sweeping changes in your first year as principal is, generally, not the best way to establish yourself in a school. Over the years we have brought numerous programs and initiatives to Greenwood and we have had success implementing all of them. Zone Recess, Accelerated Reader, The Daily Five, Writer’s Workshop and Orton Gillingham (OG) are a few examples. (OG) started at Greenwood in the winter of 2015 when our Literacy Coach attended an OG training. She came back to school and began to tell our teachers about the program and talked one of our kindergarten teachers and one of our third grade teachers into attending a training. They came back so enthusiastic about the program that we started discussing the program in our Reading Committee and BLT meetings. By May of 2015 our entire primary staff K-3 was on board for attending an OG Training. They each gave up a week of their summer to be training in OG in August of 2015. In my 19 years in education the OG training was by far the most well received professional development that I have been a part of. The teachers were incredibly enthusiastic about the training and their trainer, Helen. I believe that Helen was a big reason for my teachers enthusiastic reaction to OG. The teachers began implementing OG as their primary phonics program in the fall of 2015. Then in the fall of 2016 we brought Helen back to Greenwood for two days to observe my teachers in action. After the observations my teachers were able to meet with her and ask questions and receive tips from Helen to improve implementation. My teachers found this incredibly valuable.
What are your future goals in terms of involving the community with literacy programs/initiatives?
In the future we plan to continue on with OG as our main phonics program as we continue to implement Guided Reading in grades K-3.
Anything else you would like to add?
Greenwood is an incredible community with fantastic teachers, students and parents. One of my biggest philosophies on education is that I want to make school a fun place to be, where there is always something going on and there is something to look forward to. I believe this gets kids in school. Once they are there, I know my staff is going to give them a world class education and an experience to remember forever. I feel like we have been very successful in accomplishing this here at Greenwood. On our last day of school each year our students are typically crying and some sobbing as they leave Greenwood for the summer. They don’t want school to end. To me that is the biggest testament to our successes here at Greenwood!