Sunday, April 20, 2014

Educators to the Rescue

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By Alain Jehlen

Teacher Ginny Smith is sitting in a rocking chair, her second graders arrayed around her on the rug, trying to decide which animal to research and write about—quite a grown-up project for these small children.

“Leopards!” says Chloe. “No, bush babies!”

Alyza is thinking about orangutans, or maybe rhinos.

Smith urges them to make up their minds.

Eliel picks cheetahs. Another boy thinks he’ll write about dragons. “Dragons aren’t real!” says a girl, excited to contribute.

The “special skill of the day” posted on the wall is “Don’t blurt out when the teacher is talking,” but they have a little way to go on that one.

Welcome to Edmunds Elementary School in Des Moines, Iowa.

Playground in the Oakridge community next door to Edmunds. Photo: Jill Brown Photography

Iowa is a heartland, cornfield state, but it is also home to gritty, urban neighborhoods and “persistently low-achieving schools” in the language of the federal School Improvement Grant program. Edmunds Elementary, sitting next door to a housing project with a large population of refugees from East African civil wars, is one of those schools; one of the National Education Association’s priority schools currently undergoing the transformation process.

Along with the African refugees, there are other immigrants, like a girl whose parents had to take her back to Mexico last winter because they had no work in Des Moines. That meant the girl missed months of school.

This year, Smith was talking with the parents about having their daughter live with her for the winter so she could continue her education. In the end, the parents stayed so it wasn’t necessary. But that’s the kind of dedication you can’t see by reading standardized test score reports—only by visiting the school.

From the outside, Edmunds is a strange-looking building: round, white, low-to-the-ground, no windows. Inside, there’s a rising, spiral ramp in the center with classrooms jutting out from the ramp like giant leaves on a vine. It’s all one big open space, divided only by five-foot partitions to which teachers have added bookcases, plants, charts, photos, alphabets, and inspirational writings:

“The Edmunds Pledge: I pledge to accelerate my mind. I always do my best as I work and play.”

It feels like one warm, busy, learning community, but teachers don’t like the building because although disruptions are rare, when they do happen, the noise can careen through the whole school. A new building is on the drawing board, and teachers have made three big requests of the architects: walls, windows, and doors.

This year and spread over two more years, Edmunds has $2.7 million in SIG funds. In a school of 224 students, that’s serious money. At Edmunds, the money is getting spent on a computer lab and technology coordinator, kindergarten paras, and a math lead teacher, among other things. It can’t be used to “supplant” district funding, which means it can’t buy more of something that the district already provides—like more classroom teachers or ELL teachers like Dustin Hockman (learn more about Hockman’s work on the Priority Schools Campaign blog).

Edmunds’ student population is zooming—from 127 two years ago when it was almost closed down, to more than 180 last year, and 224 today. Partly, that’s because the district stopped busing ELL students from the housing project next door out to other schools, and instead hired Hockman, along with another teacher who’s there part of her day.

Last year, Ginny Smith had 28 students. That’s a lot of second graders, especially considering the potential for cultural misunderstandings and clashes. This year, the Des Moines district added four classroom teachers to the staff and Smith is now working with 14. She can give them individual attention, passing on her own love for writing and discovery. Alyza, who finally settled on rhinos, runs over to report, “His horn is really thick hair!”

A little way down the spiral ramp is Valerie Wilcox’s third grade class. She had 32 last year. Now she has 15 and she’s teaching them about text features like headlines, photos, captions, maps. The subject of the text is a controversial plan to build a highway through the Serengeti National Park, crossing a zebra migration route.

“In Somalia, they call it a horse,” says Ibrahim.

Mohamed talks about the danger that hyenas pose to sheep, and how his father hit them with a big stick to chase them away.

A girl with glasses has a solution for the zebras: build a bridge so they can run underneath. But a boy in brown thinks that wouldn’t work: “Someone could blow it up.”

In the back sits a refugee from Iraq, fingers curled in front of his face, almost covering his eyes.

Wilcox says he spent a year never able to go outside his apartment because of constant bombings. She’s gradually helping him feel safe and he’s made a lot of progress, but still sometimes cringes when there’s a stranger present.

Wilcox, like her colleagues, is at Edmunds because she wants to be. With 10 years experience, she says, “I could transfer to another school. But my two sisters went to this school. I have the children of my high school classmates in my class.

“You don’t walk away from your community.”

Photo on main page by Jill Brown Photography

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