Principal Nathaniel Provencio: Supporting ELLs and Immigrant Families
Nathaniel Provencio is the Associate Superintendent of Prince William County Public Schools. In 2017, as principal of Minnieville Elementary School, he was named Principal of the Year for his district and also The Washington Post Principal of the Year. In this Facebook Live event, Nathaniel talks about his own struggles with school, the importance of building relationships among students, families, and staff, and shares some of his favorite ideas for engagement and professional development — including the school's own "Amazing Race"!
You can see the complete video and all discussion comments on Facebook.
Nathaniel Provencio: Notes from an Award-Winning Principal
Strong Ties with the Community and Neighborhood
Striving for Excellence in Instruction and Family Outreach
Supporting Immigrant Families During Uncertain Times
Articles from Minnieville Elementary
- Understanding Our School Community: A Principal Shares His Approach to Student Success
- The PRESS-In Model: Turning All Students into Readers
- An "Amazing Race": Building Community at Minnieville Elementary School
More Related Resources
- ELL Strategies for Administrators: Resource Page
- ELL Strategies for Administrators: Professional Booklist
- Engaging ELL Families: 20 Strategies for School Leaders
Complete Transcript with Links
Lydia: Hi everyone, this is Lydia Breiseth, the manager of Colorín Colorado, and I'm so happy to be here today with Nathaniel Provencio, from Prince William County. Thank you for being here.
Nathaniel: Thank you for inviting me, really appreciate it.
Lydia: - right at the beginning of the school year when it's busy, although to be fair, the air conditioning is being requested at the school, so they were happy to get him out of the building and we're happy about you had a nice cool place to go, anyway.
We're thrilled to be here for this Facebook live event and we wanted to thank our partner, the National Education Association who has made this series of Facebook live events possible. We started back in the spring with Diane Staehr Fenner talking about advocating for English language learners and we're going to be holding a number of events over the next couple of months focusing on ELLs and different ways that they can be supported in the school setting.
We also wanted to thank our founding partner, the American Federation of Teachers as well, and we've had a long partnership with them and they have made so many great resources possible through Colorín Colorado. Thank you to the AFT and NEA. If you are a member of the AFT or NEA, I know they'd love to hear from you and we always welcome the opportunity to hear how AFT and NEA members are using Colorín Colorado.
So I want to jump in and I encourage everybody to share comments and questions as we start talking with Nathaniel. I want to congratulate you - you've had a really great year! Nathaniel was named not only the Washington Post Principal of the Year for the DC region recently, he was also named the Principal of the Year for his school district, Prince William County in Virginia.
So Nathaniel before we get into all the great things happening at your school, let's talk just a little bit about your background and sort of your early experiences in school.
Nathaniel: Okay, so, well, I'm originally from a very small town in Tennessee, it's Savannah, Tennessee, so I grew up with my younger brother and in this small town, there wasn't necessarily a plethora of diversity, if you will, within the students and kids and families, so growing up, we were you know one of a handful of Hispanic students growing up in the community. It was a great community, great southern area, however, I struggled a little bit. I didn't necessarily see myself in my peer group. I didn't see myself in the teachers, so it was a little bit of a struggle.
School was not, I wasn't good at it, you know, I struggled a little bit, but, you know, through it all I was able to find my way as I got when I had to make some tough choices and I was able to align myself with a group called the Future Teachers of America and so I was able to work with them. It really just helped me get out of class, you know, so take some extra credit stuff, but you know, I liked it. I liked being around teachers. I liked the process. I liked the art and the science of teaching and it helped me get a different perspective and I decided to try to go to college, so I was the first in my family to go to a university and I knew exactly what I wanted to do.
I went to the University of Northern Alabama in Florence, Alabama, and was able to have a pretty decent college career and wanted to leave the area because I wanted to work, so I in 2001, I moved to Northern Virginia, Prince William County – no friends, no family, but I had a job and so Prince William County has just been a very special place for me since 2001 and it's an amazing area and I’ve been there ever since.
Lydia: Excellent. Okay, well, thank you for getting us there and I think the quote that I read in The Washington Post article about you was that you wanted to be “the teacher you never had.” Can you say a little bit more what you mean about that?
Nathaniel: Yeah, so kind of like what I said previously, you know, teachers they did the best they could, all teachers do the best they can do, but in thinking back, I never had that relationship, you know that I, maybe, I needed, you know, I needed someone to really push me and not necessarily label me. You know, it's one thing to say well, you know, “Nathaniel, you're a terrible student.” Okay, alright, “thank you,” you know. Are you trying to motivate me? What are you doing? It's another thing to say, “Let me give you the resources. Let me work, reach out to you so that you can grow from where you are,” so I wanted to be that champion for students that maybe I didn't necessarily have even with teachers’ best intentions, so and also going into education was very special for me as well, you know. My family, you know, economically struggled as children, you know, my mother came from a family where, you know, you just didn't do homework. I mean that was considered idleness, so you know, so she struggled growing up. My father struggled growing up, so I wanted to not only help myself, but I also wanted to pay this gift of having a degree forward and you know, be a teacher that my parents didn't have, so so there's definitely a sense of altruism with me and I do believe that teaching is basically missionary work and that's what's always kept me grounded throughout my career and it's something that I hope I never lose.
Lydia: Last night I was having a cup of tea before I went to bed and you know how sometimes there's a little slogan on the tea bag or sort of your little but inspirational moment and I won't get it exactly right but the quote was from Ralph Waldo Emerson and the quote was, “The way to plant a thousand forests is through a single acorn,” and I thought, “That's such a great thought as I'm getting ready to have this conversation with you,” because you are someone who might not have given school a second thought once you kind of got out of it and got it behind you, and then to turn around and become not only a teacher but a principal who was leading other teachers, leading other families, it is part of the story that people have found inspiring for you, so thank you for giving us that background.
And I know you love talking about your district and school, so I won't hold you back any further. Tell us a little bit more about Prince William County Schools, where it's located, and what kind of what your student population is like.
Nathaniel: So Prince William County is, well, depending on traffic, it's approximately 25 minutes south of Washington DC. It's an amazing community, a very diverse community. I think we have approximately a hundred schools within the division, and my school specifically is a one of approximately 25 Title I schools, so we have unique needs. Title I schools have unique needs, but we have amazing students, amazing staff, and great support from the division level to help us do some of the great things that we're doing. There's a wonderful site-based management aspect to our division that allows leaders to lead and teachers to teach, and so it's an amazing division and a lot of our school success, our staff success, my success is directly correlated to the level of support that we have in our division.
Lydia: That's great to hear. Tell us a little bit about your population, the kids and I know that's going through some changes right now.
Nathaniel: So Minnieville Elementary School is located in the Dale City Area of Prince William County, the Woodbridge area. We have approximately 500 students and of those 500 students, 80% are considered economically disadvantaged, meaning they qualify for free- or reduced- lunch, and also of those students, 60 - 70% are second language learners, I say to 60 - 70% because we also have about a 20% transiency rate, so around a hundred students that start with us in September do not end with us at the end of the year. So there's different layers of challenges that we have, but there are also opportunities to make sure that we're always on point with our instructional efforts and that we're making sure that every student that comes in our door is going to receive a really great educational experience and it keeps us fresh, it makes sure that we're on our toes and that our systems are aligned and our processes are very strategic and it can't fluctuate, and with those even those opportunities, challenges and opportunities, we've done very well at the school, not only academically but also just building up the entire community.
Lydia: I'm just going to take a moment to welcome all of you those of you who are just joining us. I'm Lydia Breiseth, the manager of Colorín Colorado here with Nathaniel Provencio, principal from Virginia, and we encourage you to comment, to ask questions, also to like, to share this post as you see it and we'll get it in front of as many people as we can. If you think your principal might be interested in seeing it, send it along. And I also wanted you to know that there will be an archive of this as well as a video on Colorín Colorado, so we will make sure that it's available for a long time to come.
So let's dig into a little bit more of your student population in terms of their cultural background, language background, and their prior experiences.
Nathaniel: Yeah, so a very diverse student population, a relatively large amount of our second language learners our Central American, Honduras, El Salvador and then we have about a hundred students that are from West Africa. So that's, you, so it's not all, a lot of people think high-second language schools are primarily Spanish-speaking, but Minnieville is unique because not only do we have the Central American Spanish-speaking families, but we also have families from West Africa, who speak French, who speak Twi, Creole and then we also have a recent influx of Middle Eastern students and a lot of those students are our refugees, coming from Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan and so we've had a larger influx of those students coming in and of course everything and everything in between, so it's allowed this great cultural diversity that we have in Minnieville that's very, very unique to a lot of schools.
The community that we serve, there are two apartment complexes that we pull from and a lot of the neighborhoods are, we have the townhome neighborhoods and we have some older single-family homes that were built in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, but in those single-family homes, it’s very typical that three to four families will actually live in those homes that are rented out, basements are rented out, and then with the apartment complex, families, they're always trying to do better for themselves. They're always trying to procure affordable housing which is a challenge but also permanent housing, so that lends itself to some challenges with the transiency that we have.
Lydia: Like what, what would be some examples of some of the difficulties?
Nathaniel: One of the things, it's like I said, is trying to procure affordable housing, so you could have, you know, this one story that we have as a family who had, I think, one house, three to four different families that lived in the house. A couple kids get in a fight, they argue with each other, they have to leave, so then they have to go to another house or another area and then so some things that are coming in, that could be a reason; real estate goes up, they can't afford it, families have to leave.
Unfortunately one of the most heartbreaking issues has been some repercussions from immigration issues that have come up, so for example, in one community, you could have one parent who is going to have to be deported. Well, that sends a shock wave of fear in the community and in a household and so families, they don't necessarily know what to do, so they want, they may have to leave in order to find what they feel the safety and security, and until they can get their situation together to return. That's, it's become more prevalent within our school, and our counselors, our teachers, our support staff have had to re-equip themselves of what those services mean for those students.
I mean I've been in cafeterias eating with my kindergarteners and the five-year-old girl will come to me and say, ‘Mr. Provencio, I am I going to have to go back home, I’ve never even been to this home, El Salvador, before, what do I do?”
And you have to look at these children and you have to be able to give them an answer where they know that they're safe and secure, and that if they're in the school, they're going to be, they're going to be good, but in the back of my mind, you know, that there is a reality out there that we want to make sure that we equip ourselves with, so there's a there's some very complicated economic, cultural, and now political aspects that go into highly diverse schools with large numbers of second language learners and that has, you know, even in the last eight years, it's been there, but much more pervasive now than there in the last couple of months.
Lydia: We will follow up more on the immigration theme a little bit later as well, but I know one thing we talked about as we were getting ready to go live was that you're dealing with a lot of different cultures and a lot of different expectations from parents who are coming from different educational experiences, maybe having some negative educational experiences and different expectations of what the school should be and I wondered if you might be able to give some examples of what that looks like.
Nathaniel: So we are, we understand and our staff knows and that every parent that walks in our door, it's not an enrollment number, it's an opportunity for a relationship. It's an, these parents have these amazing gifts, the cultural and linguistic gifts that they have that are going to just enhance our school, and so when we have a family come in, we want to make sure that they are welcome from the time they open up their door to the time they walk through our front doors, enter our school building, we want to make sure that we have surprised them with a lot of grace and quality customer service. We know some parents have had terrible educational experiences and past hurts and so they're going to be coming in to a school with sometimes those kinds of perspectives.
We have parents that are coming into our school that maybe were used to seeing schools as government-run agencies so there's a perspective that this school is going to be a government-run agency that that has a lot of rules and regulations and things and there's some parents can be scared and put off by that perception, you know, and some schools, some parents come in and hold the schools at such high esteem that, you know, “Take my child and you do what you have to do, and I'm going to go to work,” so we want to make sure that our staff, everyone in our staff knows that when our parents come in, we’re extremely customer-focused, customer-centric, and everyone knows we're going to embrace our parents, we're going to make sure that there is no language barriers to giving them the services that they need, and Prince William County does an amazing job of providing us resources to help our diverse parents coming in. No parent has to schedule an appointment with me. If a parent comes in and wants to talk with me, I stop what I'm doing and I make sure that I go to that parent as soon as possible.
We give personal tours, we make sure that parents see the kind of education that's going to happen in their building so and answer questions right there on the spot, so that they feel at ease.
One of the big things that we were able to do is we noticed that an equity issue with school supplies, something simple like school supplies, they're expensive, even on the, you know, the penny days, you know, where you can buy a bag of pencils for a nickel. It adds up and we always ask our parents, “What can we do to help? What can we, what more can we do?” and we're like, “Well, in the summer we spend a lot of money and that's money taken away from groceries and other things,” and I said, “Hey, you know, you're right, there's something called a ‘free and appropriate public education’ for a reason,” so we worked with our PTO to purchase school supplies for every single child coming in and so parents coming in who already may have some issues or some anxieties, when they hear that, “No, everything's going to be taken care of for your child,” you just see the sigh of relief.
We're building relationships with these parents and at the end of the day, they're telling their neighborhood what a great school Minnieville is, they’re telling their co-workers what a great school Minnieville is and that's enhancing our bottom line, which is also the instructional efforts, so we see this direct relationship with quality service and instructional efforts and we want Minnieville to be a not just a school but a community, a jewel in the Dale City community and so we really strive on having that customer focus aspect to our instructional program. It's a strategic goal for us and we want to make sure that we continue to do that.
Lydia: I think it's interesting to think about what does success mean and what does it look like and you have the academic feathers in your cap that I think a lot of people would be looking for and impressed by, but my sense in talking to you is that what is success to you is the fact that when your parents come in, they feel that they have a relationship with you, children hug you in the hallway; they feel a connection there and that is what makes everything possible.
Nathaniel: Absolutely, yes, so you have, qualitative data and you have quantitative data and as a Title I school, our student performance is amazing. It's not where it needs to be, we can always still grow those areas, but we've done well with that and we've proven that it doesn't matter where you come from, it doesn't matter how much, you know, money you have, you can learn if you have people that are around you that's going to have relationships with you, and support you and we never see students’ background, the differences that they have as a liability. It's always a gift. Sometimes that can be challenging on some days, we understand that, there's a reality to that, but we work very hard for that and we want to make sure that students are leaving happy and students are leaving being better than they were the day before, and not only do we want our students to leave better, we want our teachers and staff to leave better. We want to make sure that every day is very special, teaching is hard, stressful, you know, it's never enough time, never enough money, you know, so we want to make sure that the teachers that we bring on board at Minnieville have that sense of altruism, have that mission focus and are going to do everything they can to have a quality instructional day for their students, but also just have an amazing day for their students, the parents see that, the community sees that and it just builds it builds this collaborative culture of excellence that we strive for every day.
Lydia: Well, this is a good time to mention Ashley. Ashley says, “Go Minnieville, yay Mr. P.!” So she is so dedicated that she is watching your Facebook Live
Nathaniel: Ashley is our not only our reading specialist, but she's also our community involvement coordinator, so she plays a huge role in helping us carry out the vision of mission with our community engagement, so thanks.
Lydia: Excellent, Ashley, we're going to be talking a little bit more about your work just coming up so that's good and Chandni Kohli says, “Our ELL students make America great, they bring so much beauty to our American school systems. I love them all,” and that sounds like sort of the spirit in which this is working.
You mentioned something earlier about property values and I think that another sort of interesting, maybe not measure of success, but an indicator of, something that is happening in your community. Could you speak a little bit about that?
Nathaniel: I do see something like that as a qualitative measure; so when I came to Minnieville, we had some challenges, 2010. Parents were leaving, going to different schools, moving out of the community because the numbers weren't good and the diversity was changing very rapidly, and it wasn't necessarily, the school makeup wasn't what it was in the early ‘90s or early 2000s, and so one of our goals was why are we having so many parents leaving, you know, we don't want any parent to leave here, you know, so we have to change the perception here. We have to have a massive branding effort to be able to get our community back to where they feel a sense of pride in their school. I don't want anyone to leave especially coming in new, they didn't know me.
So one of the things that I did, I was interested in this, I started looking at real estate websites you know your Zillows and your Keller Williams, and they have a school rating, you know, that they use when they're marketing and branding their homes. and you would see, you know, like the little four-star rating for some neighborhoods and I don't even know if we had any stars in our ratings and I was like, “Wow, this is very interesting, our school perception is out there and so what do we need to do to change this, because people are looking to come into a neighborhood, they look at these things,” so it was one of those just kind of happenstance things that we were able to look at and say, you know, we need to stay on top of this, so I even had the opportunity to reach out to real estate agents that we're representing our community and let them know about our school, you know, “Come, look at our website, come have lunch with us, have some Salisbury steak in the cafeteria,” and also not only invited real estate agents, but also inviting local communities to come in too, businesses that were in in the area because we don't want anyone to be ashamed of the school, we want to celebrate the school.
And if our school is doing well, then it's going to bring in more residents and then they're going to end up buying products in the community and it's going to bring up the entire community. So just something like the real looking at real estate values was a measure for us and so now you know whether it's some in some informal areas like GreatSchools.com or skulldigger.com, you know, people put in their perceptions of good things that are happening to the school. And so now you'll see three and a half to four stars when you're looking, so property values have slowly started starting to increase which for the residents, there's a sense of pride there, because now they have this symbiotic relationship with the school, so if the school is doing well, our kids are doing well, property values are going up, I also want my kid, you know, to do well in school, so I will, “Little Johnny, do well today,” so I think it's something, it's, principals can lose sight of, a lot of our teachers and a lot of principal schools don't necessarily live in the same communities that they serve.
I'm very blessed to be able to do that at this point and so, you know, I go to the barber who's a there's a parent who cuts my hair, you know, we go to the grocer, we interact, my family interacts with our community, and just to see them have such pride in Dale City, in Minnieville Elementary, it's absolutely outstanding. So test results say one thing, but having parents come to you and say, you know, “Mr. Provencio, we've decided not to move this year because we want our 4th grader to finish out their school year with us as a fifth grader” that says a lot, and I think that's really what school should be measured on, isn't it?
Lydia: Right. And what are some of the other things that you have done to connect with your community and with your partners and other folks?
Nathaniel: So our assistant principal, Miss Deborah Ellis, also plays a huge role in helping me link up to our community, you know, everything we do is a community effort, is a collaborative effort, school-community collaborative effort, so I don't sit around doing all these things, you know, I'm a part of the series of aspects, but our assistant principal just does an amazing job with actively seeking out community engagement and she came to me and said that she had had a some conversation, than I had seen this too with students that were mortified of the police, terrified of the police; they said, “The police are going to take my dad away,” they saw the police department as an immigration agents and had experienced some things in the community where there was this terrible misconception of the police department, because, unfortunately the only interactions that the students were seeing of the police were on what was on TV and what was happening in their community.
So we were looking for a new business partner and a lot of times when we seek out business partnerships, a lot of businesses want to write us a check and, “Here's some money to go buy some computers, you know, you need some more iPads? Here's a check to do that,” but one of the things we're looking for are relationships, we want to see professionals in our building that look like our kids, that act like our kids that are coming from the same backgrounds as our kids, interacting with our students, which is harder to do than to write a check, so we saw this opportunity with building relationship with the Prince William County Police Department and had some conversations with some sergeants and some school security officers, and they loved what we were talking about and they were looking for some opportunities.
So once a week officers in full uniform would come in and interact with the kids, play games with the kids, talk to the students, be mentors to students, you know, we didn't get a dime from this but we got the power of relationships. And so now when something happens in the neighborhood, these same kids recognize these police officers and now they're not villains, they're heroes because they were able to break down that misconception. That's what schools need to do and to me that's actually great community policing and it's more proactive than reactive, so those are the types of things that we're always seeking to do as a school and it takes a lot of time but great people like our assistant principal on our team, they just do an amazing job of that and it helps just build up the entire culture of our school.
Lydia: One of the events that you told me is kind of a highlight as you kick off every year is the Amazing Race, so, I will say nothing more and just let you take it away.
Nathaniel: “The Amazing Race,” so, love the show, it's a great show, but we did realize that the teachers that we were bringing in weren't necessarily familiar with our community and the diversity of our community. And I've been a part of schools as a teacher where we get a bus and we drive around the neighborhoods and we see what the neighborhoods are like and yeah that's okay, but we want our new staff when they come into our building to immediately resonate and build relationships and rapport with our families and our neighborhoods, so we created this Amazing Race challenge and I'll share with you one story of one of the challenges that we did.
This was actually with our entire staff, we received a donation for some funds and we used the donation, the money, to buy bookshelves coming from a company from Sweden, so let you fill in the blank with that, so we bought all these, you know, these Swedish bookshelves, okay, and one of the challenges, part of this Amazing Race, was as a team, to work together to put this thing and that's a challenge in and of themselves, when you have the one little wrench tool.
So the teams had to put together these bookshelves and we didn't tell them what we were going to do with the bookshelves, they just thought that they had to put together bookshelves, so they put together the bookshelves and then they were also tasked with driving around to different areas in the community to pick up special boxes. Now in these boxes were school supplies, backpacks, gift cards, school supplies that we actually had donated from our PTO and other businesses but the staff didn't know what was in these boxes, so they're driving around as quickly as they can without breaking the law, you know, to these different areas in the community to pick up these boxes, so not only were they picking up the boxes, they were knowing the different area neighborhoods.
So they had to do this Amazing Race and then they also got the bookshelf together and their last journey on this Amazing Race was a family's home that they just had an address, they didn't know that it was a family, but it was a family who desperately needed resources and supplies so six teams, six different families, they knocked, the families knew they were coming, they brought in these amazing school supplies, gift cards, and a student desk for the family and the kid to do their homework and you would have thought that we were giving these families a million dollars, they were so appreciative and our teachers got into the families’ homes and learned what it was like, you know, for some of these families with how they lived, you might see a nice single-family home, but they're splitting the basement with two different families and so bringing these resources into these families, seeing how appreciative the families are.
And at the end of this Amazing Race, we all got back together and I said, “Remember these situations when you're assigning homework, when you're asking students to do X Y & Z outside of your room, this is the area that they have to do it in, it's probably not like the area that you grew up in,” we did that and just what a wonderful perspective that gave our teachers so and it builds relationships, it had a sense of empathy for our, not sympathy but empathy, for our families and you know just taking the time to do something like that each year just helps the staff understand and appreciate the treasures that we have in our students in the neighborhoods and not to take anything for granted. So we do something like that every year so we're proud of it.
Lydia: I think it's such a great example and I am I look forward to getting more information about it so we can share it with people who might like to try it in the future. Tyler Davis says, “Tyler is here too,” so I know you're not taking attendance, we'll see if we can get some more people to say hello as well.
And I just want to remind everybody you're seeing Facebook Live, Colorín Colorado I'm Lydia Breiseth, the manager of Colorín Colorado, here with Nathaniel Provencio, principal of Minnieville Elementary in Prince William County, Virginia.
So you had talked a little bit about what families experience when they come through the door, so I'd like you to walk us through, kind of, what you come into the doors of your school, what you see, what do you experience, and then what is the experience once you get to the front office, one could have to enroll your students and start that formal process.
Nathaniel: So the majority of the families that enroll are second language learner families, and so when they come in, you know, they meet Miss Ross, our amazing secretary, who doesn't speak Spanish, but we also have another secretary, Miss Santiago, who is bilingual, and then we also have a plethora of staff; we have an Arabic-speaking staff member; we have an Urdu- speaking staff member; we have a we have parents that are on call and speak French, who help us all the time, and then the division has amazing resources if a family comes in that's a low-incidence language, that we don't really have the resources for, so we have all these resources to make sure that language is not going to be a barrier for their for their enrollment process.
Lydia: I'm going to stop you, so I'm just going to say, so you have the district helping with the language, you have the staff, both administrative and the teachers, and you have the interpreters, and you have parents volunteers, so you have all these different levels and I think for a lot of administrators who are finding the language issue as a barrier, as a challenge, I think it just underscores you can tackle it a lot of different ways, you don't have to find one solution that fits everything because you probably won't, because each language reflects a different situation with the size of the community, how many people are there, how long has this community been in the area, how many, excuse me, people speak the language, so I will let you continue but I just wanted to highlight for those administrators who might be watching our chat here that you can really get creative and see what resources are there at your disposal in your community.
Nathaniel: Yes, absolutely, because the job is too hard for one person to do it. So they come in and most of our families we, after we get a sense of their language, they fill out a home language survey, ,if it's deemed that English is a second language, we do have central office support, so they will complete an enrollment process at a central location. They will do an assessment with the students to give us a level of their language and then we immediately try to get them back into the schools to start a conversation with them, you know, what was schooling like in your other country, did you have schooling in your other country? Did you have any extra services? What kind of teacher do you want? What are your expectations of us? Can we show you the school?
So we try very hard to have a relationship with all of our families coming in, and even the families that have been with us for awhile, we make sure that we continue to get them in and show them some of the new things that we're doing so and just start that relationship process and then we're as strategic as we can be with student placements with who their teacher is going to be but we're also extremely confident that it's not a lottery system. You're going to get the best teacher that we have and it doesn't matter, all teachers in third grade are going to be a great fit for your child, so we make sure that parents understand that they do have a choice in the kind of matter.
Currently, we have six ESOL teachers on our staff, so approximately one per grade level but they don't necessarily work with that one grade level, so there's a lot of additional support with that and then we also have reading supports, math specialists. So when a child, after they're enrolled and they're in our school, they're going to have an army of professionals that is going to surround them and give them as much support as possible and it really does help that student grow because the job is hard enough in and of itself, so we have we try to make sure our strategic plan is and our collaboration is not happenstance, it's very strategic, it's very planned out, there's a methodical sense to our collaboration with our ESOL teachers, our special education teachers, and our classroom teachers.
So that the student is going to immediately have a plan when they come in; we're not waiting for our students to fail they're going to be successful from the time they walk in, so not only welcoming them through the relationships which we talked about, but also giving them sound instructional support is very keen and then we, you know, we see our students that having gifts, it's not a detriment to speak another language, it's a gift, and so we're actively seeking out the talents of these students that may not necessarily lend themselves to a language talent or mathematical talent; these students are coming in with a range of special skills, not only academic skills but emotional intelligence too, some of these babies are traveling to different countries, having to assimilate in different communities with different family members, with different friends and classrooms; that takes a high level of emotional intelligence, which to me is a gift to be able to do successfully and I don't think we give our second language learners and our immigrant students enough credit for what they have to do as children, Lord knows, I couldn't do as an adult, so our staff sees these gifts in our students not just the academic gifts but the emotional talents and we try to really reach now to find those gifts and talents.
And I'm very proud, one of the things that we do at Minnieville is that we have a very high number of eligible and students brought up for eligibility for gifted and I think that's a place that we want to be and it just takes a change in perspective of how you see these students; it's not, they're not academic challenged, these are students of promise, we just have to make sure that we're actively seeing that.
Lydia: I'd like to flag two things you said, one is the importance of the student background and the educational experience that may really have an impact on what you see in a classroom with the child in front of you, and also the assets-based model. I think a lot of what has to, a lot of the discussion around ELLs is a deficiency, what they say “deficiency lens”, because you're talking about what they can't do, which is they haven't mastered the skills of English in English language yet, but as you said, there's so many other things they can do, not only the language that they bring or the languages, it might be more than one, but instead of all these other experiences and successes that they've had in other ways that don't necessarily make themselves apparent on a reading test.
So having a leader like you with a staff that is looking for those talents and saying, “Sure, there are challenges, where can we lift them up?” but I think that is so important in how the tone is set and the expectation for the children that we're all here to succeed and to find where you have succeeded and help you continue to succeed.
Nathaniel: Absolutely and we’re human, you know, we make mistakes, you know, we have students that have extreme challenges and it's frustrating, but that's not our default mode; we want to make sure that we're just seeing these students as just what opportunities can we invest in these students, what are their gifts, let's really look at that person, and teach students, not through, starting off with a tier 3 intervention, you know, which is where you don't want to be. You want to start off getting it right, tier 1 instruction, let's make sure that what we see with all these students is, let's get it right the first time, let’s pour the instruction and let's pour the collaborative efforts and let's make sure that our language objectives are solid, our reading objectives, our content objectives are solid, the reading skills are all there.
Let's not wait for a student to fail to have to pour in those resources for those students and you know through an RTI model, I've lived this personally, where so many efforts and financial resources are waiting for students to fail with all the interventions that you feel like you have to buy and if you don't buy these things for your school, you're not a good school, no, that's not right; get it right the first - Invest in Tier 1 instruction, especially when you have, you know, high economically disadvantaged populations and high ESOL populations, you know, it's not the ESOL teachers’ job, you don't send them to the ESOL teacher to fix it, no, you bring those teachers in and that and you work collaboratively to get it right; that's what we try to do at our school.
Lydia: Well, you said the magic word - “collaboration” - and so I want to talk a little bit more about the PLC that you use, but also I have a question from Bienvenida Primavera who says, “How are you training teachers to face specific challenges and fairly serve these students?”
Nathaniel: So that's a great question; I don't know if there is a, our teachers have great resources through our division to have the kind of cultural sensitivity training, if you will, to make sure that they have access to it, but that's very much informal and it's hypothetical; because of the diversity that we have as our staff, our professional development learning is with an actual student and with an actual family, so when we're sitting, we have our monthly student of promise meeting, you know, a typical RTI meeting, if you will, and we're talking about students not as numbers or deficits but as students, and if I'm sitting with a teacher who has a student that's from Syria who has experienced traumatic issues with experiencing war and experiencing the kind of political turmoil that there, you know, that's a conversation that as a team we have and without, you know, with our counselors as much as possible, with division resources so that we can make sure that we're not looking at a student's academic needs but we're also looking at the student’s emotional needs. Now I don't know, to me that's the best kind of professional development that you can have, is have the relationship, talk with the family, let's learn about this student as a human being, and not just you know a test score, so, you know, I, my job is to set the tone.
I don't have all the answers but I can set the tone and I can be a model for my staff members and so to be able to help them have a sense of empathy, get to build a relationship with them, work with the parents, family, and go to their home, have, break bread with them, you know, I have a teacher at Minnieville, a couple teachers, Adriana Hurtado and Stephen Wheeler, two of the most just heartfelt teachers that I've ever worked with, who have no issues knocking on doors, breaking bread with families, telling them good news and also telling them bad news, but meeting them on the family's terms.
We talk a lot about an open-door policy, well, whose door are you opening, whose door are you knocking at, the principal's door or the parents’ door? And so we have some staff members that just do a remarkable job about that and you know once you visit a family on their terms, one time, it make s the next ninety-nine so much easier, you know, I have teachers and myself, you know, we ride buses home with our kids, we hang out with them at the bus stop, that's the kind of professional development that you actually need, not something from a textbook, so I hope that answers your question.
Lydia: I think that's a great approach, and I think what you're sharing is resonating with our audience. We have Tammy Sanchez saying, “Yes, so much more than what can be demonstrated in a reading test.” Thank you, Tammy and Roberto Perry says, “This is a wonderful approach in the future; those that you help they're all people pay off,” so thank you for those comments.
I know in terms of your collaborative model, you have, your goal is not so much to get kids out but to sort of have the support happening (in the classroom). Can you talk a little bit what that looks like?
Nathaniel: So especially with reading instruction, there are, you know, I've been a part of it and I've seen a part of different aspects of how language arts instruction is carried out and for us, the language arts aspect is, you know, one of the most essential parts of the day and we want to make sure that the 90 minutes or 120 minutes is spectacular, that all of our T's are crossed and I's are dotted when it comes to reading instruction; our kids have to learn to read, K-5, and we have kindergarten students coming in that have never set foot in a preschool classroom, so you know our kindergarteners are, we have, the learning curve is tremendous with them, but they end the year all being on grade level. It's amazing. We have fifth graders coming in who have maybe spent only a couple of days sometimes in a school in Central America, we've seen this, having to perform on a fifth grade level, so tremendous challenges with that.
So we want to make sure that our reading instruction is top-notch, so when we were evaluating our RTI model originally, we had a lot of students being pulled out, everyone was being pulled out and it was basically, it became the silo of instruction where the teachers were the classroom, teachers were not necessarily taking accountability on the successes or the challenges that their students had because it was the ESOL teacher's responsibility or was the Special Education’s teacher responsibility, so we wanted to make sure that that our program was totally inclusive and that students saw themselves as part of a classroom culture, of strong classroom culture, where everyone, all the resources were being brought in, so we looked very strategically at the resources that we had.
We did an asset map as a school, outlining who are our specialists, who was the best supports who were those teachers, what kind of collaboration model did we have, and so for one grade level, we decided to stop pushing kids out and start pulling resources into these classrooms; so in a typical classroom for thirty minutes, you would have the ESOL teacher doing a guided reading or strategy-based lesson with the ESOL students in the classroom, the classroom teacher working with students, a reading assistant working with students, a reading specialist working with students, so instead of the classroom teacher doing a small group reading and having to manage all these different centers and kids being pulled out all over the place, it's a real disjointed type of literacy instruction, I wasn't, it was doing nothing for us, you know, Einstein's definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, well, that's where we were, so let's stop pushing kids out, let's just pull the resources in and being able to work with everybody in the classroom environment, providing solid differentiated instruction on their level gave a greater sense of community, increased the level of engagement in reading because kids weren't wasting time being pulled out.
The teachers knew what was going on because they were in the same classroom; it enhanced their collaboration, it enhanced their collaborative planning which was also essential and then when we started doing that other grade levels wanted to come along and so now we have a school-wide, we call it our press-in model, that focuses heavy on great language arts instruction, doing it first. Once we started doing that, our, an amazing thing happened; our eligibilities for special education drastically dropped, our behavior issues in the classroom drastically dropped, our gifted eligibilities started to increase, our SOL scores starting to increase, just for us we were able to learn from each other, enhance our collaborative planning as a professional learning community, and also our collaborative instruction so just bringing resources in and having everyone in the same room for language arts greatly increased our SOL performance and it's something that I would encourage schools to look at.
The best professional development I ever had was, I spent a whole day with a student, the whole day, and I had a stopwatch and I followed that student around all day and every time that student was engaged in what I determined as quality reading instruction or quality instruction, I did, I started it, so in a whole day, this poor child had about 15 minutes of engaging instruction because he was out of the room, tuned out when he was away from his peers, coming back in, throwing a fit because he was lost after he came back into the classroom and I was like, now I'm spending time with one student and in a whole day 15 minutes of instruction, this is awful, this is malpractice; we cannot let this happen.
So we had to really re-change our focus on how we were delivering instruction and doing that through language arts was one of the best ways that we could do that, so I would encourage principals to do the same thing, follow a student around the whole day, see how much time they're actually engaged in instruction, and then have a conversation with your staff; was this a success or is this something that we need to change our focus on? Because the magic needs to happen in the classroom, not outside the classroom.
Lydia: We have a wonderful video interview with one of our project advisors, named Dr. Cynthia Lundgren, and we focused especially on information for administrators when we spoke with her, and one of the things that she talks about is the importance of seeing the day through the child's eyes, and I think particularly for English language learners and if they're struggling learners in general, their days can be really sliced and diced, having a lot of different contact with a lot of people, sort of as you said, in silos, isolated, where nothing is really connected to each other and where you think, “Well, they're getting the services they need,” but not in a comprehensive way and they're missing a lot of other things in the meantime.
So I think that's a great recommendation and that was going to be my next question, what is some of your advice for other administrators? So I think that's a powerful model, just what does this look like and how does it, how does they actually shake out? And we've worked with some schools that are doing really creative things with schedules, it's the same amount of time from the start to the end of the day, they're just taking it and organizing it a little bit differently and I think it's exciting to see, you know, not to be a cliché of thinking outside the box, but we were talking about how you teach the way you were taught, you sort of repeat what you have seen and so thinking how can we look at this from a child's perspective? That’s exciting.
We have a comment here from Laura Eunice Lopez who says, “It is absolutely vital that school administrators understand the ESOL program from the whole district and all staff collaborative approach. I'm thankful all the aspects that the ESOL programs involved are being explained thank you and congratulations” so I think you really have a lot to share and and our audience is clearly loving this, and Chandni says once more, “He is indeed a great leader with a clear vision,” so you can see why he's been winning these awards, and Tami says, “This is a smart approach to pushing in with resources versus pull out. I will be sharing #PressInModel so yes that's very cool that's very cool.
So we just have a few minutes left, but I do want to get back to the question of immigration because that's a big issue on people's minds right now and you said you were starting to see the impacts a little bit on your families, but I'd like to talk a little bit more about what you're seeing, how the kids are responding, how it's affecting your staff as well, what are some the conversations you're having and what do you see is your role as the school leader in addressing the uncertainty and the anxiety?
Nathaniel: It's just become much more pervasive, the conversations from parents and from students. We have, and I will say this, one of the maybe unexpected aspects that have come out of these types of conversations has, it's been a rise in parent and community advocacy, it's amazing to be able to see our community at Minnieville kind of rise up and take care of each other, and so you know we have teachers, we have a job to do, you know, our job is keeping the students safe, teach to the standards, do an amazing job with that, and take care of the not only educational welfare but the emotional welfare of our students, you know, these things are out of our hands, but we can make sure that we support our students and support our parents and support our community.
So in light of the rise of these kinds of conversations, I've seen parents who have never spoken out, who have been afraid to speak out, join organizations, join community outreach groups, and speak up on behalf of their community, and in doing so, they've empowered other parents and other family members to “come out of the shadows” if you will as well, and bond together to advocate for themselves as best as they see fit and it's amazing to see communities grow out of discord and actually come together and understand policy and ask, and hold schools accountable where they're, and we need to be questioned, we need to be asked. For example, a parent was alarmed of some you know perceived Islamophobia that's happening and asked me, “What are you going to do to protect my daughter, she wants to wear what she wants to wear, what kind of protections are you going to give to her?”
And I had never had that conversation before, but because of her advocacy and willingness to hold the school accountable, that makes us better at a school, you know, parents asking are there going to be immigration officers in the school, making sure that we're navigating that and working with our divisions to say that no, this is not going to happen, this is the policy that we have, so out of fear and out of concerns and questions, we've actually seen communities bond together and just help each other out.
And I think that's allowed the school to, it's going to grow in some areas, because now parents, they know that they can do it, they know that if they can speak up in the community, they can speak up at our PTO, or they can speak up at our School Advisory Council or speak up at division meetings, school board meetings, so out of discord, you know, we just seen more parents and more communities come together with it, so it's still a challenge.
I've had to, any time a parent asked me to write a letter on behalf of a family to immigration service, I do what I can you know, so I'll write the letters, I'll speak to whoever I need to speak to, a lot of parents will ask me if I can, can the school provide a lawyer or provide some, we have resources that we can give to our parents, so it's hard, you know, it's challenging. When you have a five-year-old sitting at a cafeteria tables asking if they're going to be sent back to their own country, it's a challenging question that we, it's always kind of been there, but it's just more pervasive now and it's helped me grow as a professional and just make sure that we're now with our counseling services, it's just a different layer that we need to make sure that we put on top of our program, so that families and students get the help that they need.
Lydia: And to follow up on that, how would you say that your teachers and faculty, how are you equipping them to deal with this at the counseling level, social, mental health?
Nathaniel: So once again, can't say enough about Prince William County’s resources; this isn't something that our teachers have to find on their own; our division has a lot of resources to be able to have help our staff out; there's ongoing training that our faculty has, we make it a part of our faculty meetings; if we see that there's been an issue in the community, it becomes an agenda item that we share with our teacher leaders, say, “This has come up, guys, you need to be aware of this,” use this if the conversations come up, don't neglect the student’s voice in those matters. Have a calm, open honest conversation about it, you're not going to know the answers, but let the students discuss this, especially with our older students, our fourth and fifth graders students and even with our kindergarteners who are hearing all these things and seeing all these things, they need an opportunity, process at in a safe environment and the school is the safe environment to do that, so as these things, not only with division resources, with the counseling services and the great department that we have when these come up in a school level, we want to make sure that it's not just set off to the side. It needs to be something that's embraced because that's how everybody can learn from it, in an open honest format.
Lydia: And in addition to the resources and support you're getting from the district, are there other community partners, organizations, advocacy groups that you've had a partnership at the school level?
Nathaniel: Not so much at the direct school level, but in the community level, there's an organization called VOICE; it's an outstanding organization to help provide resources for immigration issues, fair and housing and affordable housing processes, so that's been a great organization that we've, that parents have asked about and we've aligned with them, they've been excellent to the provide services with that, so it's something that I would encourage you know watchers that are watching this to maybe look into because VOICE is a Northern Virginia group and they could be a great resource to other schools that might have the same challenges that we do.
Lydia: That's great, so Melanie Arthur had asked the question about faculty and teachers equipping themselves, so Melanie, I hope that was a good response to your question and I would just pick up on that say that we've been doing a lot of work on this issue; we're going to be having some new resources come available very soon, but I think the partnership would be organizations who are working on this issue are so important because these are professionals who are deeply, deeply immersed in these issues and they know, they have the updated information. They can answer those questions of perhaps to a level of detail or even certainty that you might not feel comfortable with or I might not feel comfortable with as a teacher, and so I think finding partners who can come do a workshop to have a conversation is really essential because the school, as you said, the school is not going to have all the answers, the principal is not going to have all the answers; the principal is the public face and the principal is the one who, there's a certain level of accountability at for certain policies, but especially if the policies are changing, you really need professionals who know that what they're doing, so I would encourage everyone to look for those partnerships in their community.
So one more comment I want to share, Star Allen Granby says, “Well done, excited for a great year,” so you've had a good showing of your, what are you, the Eagles, the Minnieville Eagles are...
Good. All right, well, they've been there loud and proud, so that's been really great. Anything else you wanted to add as you're thinking about the new school year and all that you're getting ready to do?
Nathaniel: It's a real pleasure to be to be here today sharing a little bit of our story. I know that the, some of the awards that we have the Washington Post Principal of the Year, it's really, it’s at a school award, and it's been just real awesome to be a part and represent not only our school, but our school community. Colorín Colorado has just great resources and it's something that we always encourage our ESOL team to make sure that they navigate the website, they go, it's very navigable, it's very easy to use and there's always something to learn and I'm asked a lot, what advice can you give principals? What do you know, what would you share with them?
I think at the end of the day, the principal has to be the chief learner, if you know sometimes the title might give us a sense of like we know everything. We don't know anything, because it was soon as we know something it's going to change and the next day, so I would just encourage principals out there to continue not just to grow and enhance the professional capacity in the school but reach out to other schools, reach out to other divisions, see what else is going on and learn from people, learn from each other, let's not be myopic, let's not the insular because someone has the experience, someone has gone through the trouble and someone's still learning from it, so I would just encourage principals just to continue to network, get on Twitter, to see what's going on out there and don't be afraid to ask questions.
The most vulnerable leaders are the best leaders and especially with the changing times and you know some of the challenges that schools are facing with the changing demographics, give us a call you know and reach out and just, let's just learn from each other as a true professional community.
Lydia: That's great. We, there are so many small things that people can do as you said; it can be just as easy as looking at a Twitter account or starting, but at the other end, I had mentioned to you our interview with Cindy Lundgren that we did a few years ago. She actually shared the story of a principal who got a grant to go to refugee camps in Kenya. She had kids from Somalia and other some other countries in the area and so she was able to then come back and say this is what our kids have been through and it just changed the entire approach.
And so, that there are small things and there are big things but I think that sense of what can we learn from our students, what are their strengths, what are their assets what are their gifts, that's the message we want people to take away, and I think everybody will be able to understand why we were so excited to interview Mr. Provencio today to share all that information.
So thank you again for tuning in, thank you to the NEA and the AFT for supporting this chat and as we mentioned this will be broadcast, the archive on our Facebook live page; you'll be able to come back to it and you'll also find it on our own page on Colorín Colorado so that for those of you who maybe have friends who aren't on Facebook, other friends, not Facebook friends, they'll be able to find it as well.
Thank you so much for tuning in and we wish all of you a great new school year coming up, a good school year to you as well, thank you for being here. Go Eagles! We'll see you soon.
We'll let you know when our next events are going to be held. Stay tuned on Facebook and Twitter for those announcements. Thanks again for joining us.
This Facebook Live event was made possible by generous support from the National Education Association.