Part I: Wolfe Street Academy
Wolfe Street: An Overview
There had been a school here since 1852 on this actual site. This is the third building that has been here, and we've always served the immigrant populations that have come to Baltimore through the harbor, through the port.
And currently, we are a Baltimore City public school with charter status, and we serve 226 children. 96 percent of our students receive free and reduced meals, which is just the poverty rating that the city uses.
Eighty percent of our students speak another language besides English in the home. The vast majority speak Spanish in the home. A few other students speak other languages. I believe we have a Italian speaker and a Chinese speaker also here.
We have basically two homerooms at every grade level up through third grade. We start with four-year-olds in our pre-K program, and then we go up through fifth grade. After fifth grade, they leave us to go to one of the middle schools in the area, and — although a bunch of our kids do come back and see us and sometimes volunteer in our after-school program.
ELL population at Wolfe Street
When I arrived in 2005, we were about maybe 70 percent speakers other than English in the home. We've increased to 80 percent over the past 10 years on our — building on our 11th year. At the same time, the Southeast of Baltimore has just exploded in terms of ELL students.
Other schools used to send their ESOL students to us because they just didn't have enough ESOL students to run a program, but now many of the surrounding schools have ESOL programs of their own. We continue to be the Baltimore City school with the greatest percentage of ESOL students, though our "n", our number is small just because the school as a whole is small.
Most of our kids come from Mexico, though we have kids from all over Central and South America. We have a lot of larger families of three, four kids here at the school, brothers and sisters. We see our next generation of students every morning in our morning meeting as the babies come in. We welcome new babies when they get born and come in in arms. So it's a pretty tight-knit community.
Using every space possible
Down in my office, I have a picture on the wall, a beautiful picture from the turn of the century of the building that was here at that point, and it was a beautiful brick-and-limestone building.
It said "Primary 23" over the doorway with a big playground next to it. And in 1972, they decided that that building was too decrepit, it probably had lead paint and asbestos, and I actually have a photo of the last day that the wrecking crew was breaking down the front doorway where it says "Primary 23" over the doorway.
And 1972 being a fountain of great fashion and design, they designed this building. And they built it originally as a early childhood learning center for people that — students that probably didn't range over three foot five in their average height. As I mentioned earlier, we go up through fifth grade. One of our fourth graders is taller than me. So we've grown in many ways, one way being the size of our students.
This building has served since 1972. It was, originally, the upstairs was a open space. Another interesting fashion and design idea, pedagogically, in the early seventies. They decided to do away with open space, so they built walls.
And the building has its limitations. We have a cafetorigymamedium [ph.] downstairs where everything from our morning meeting to our lunches to PTO meetings to evening meetings to indoor recess to indoor P.E. all happen in this one space. We have art on a cart. We have science on a cart. We do still have a small playground where our P.E. kids, on nice days before winter comes, can go outside. So we kind of — I guess I phrase it sometimes as, we live in all the corners of this building.
We use every space. We multitask every space. And I really think that we are a great package inside of a serviceable box, but just barely. I dream sometimes of what it could be like, what we could do with a three-story building with art rooms and science rooms.
You know, we've achieved so much with so little that I just wonder what it could be like if I could offer kids a state-of-the-art building with space to do a piece of artwork and set it aside somewhere where it be nice and safe for a week and then pick it up again or someplace where we could have throwing wheels and kilns and music rooms. You know, I get imaginative when all of that stuff happens. Or just a space where I could have a indoor soccer game with my kids when it's a rainy day.
Upper Fells Point Improvement Association: The school's best friend
On my first day, there was a letter sitting on my desk from the Upper Fells Point Improvement Association. And I walked into my office and pick up the mail and see this letter and think, you know, Oh, this is wonderful, an improvement association here that the school is associated with." I open it up, and it's a call for the resignation of the principal and a bunch of other people from the school. They've always been very involved.
And from that very moment, I've been involved with them. I have gone to their education meetings, and we've gone from them advocating for change for the school to them being some of our biggest supporters. I frequently refer to them as Wolfe Street Academy's best friends, because they are there for us both in those political moments where sort of bodies on the bus matter, but also every year for events that they have in support of the teachers and how they just watch out for our kids as our kids move around the neighborhood.
Baltimore Curriculum Project
We are a Baltimore Curriculum Project charter school. The Baltimore Curriculum Project, as I said, is our charter operator who helps us out with professional development, a lot of back office financial aspects of running the school, recruitment and retention of teachers, long-term planning, strategic planning.
We're what you call a conversion charter school where we were a traditional school, and they took us — we took ourselves to charter status. Basically, the difference between a wholly new charter school is that we maintain our enrollment zone so that any kid in the neighborhood has a seat at our school whenever they arrive. If they arrive tomorrow and they live right across the street and they are the right age for the most crowded grade in our school, they've got a seat, because they are in the zone.
Union role in community schools
The union administrative role is very strong here at Wolfe. I think that both — and I suppose I'm speaking a little bit for the union, but I think that we both see the same goal, that we are — our purposes are aligned, and that having the union here is a benefit to our students, to our families.
One thing that I talk a great deal about is commitment and persistence and dedication. You need committed, dedicated teachers in order to do this work. You can't have somebody come in for a year or two and then dusting off to someplace else, because the value that I am creating in a teacher as a resource is a long-term value.
I tell new teachers when I'm interviewing, "I'm not hiring you for some short-term burnout kind of thing." I talk to them about needing to balance their lives so that this is a long-term commitment, because in the first five years, we're just developing skills and making them part of our community.
And I think having a union helps all of that be possible, helps you have competitive salaries that allow a teacher, an educator, a born educator to take on that role as their career. Those people who are dedicated to it for a career are the people that I want in front of my kids, and having a union that watches out for those things is important.
Making the union contract work
The community school strategy, again, because it's a strategy, is accepting of whatever environment you're in. For example, union contracts: There is no conflict between a union contract and having a community site coordinator, that person, looking for solutions and resources in your building.
In fact, the AFT has had our building rep, Katrina Kickbush, down to Washington and to various different points talking about the community school strategy, because they see that the strategy is the resource that allows teachers to do what teachers are supposed to do. And so it's really, I think, an empowering part of the union approach.
The fact that it's a strategy, though, allows it also, if you were in a non-union state — it can also exist there. Once again, it's not a program that dictates, teachers have to do X, Y and Z. Which is where I would think that a union contract might have issue with, might question what is happening. It's a strategy where all we're doing is pumping resources into the classroom, into the kids, into the families so that they're more able to access learning and teachers are more able to teach.
Part II: How Community Schools Work
What is a community school?
A lot of people whether I'm talking to legislators or friends at dinners — will say, you know, what's this community school thing? And I don't know how many times I've answered that question. But I'll keep answering it until people get the idea, because I think it's the next best thing that's going to save American public education, in my opinion.
And basically the idea is that, to solve the diverse needs and the complex needs of any school community, whether you're sitting here in Baltimore City with a whole bunch of ELL students or whether you're on the Eastern Shore of Maryland or whether you're in California, wherever you are, a program isn't going to do it for you. Somebody coming to you and saying, here, give me this many — I'll give you the program, you implement the program, and all of life will be great — that just doesn't happen.
What's needed is strategy, and that's what the community school approach is. It's a strategy, not a program. At the very basic, it is a person that comes into the building as a community school site coordinator, and basically their whole existence is about assessing and assisting. What does this community need? How can we make that happen? How can I set up partnerships? How can I write grants? How can I move the marker on this issue.
And when the problems change — for example, a number of years ago, a number of unaccompanied minors were coming into the country. Now, we didn't have a lot of those students coming to our school, but the community school strategy would be flexible enough that that site coordinator could say, okay, this is a new issue that is facing us. This is a new issue that prevents children from learning, families from staying together, kids from being fed, families from being fed. Parents from going to work.
So we need to push this issue, and they can respond to that with establishing partnerships with city, public or private agencies and making a difference. And that's what's made the difference here at Wolfe, that we've had this now since our 10th year that we've been a community school.
It doesn't happen overnight. It is the — it is a strategy that is built on trust and commitment and perseverance. You know, if you first don't succeed, try, try again, because there'll be another problem, and there'll be another issue that people need help with.
Providing what all families want for their kids
I have on my board in my office, printed out a really nice copy of it in color, of Maslow's Hierarchy of Need. And at the very fundamental level in that pyramid, before you get to academic achievement and self-actualization and all that, you have shelter. And food and love and security. If you don't have those things, you cannot achieve anything else above it. And those are some of the things that our kids are missing.
Community schools is basically us providing — us attempting to provide the types of supports that affluent families provide for their kids just because of the zip code that the kid is born in. I doubt that there is a legislator in any state in the union that would say, "It's not important if my child — if their teeth hurt. Don't worry about it. Go to school and take that test." Or, "Oh, you don't need your glasses today. Just do your best and I'm sure you'll do fine." Or, "Work harder."
Well, if you can't see the board, you can't see the board. And folks who have jobs that provide enough insurance or the capability to get to an eye doctor's appointment because of their affluence, they do it, because they know it's important.
Families who are working three jobs, who sometimes are — find it hard to be home with their families because they're working so hard, aren't making enough, don't have the types of insurance, don't have the access to transportation that they might need in order to provide these basic needs for their family. They are just getting by day to day, and where the school — and where the community school strategy steps in is, we can make those things more accessible. We can remove some barriers and help the family over other barriers in order that they can provide what I would give my child every day naturally.
I would never send my child to school to take a test or even learn their daily lessons if they were hungry, if they — if we didn't have a place to sleep at night, if they didn't have eyeglasses. These are the basic things that I and folks who are in my economic position provide naturally.
Yet for some reason, when it comes to saying this is important for poor kids, for kids who don't speak English as their primary language, the question comes up, "Well, how do you know that this really works?" And I have to say, that's one of the ones that bugs me the most.
And I actually have asked folks back, you know, whether I'm sitting in Annapolis or Washington, D.C. And we say, "Well, this is all stuff that we want for our own kids. Why is it necessary for our kids but not for these kids whose parents are working three or four jobs or who are having to move every three, four months?"
The school is the place where this can happen, and it's the place that kids come. It's the place the families come. And it's what has changed things for Wolfe.
Addressing concentrated poverty with community schools
Every school day, we serve breakfast, lunch, a snack and dinner so that these kids have full stomachs throughout the day and are ready to come in the very next day ready to work again.
Living in concentrated poverty, 96 percent of their peers live in poverty, you've got to put in more. You got to have more. You got to have — you got to recognize that there are things that are lacking in that concentration of poverty that are basic to human development.
So if we want success, you've got to have the community school strategy. We need to succeed in our goal as educators. I think we need to succeed in the mayor's goal of bringing 10,000 more families to Baltimore, in having a strong, vibrant city. You are not going to have success at any of those levels if you do not address the concentrated poverty that our children live in and the results of that concentrated poverty.
Take it out a few decades, community schools will be what will end the concentrated poverty, because you will have more jobs and higher salaries so that your poverty rate falls below that 40 percent mark. Forty percent is the accepted number at where a community is a center of concentrated poverty. Well, Baltimore has 85 percent poor living within its boundaries. And there's no other way to do it. So that's why we need community schools for success at any level, local, city and I would say take it right on up to the state.
Seeing kids more clearly
This is my 26th year in education. I've been in about five or six schools in about five states, and pretty much every educator I have met wants to help kids. They want to teach. They want kids to learn.
And the beauty of the community school strategy in a school is that it is the method by which — the strategy by which teachers can teach, and they can accomplish that goal because what they have in front of them, their students, can gain access to the teaching and the learning and all of that research that the entire nation is spending money on figuring out how to teach.
They all of a sudden can gain access to that. So the crossroads of community schools and good instruction is that it makes the student available for learning.
We had a professional development for our staff on how to deal with students who have lived in trauma, who have experienced trauma. By giving them this piece of knowledge that was brought to them by another community school site coordinator that has done work on dealing with students who live in trauma, by giving this piece of knowledge to our teachers, they are empowered to go back into the classroom and see their students more clearly. Having a clear vision of who those kids are makes that more effective and more successful.
And community schools allows our teachers to have that clear vision. It also helps when, you know, we're sitting in a IEP meeting, a special education meeting, and we have the community school site coordinator there because we think there might be some issue that is going on that is outside of the academic realm.
During that rich discussion of, well, how is the student doing, where are the strengths, where are the weaknesses, we can turn to that site coordinator and say, "So it sounds like we're coming up against an issue of housing, because the family's moving from place to place. What can we do?" But now we have somebody who can actually address that as part of their job so that the educator can ask the question but then have a resource as an answer.
What I hope to see in the next 10 years is where it becomes as natural to have a community school site coordinator as a resource where a teacher can go to that person and saying, "I'm having trouble seeing how this kid is learning, and I think it's not academic. It think it's housing. I think it's health. I think it's this, that or the other."
And that person, just like an academic coach would give advice — that site coordinator can say, "Okay, let's get on that and let's solve that together." And then you find a solution, and the child learns.
Figuring out what each community needs
In Baltimore, there's 52 different community schools. The minority of them are charter schools, for example. The minority of them are ESL schools with a large ELL population. That's the beauty of it being a strategy.
Being a strategy allows it to be replicable wherever you are, because if you have the most beautiful building — facilities in the city — you know, there's some brand-new buildings in the city right now — if you have one of them, that doesn't mean that you don't need a community school. That just means that your needs as a community school are different.
Maybe you don't have an after-school program in that beautiful building. Maybe that's what you need. Maybe there isn't a grocery store for five miles around that beautiful building. There's your need. And the fact that the community school strategy in its most fundamental form is a person who then does things to support the community allows that person — for the price of that person, salary and benefits, and it's got to be a professional salary and benefits, I'd say sort of equivalent with the level of a second principal — that for that person to move into a school, you don't need any special situation.
You just need a leadership team who's ready, who is committed, who is willing to put value behind the work that this person does. And then you need to let that person go. And that person starts small. What issue can we move? And that develops trust. And then it gets a little bit bigger, and they create systems in that community that address the needs of that community.
And that person, one thing I haven't mentioned is that that site coordinator is about creating those systems. That site coordinator is not about case-managing all of the individuals who are in the system. The community school site coordinator is really a high-level resource that creates systems that takes care of issues. And that people like social workers, for example, can access to help kids.
Community schools can help public agencies
One of the things I love about community schools is that I think it's a great, effective government strategy, because you have agencies who need to get to their clients. The Department of Social Services needs to follow up with families, so you can pay that DSS worker by the hour or their salary to run around the city looking for that family.
Maybe they live here. Maybe they've moved there. Or, if that DSS worker has a relationship with a community school site coordinator at a school where that kid attended at some point, that DSS worker can call one person, say, "I need your help. I need to find this family. We have some services, or we need to get in touch with them." And the community school site coordinator can do that.
And therefore, the government money spent, the tax dollars spent in the DSS departments — community schools is making that more effective. And I think that goes for anywhere from juvenile justice to housing to any of the departments that you would deal with with the city government.
Leveraging the investment
When I go talk to the folks who control purse strings, I know that they're thinking dollars and cents. And so in addition to talking about how money that is spent in city agencies is more effectively used because of community schools, I also talk a great deal with legislators about the leveraging that one can do with a little bit of money put into community schools, what you can get out.
Our experience here at Wolfe Street has been pretty stellar in that regard. After our third year of being a community school, we had leveraged over $1 million of services and time of volunteers and actual grant making and actual dollars that came to the school.
And that was about a one-to-four ratio. For every dollar we put into that community school site coordinator, we got four back. We've been as high at times in certain years as one to eight or one to 11. I believe the average for the 52 community schools in the city is, for every dollar put in, you get $3.50 back.
And frankly, you look at the stock market, you're not going to get a better investment in terms of your money, even from stocks. And no government agency is going to invest in stocks for this kind of stuff. It's a pretty sure win, as far as I see, in terms of money put into what you get out of the strategy.
Community schools are replicable
What we've done here at Wolfe, the community school model — the successes that we've had at Wolfe are replicable. In fact, that is one of the things that, when we converted to become a charter school and we were already a community school, one of the guiding forces in almost every decision we make here is to do things that are replicable.
It's not replicable, though, if people aren't willing to step up, if people don't show the willpower to do the heavy work. It will cost money. I think that it will be money well invested. I think that we've got evidence here in Baltimore and across the nation that demonstrates that it's money well invested. But it is going to take some political risk for certain folks who are in power, and it is going to take planning and persistence to make it happen.
Because what you're doing is changing fundamentals. You can feed a family, but the benefits of feeding that family don't happen the very next day. It happens after you've fed that family for six months. The benefits of eyeglasses don't happen the very next day. It happens after a kid can see the board for a full school year.
And so the idea being that the powers that be, the state legislatures, the federal government needs to include community schools, and then it needs to come all the way down to the local level to say, this is something that we need to do if we are going to, if we're serious about change for our most vulnerable kids.
And the money needs to be put behind it, and the time commitment needs to be put behind it, that we don't just all of a sudden say, "Oop, every school's a community school. Here, we'll throw in some site coordinators." You got to train them. You got to train principals, and you need to help them understand what this community school thing is about.
But if people look at the results, if people commit and persist, it is completely replicable, particularly in, I would point out, in Maryland, being one of the wealthiest states in the nation. And to boot, it's a good investment.
Nothing sells like success
There's been a school on this site for the last 150 years, and every teacher that's walked in the front door has had the goal of teaching these children to read and write and be good citizens. That can't happen if a child is hungry or a child can't see or a child doesn't know where they're going to go and lay their head down to rest tonight. We have a strategy at hand here that can make that happen, and it's the community school strategy. And we have to have this type of strategy in order to achieve the kinds of goals, the kind of success we have at Wolfe.
We do it because it brings us success. Nothing sells like success. We wouldn't do this if for the past 10 years we'd been trying it and it — nothing changed. We would have kicked it to the curb a long time ago. But because we've been persistent, because we've seen growth, because we've seen it in different communities — you know, here at Wolfe Street, down at Ben Franklin, Masonville Cove, the high school, we stick to it. And it becomes a little bit kind of like a daily exercise. It's not a Band-Aid. It's not a remedy that we give to fix up the health of our schools and our communities.
It's an exercise that we do every day to stay healthy, to stay strong. And so in 10 more years from now, I plan to still be a community school, because my kids will have needs then just like they have needs now, and I'm not going to stop fighting and planning and persisting to get those needs met.
Being a principal of a community school
When the possibility was first brought up with me about being a community school, I was the reluctant principal. I hemmed and I hawed and I thought, "This is going to be one more thing for me to watch over. I've got a school that's failing. I've got parents who don't bring their kids to school. I've got issues every day that I have to take care of, from making sure all the bathrooms are stocked to making sure kids aren't fighting, and now you want me to watch out over all this other stuff?"
And the right group of people came and talked to me and kind of convinced me and said, "No, we could do it this way. We could do it that way." I guess looking back on it now, I realize that what they were saying to me is, "This isn't a program that you're going to watch. This is a strategy that we're going to bring to you." And they didn't use that terminology, but I guess I must have heard a little bit of it, because I agreed to it. And they brought me a couple of people to talk to as my site coordinator, to interview as my site coordinator, and Connie Phelps was one of them.
And we selected her, and we started in. And it wasn't what it is today. It was 10 years ago. It was — you know, the best analogy is a plant growing. It was that one little fragile sprout that I basically had to be convinced that it was worth my money and my time.
And I guess like a lot of times when you're hesitant and then you're a convert, you kind of go to the mountaintop and scream it far and wide after you convert, because I see it now for what it's done for Wolfe over the years. But it was a rocky start in the beginning, and then I needed to be convinced. It convinced me.
Respect for each other
I guess one of the things that makes the strategy work here at Wolfe, and I think it would make it work anywhere — maybe one of the fundamentals — is a respect that one human has for another. It's a kind of respect that a lot of us enjoy within our families.
It's the kind of love that, even if you make a mistake, you're still part of that community. And I think that's what we've developed over the years here at Wolfe. I think that's what is maybe the touchy-feely part of community schools, that —
You know, you can call it respect and trust, but at a fundamental level, it's a love for one another. And it's the understanding that you're great how you are, and we want to help you be even more, and acceptance, how you are when you come to our door.
And then we start applying all of our skills and tools, and we send you out the other way to do great things in the world.
Looking beyond testing
There's a lot of conversation right now about testing and the appropriate amount of testing. Schools have gotten, over the past couple of decades, No Child Left Behind, really focused on that academic side of things. But I think we've done it to the detriment of success because it's not just about teachers and kids getting some test score.
It's about teacher, kids and families working together so that they all feel — and this word comes up a lot — empowered. And so yes, testing is important. I — No Child Left Behind showing, laying bare how subgroups of kids are doing, how your special ed kids, your ESL kids, different ethnic groups are doing in school — that is super important.
But at the same time, what's important is, does a family feel welcome? Does a kid know that they have an adult they can go to when they need to talk about something and the topic isn't test scores? And so I think what the community school strategy does is rebalance what our values are in terms of education.
And it revalues the social-emotional side of things. It revalues connection between people. It revalues the fact that we are more than just the knowledge than we can cram in our heads. We are the knowledge that we can cram in our heads and how we interact with other people and how we are part of a larger community. And I think that's what community schools can do for a school.
Part III: Services and programs at Wolfe Street Academy
Food scarcity: A three-pronged approach
One of the things that our families struggle with is food scarcity. Right across the street, there's a corner store, and our corner store, I think, is maybe a little bit better than some, and there's a few fresh fruits there, but the vast majority of the food in there is packaged, processed food, high in fat, high in sodium. And so the ability to get fresh food, fresh meats, fresh vegetables is limited. That, coupled with the economic distress that our families can go through based on their employment, sometimes based on their legal status, makes it tough for families to put food on the table.
So we've taken what I think of as a three-pronged, three-level approach. We are a Maryland Food Bank pantry, emergency food pantry, so we've got the peanut butter, the beans, the pasta stacked away so that if a family comes up and says, "We need help," we can give them something right then and there. So that's at the sort of emergency level.
Then we've got maybe quarterly food giveaways. That's when the semi truck pulls up outside and pallets upon pallets of food get brought out to the sidewalk. We bring our kids out. We involve them in getting this food into school and ready. We've, in some years, have had huge bins of potatoes and onions and various other fruits and vegetables where kids are just bagging them up and getting them ready to go out to families. And the food bank policy is, anybody who comes and asks for food can have food, so it's not just about Wolfe Street kids and families.
It's about neighbors in the community also, because we're for that whole set. So that's at kind of a middle level. Here's a bunch of food at once. We know you're not in crisis right now, but it's stuff that you need to eat pretty soon, because some of it's perishable.
Then we kind of have the upper level, where we look to how we can empower families to be able to take care of themselves. So it's not waiting for the next food giveaway. It's not going in for a crisis situation, but enrolling in electronic benefits and food stamps. It's a very difficult process. It has many steps. It's something that has to be maintained year to year with documentation. It's something that is frequently just available in English.
And if you need help in Spanish, there's five extra steps that you have to take, and there's a smaller window of who's available to help you at Health and Human Service to get that done. So what we did is, we started assisting our families in getting enrolled and maintaining enrollment in the food stamp program so that we handle everything.
We give them the fish and we teach them to fish so that it can handle the whole spectrum. It isn't just about putting a Band-Aid on a situation. It's about helping our families find the resources and the ability to take care of themselves.
Immigration and food stamps
We have a bunch of folks who didn't approach the food stamp question because of questions of immigration.
You don't need a social security number to apply for food stamps. A lot of people didn't know that, so a lot of people who could have been getting food stamps were steering clear. Once we empowered them to know the process, then they're more likely on their own to go back the next time and say, "I'm here to sign up for my food stamps, to maintain my enrollment."
Because they know that that is something that they have a right to, that it is a basic human need that should be satisfied. And so we've kind of approached the food scarcity issue in that way. And, again, it's fundamental to what we do, because if a kid's hungry, they can't learn. And parents can't go to work.
And I know when I'm hungry I get cranky, and if you're at home at night and you're hungry and you're cranky, you're not going to be there as much for your kid in the — in those developmental moments that our families need to be there.
Seven or eight years ago, when the dental partnership began, our kids were showing up with rotten teeth, whether it was just lack of knowledge about good dental hygiene or a specific sometimes even cultural habit of the types of foods or when a child might use a bottle versus something else.
It led to, actual black nubs were all that was left of the teeth. We intervened at that point where our — the dental students were able to say, this is what needs to happen. We took care of the emergency situations, you know, those kids whose health was really impaired in a much more fundamental way, right then.
We would help them make appointments. We would get them to those appointments. That number of emergency appointments has dropped by about 75 percent over these seven years, where, because of both the checkups, the screenings that we do in addition to the presentations that these students do to kids and parents, we've kind of attacked it from both points.
The education/dental hygiene direction and the intervention — the medical intervention to take care of things before they get to the point of actually endangering a student's life in terms of health — overall health.
Beneficial partnerships for community partners
One of the nice things about many of our partnerships, whether it's the University of Maryland dental or University of Maryland social work, School of Social Work, is that it's a relationship.
They bring us student dentists to check our kids' teeth. Our kids get their teeth checked, and the student dentists get important experience in terms of hands-on learning. There's been some great moments down in the cafeteria when they're doing the screenings where all the dental students will gather around one student and look in their mouth because there's something new or interesting to dentists in that mouth. And they want to learn.
And so it's nice that we can be of value, too, and my reference to the School of Social Work is that we have interns who are getting their social work degree coming in and working with us also. And again, we both benefit from that relationship.
A student success story
In any given day of a principal's life, there are 101,000 things that are frustrating, don't go as planned or are just all hands on deck, let's make this happen.
What makes it worth it, what makes bringing in University of Maryland dental school students to check these kids, to check their teeth, is what we see after that work is done, after we've faced those 101,000 things, after we've come up with a plan, we've followed that plan and we see the success that it brings to a child.
A student had a dental procedure that allowed him to say words that he had never been able to say before. To the point where, after the procedure was done, he's driving back with the community school site coordinator and his mom in the car, and he's saying something over and over and over and over again in the back seat, and finally the adults stopped talking and said, "José, what are you saying? What are you — what is this you're saying?"
And he said, "Bolsa. Bolsa." And he said, "I could never say that before," because his tongue had been attached to the bottom palate of his mouth. This was a child who was on the route for special education because, for a speech impediment. But because of a community school strategy that identified a need, that assessed that we need to do something about this and then assisted this family in getting it done, this kid went off on a completely different trajectory. That's why we do it.
After-school and summer program: The possibilities of what could be
What we did a number of years ago was combine the funding between our summer school and our after-school programs in order to professionalize the position so that, instead of having a six-month after-school director who works at a hourly rate for a number of hours a day and then a one-month summer school person who works at an hourly rate for four hours a day, we put that money together and a little bit more and made it a high-paying enough job that is a 12-month salaried position and basically recognizing with our resources that this is important stuff, that this isn't just about babysitting and safety.
This is about exposure to opportunity. Expanding the horizons for our kids. You know, we've had kids — the Baltimore School for the Arts has a after-school program called the TWIGS program, and it's kind of a feeder program into their performance arts curriculum. And some of our kids who started the violin or viola or cello here in our after-school program auditioned and were accepted into TWIGS.
These are also life-changing moments, when a child finds a love and a skill and an aptitude for something like violin, and they all of a sudden see broader possibilities than just television or playing outside or doing their homework.
They see that — they see the possibilities of what their life could be like. And our after-school program brings in a vast array of things. Sometimes it changes based on what staff we have. Oe of our teachers was a jazz teacher also. And so she had a jazz group, and we had kids up there with their little fedoras and jazz hands on the stage. She left and the jazz group left, but then we had a stepping group or robotics club. Chess Club is one that we've had for a number of years, one year going all the way to the national championships and finishing sixth in the nation of K through three chess players.
And that opportunity, when I sent those three kids and a parent each to Pittsburgh to go to a chess tournament, changes lives, because they get out of their own community. They see the possibilities of what could be. And that's what our after-school and summer school programs are about at the very basic: the possibilities of what could be.
Part IV: Parent involvement at Wolfe Street Academy
Building parent relationships based on trust
For the past decade and half a year we've had 30 or 40 parents in our cafeteria every morning listening to morning announcements. You know, the door does not shut the parents out. Them being in, they hear, they see, they experience what the climate of the school is about, what we want for our kids, for our families. And I think that develops trust.
And really, we've developed that just by, bit by bit over the past decade, asking for and empowering the parents to take more and more responsibility in the PTO, in the decision-making process, involving them on our school family council where they sit with me and Connie and a bunch of other folks and talk about the issues that face the school.
We've empowered them when they've said, "We want to have this type of celebration," or "We want to organize this event." We say, "Great. Go for it. Tell us what you need." We've opened doors to their ideas. And it's that mutual respect and trust that I think has led to strong relationships that allow us to have parents involved.
A crisis that created a leader
Right now we have a second-year president of the PTO who is going like gangbusters with ideas and wanting to improve the school. Sometimes crisis brings out that leadership. Two years ago, for the first time in my time here at Wolfe, there was a shooting outside of the school.
It was right across the street from the school, completely uninvolved with anybody specifically from the school, but right in the middle of our community. We had kids out on the playground at the time. Very proud of our after-school staff that was handling things then and how they dealt with the crisis.
But one of the results of that crisis was that our now-president of the PTO got people together and formed a parent action group, and they wrote a letter that I then took to the chief of our substation — our police substation and said, "My parents are concerned that there are some spike and increase in some crime around the area. It's getting to be winter. It's getting darker earlier. And they need help. They need some assistance."
And from that action, an officer was assigned to us during the winter months to be here at dismissal time. We dismiss at 5:30. It's already dark or very close to it. And so an officer just comes. He hangs out on the corner. He has — he's the epitome of Officer Friendly. He's saying hello to everybody, and the community got to know him. That kind of leadership — you know, we talk about leadership with selling hot chocolate in the morning. That kind of leadership is what also really builds an empowered populace.
I use that word, "empowered." I think also as you empower with food and dental care and eyesight and all of these things, they also get empowered to lead. Somebody who's hurting for some reason can't step up. They're using their energy just to hold it together.
You start taking care of some of those basic needs, that bottom level of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, and all of a sudden you've got somebody who can say, "Wait a minute, this needs to be better somehow. We need a police officer here when it's dark," or "We need more funding for our after-school program," or whatever it may be. So it's an important part of the community schools strategy, too. And the part that leads to stronger cities, because you'll have empowered citizens who will demand more from their government.
"But I am the president."
There was a great moment when I needed to talk to Connie, and Iveth was talking to Connie, and I came in and I said, "Excuse me just a second, I need to talk to Connie. I need to talk to her for a second." Then I turned to Iveth and I said, "You know, I am the principal." And she said "Sí, pero soy la presidente." And so I was like, "Okay, you got me."
Supporting families who speak Mixtec
80 percent of our families speak Spanish in the home. A few years back, we noticed a — I guess it could be described as a spike in referrals for language acquisition issues for a number of our younger kids, and when we looked at it, statistically, it was an anomaly.
It didn't make sense that that many kids would be showing up with a language acquisition issue. So we probed a little bit deeper and found that indeed it wasn't a language acquisition issue, it's that we didn't understand that these students were speaking a different language than Spanish. To our ear, it sounded the same, and we assumed incorrectly that they were speaking Spanish. So when we would test them in Spanish, they still showed a language acquisition issue.
Upon further investigation, we find out that it is a language called Mixtec, which is a pre-Columbian language only written down in the late nineties when a graduate student went to the mountains of Central Mexico, went to these villages and wrote the language down as part of their graduate work.
And it's such a specific dialect that even among 60 or so villages in the central mountains of Mexico, you go two or three or four villages away, and those folks wouldn't be able to understand the folks from another village. So what we found was a growing population of Mixtec speakers here at Wolfe.
We started out with one or two families. Not quite sure of an actual percentage number that we currently have, but it's grown to more and more families, and we're still discovering other families that actually are speaking Mixtec or where the grandparents speak Mixtec, where it's some mixture in the household, because for the longest time there was a sort of stigma attached to admitting that you spoke Mixtec.
And as people have felt more comfortable admitting this, we've realized that more families do have a mixture of Spanish, Mixtec and then some English all happening at the same time in the household. And it's something for us to puzzle out in terms of knowing our students and how to understand how we assess them and understand how we assist them once we handle their needs.