I hope this a promotion we can all benefit from.
Denny Wilson spent eight years at Oakcrest Elementary School. In that time he quietly built a culture of accountability with an expectation of success for a school that most folks could easily have written off.
Oakcrest was an F school in 2006; Last year it was 19 points away from a B. The school grades from 2014 haven’t yet been released.
“Everyone wants their child to go to a school that’s successful,” he told me in an interview last school year.
In all that time, he worked hard to never let the fact that most of his students come from poor families be an excuse for expecting less of them in the classroom.
If his staff felt the pressure of having to cover this topic or review that concept, he tried tell them to keep a positive mindset “because there’s no advantage for (students) to see (teachers) anxiety.”
“I came to Oakcrest with a lot of preconceived notions about what it was going to be like based on having some book training on poverty, but not really living it.”
Oakcrest kids have the same dreams. They want to be a baseball player or the doctor or
Wilson viewed one of his chief roles at Oakcrest as “mythbuster.”
Because students at a school like Oakcrest deal with more than other students.
“I think the families are in stress and the kids are in stress. So there’s a lot of things that you have to kind of move out of the way before you can start instruction.”
Were there some parents he couldn’t reach?
“Yeah, but I had that at MacArthur. I had that at Ferry Pass.”
Wilson saw -- and preached every day -- that change was possible.
At first, he measured success by being able to get teachers to apply for openings at his school. Then it was making parents feel like this was their school, something he gauged by attendance at school events and by scheduling those events to make them workable for his families.
Instead of Grandparents Day at Oakcrest, for example, they had “Bring Your Family to School Week,” where grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, whoever can pick a day and come in when they can work it in, rather than saying only on this one day can you come.
It is harder that way in terms of scheduling for staff and planning for the cafeteria, but it’s worth it for the goodwill it builds.
With his magic wand, the one thing he says he would try to convey to people outside of the Oakcrest family is the level of struggle his families face just to get by from week to week.
“I think it’s hard for me to get that across to the people in my neighborhood. [The people] that went to Cordova Park with me and that went to Workman with me and graduated from Washington. I get a pat on [the back] and “that’s great stuff “ but they don’t get it. It’s hard to explain what our kids go through. It’s not that the kids are different; this is all they’ve ever known.”
Wilson said that last school year, Oakcrest had the highest percentage of students eligible for free or reduced price lunch -- at 94.5 percent.
“I think, if a principal in this setting is using poverty as an excuse for why they’re not doing well, then you’re not going to go very far. I think you have to understand what’s going on, because then you have to figure out: How do I make this work with what my families are dealing with?”
In Wilson’s new job as director of continuous improvement and school choice for the district, he is in a position to influence more than Oakcrest.
What did he learn there that could help other schools?
-- “You’ll hear people question the effectiveness of a reading coach. They have to be allowed to be a reading coach. If you give them all these other duties, and they’re not allowed to be a coach, then it doesn’t work. And you’ve got to have the right person. You can’t just name someone.”
-- “I don’t care what school you’re at, you have got to have small group instruction in reading -- with no more than six students at a time. Even schools that don’t do that and are still successful, I think that they would even be a higher A or a higher B, if kids were pulled back and done a small group reading instruction plan based on where these students are and pushing them to their next, highest level.”
-- Another change Wilson championed was creating huge blocks of reading instruction time -- sometimes more than 90 minutes -- into the school day, “at the expense of other things,” he says.
-- Wilson said his best strategy was hiring well. Working at high poverty schools is not for everyone. “You’ve got to be a social worker, you’ve got to be a mom, you’ve got to be all those other things that you don’t have to be at other places. You have to have people who want to be in this type of setting. It’s not perfect here, but it’s got to be more than a job. It’s got to be a higher calling, whatever that is to you.”