Learning First Alliance

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Motor City Miracle: A Conversation with the Carstens Elementary School Community

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When Principal Theresa Mattison came to Carstens Elementary in 1997 “achievement was zero.” Student behavior was a problem. Some staff seemed uncommitted. As parent liaison Abby Phelps puts it, “This school was in the middle of chaos.”

Today Carstens is a beacon of light for the surrounding community. It is one of the top-performing schools in Detroit. In 2009 third graders at this school—where 98% of students are from high poverty homes—outscored the state as a whole on all tested subjects.

How did the school turn itself around? School staff points to the leadership of Dr. Mattison. Dr. Mattison points back to her incredible staff. And everyone recognizes the importance of meeting more than just the academic needs of students.

Members of the Carstens community recently told us the school’s story. In on the conversation were Principal Theresa Mattison, parent liaison Abby Phelps, school social worker Gail Nawrock, and teachers Barbara Haug, Vannessa Jones, Rebecca Kelly and Violet Kiricovski.

Public School Insights: How would you describe Carstens Elementary?

Violet Kiricovski: Carstens shares the Comer philosophy. And we all work together. Teamwork really is our strong point.

Rebecca Kelly: The way I would describe Carstens is that it is actually more than a school. I just saw a presentation in which they described it as a “beacon of light.” And the parents, the families, the students and the businesses are all working together.

Abby Phelps: Carstens incorporates a city philosophy. We offer all services. We have it all.

Public School Insights: What kind of a population does the school serve?

Barbara Haug: We serve a deserving population. Statistically, they are considered high poverty—98% of them come from high poverty homes. And our population is about 98% African-American. But we do not think that statistics are something that describes somebody’s potential. It just describes the situation that needs to be considered when you look at the needs of the individual child or the children. What it boils down to is that they are children who deserve a good education.

Public School Insights: What was student achievement like back in the 1990s?

Theresa Mattison: Achievement was zero…We had people who did not care and it was very, very, very hard. But it is not hard anymore, because everyone cares and everyone shares leadership and responsibility.

Abby Phelps: Having been affiliated with Carstens before Dr. Mattison got here, I can tell you that this school was in the middle of chaos. And I am not exaggerating. I have been here since 1989. The capacity of the teachers and their concern and compassion for the students was very questionable. And the previous administration was not very open.

We were fortunate to have secured Dr. Mattison as our leader in 1997. And let me tell you something—write this down for the record—this institution has never been the same. We were able to transition from a failing school to a school beyond all degrees of expectations. And this is a testimony from someone who has been here and knows the truth.

Public School Insights: How is the school performing now?

Theresa Mattison: I am sure you are aware of AYP. We are fortunate to have consistently made AYP over the past several years. But when I say “made AYP”…For example, we had excellent academics last year, but under No Child Left Behind one of the components of making AYP is 90% attendance. Last year unfortunately we had 89% attendance. So we did not make AYP. But we have continued to have success.

Public School Insights: What were the biggest factors in turning the school around?

Gail Nawrock: I am the school social worker. I've been here full-time since about 1999, and I actually requested to be assigned here. I think that one of the keys really has been the leadership of Dr. Mattison. It is the philosophy that she embraces and that all of us buy into, that Comer philosophy of collaboration, consensus and no-fault. Everyone works under that philosophy.

We have support. The school works together. And we really do have an open-door philosophy with parents. They are welcome. They are made to feel welcome.

We also work to meet the non-academic needs of students. Sometimes all a child needs is a little bit of extra breakfast. We help with transportation issues, such as when our kids have to walk down streets where the streetlights are not always working. And we have a go-to staff person when we need to help kids get here.

Rebecca Kelly: When you're talking about achievement and how it has improved here at Carstens…I have just been here two years. I came from a school that closed in Detroit. I am an experienced teacher, and I was amazed when I came to Carstens at what they do for achievement. We have a resource-coordinating team that meets once a week to discuss every child in the building who is having either an academic problem or a behavior issue. A social worker, administrator, teacher, school psychologist and speech therapist sit around a table in the library and discuss each child. Parents are invited. Decisions are made—all sorts of decisions. It could be a decision to have the child tested, or a decision to get the child a warmer coat.

Also, this school does something I've never seen before. The whole school goes on a monthly field trip. It is amazing the type of information that the children gather, the background information that they need to understand their world. It addresses academics, but in a really global way.

And all students’ basic needs are met. We have a businessman who brings sleeping bags for every child, so they can be warm when they sleep. We have people who bring healthy, fresh food to school every day. Once basic needs are met, the academics are not that difficult.

Vannessa Jones: I came to Carstens three years ago. I left, and then I decided that I needed to return. I returned because I enjoy working at Carstens under the leadership of Dr. Mattison. Dr. Mattison has redirected the school’s climate and culture. She has raised teacher expectations. She believes that we should serve all of the children in the school as if they are our own children. She has led professional development. She has instilled school pride through citizenship and responsibility. And most of all she has encouraged parent accountability, because she feels that education should not be an option.

As a result, here at Carstens children are first. Everyone is accountable. We have shared leadership. We use data based decision-making, and we have some very involved parents.

Public School Insights: What do you mean by “shared leadership”?

Vannessa Jones: Shared leadership means that everyone takes a part to make the school work and to make us become better, whether that part is leading a school program, making sure that our fire drills and other such things are taken care of, working in the lunchroom or improving children’s behavior.

Rebecca Kelly: I feel our principal’s biggest strength as a leader is that she allows us to have shared leadership. We all have different strengths, and she brings those strengths out and allows us to exercise them. And shared leadership is not just “We have a say.” While there is a strong feeling here that we have rights as teachers professionally, we also recognize that with those rights and the ability to make decisions without her hovering around us, we have responsibility.

Abby Phelps: I agree. We all have strengths that we bring to the table, and Dr. Mattison does not try to smother those strengths. She knew my strength as a parent and community leader. She was not intimidated by my strength. She utilized my strength and my capacity to bring parents into the school and to incorporate community partnerships.

I think that is one aspect that we have not really elaborated—being able to utilize the strengths of others without feeling intimidated. Dr. Mattison is one of the very rare people that I have seen do this.

Gail Nawrock: What I see with shared leadership is like Ms. Jones said. We all know what our jobs are here. In my role as a school social worker, I have a different set of expectations, but I am part of the team.

One of the things I have learned here is that things get delegated. For example, one of the things that school social workers do in Detroit is coordinate a “See to Achieve” program—a free eye exam and glasses program through the LensCrafters Corporation. My first year we were told at a meeting to go back and talk to the principal and get permission to participate. And at that time I learned that if I think it is a good idea I do not need to come back and get permission. Obviously I let Dr. Mattison know, but there have been times when I come back and she will say, “Didn't you sign us up?” Because she respects what I do and that I know what is going to be good for the students of Carstens. So for me, that is part of the shared leadership. We understand what is needed here, and there is the respect and understanding that what we do is really in the best interest of our school. It is not about one person.

Public School Insights: I have read about Carstens’ Village in Motion initiative. What is that?

Theresa Mattison: When we say the “village”…For example, we are three blocks from Grosse Pointe, which is one of the richest cities in the United States. At least three days a week residents come here to read to the children. We have a library up the street whose staff will come and do different activities with the children. We have our own nurse that comes in. We help with the dental needs and the hygiene of our students.

Today is Wednesday. What does that mean? The lawyer will be here if our parents need services. On Mondays one of the editors of the Free Press—one of the largest newspapers in Detroit—comes to talk to the children about writing. It goes on and on. We have so many people that come to our school. That is what we mean when we say, “the village.”

Abby Phelps: The Village in Motion is based on Maslow's hierarchy of needs. We know that if a child is in a home environment that is not well structured and if the necessary provisions are not there, that child is not going to come to school happy. So if a child is hungry and needs extra food, we can administer to the needs of the child and then to the needs of the parent by supplying extra food for that family.

To help meet the psychological needs, the self perception needs, how the child's self-esteem is, we have a whole staff, including the social worker as well as specialist community organizations that just want to come here and assist us. The sociological needs of feeling acceptance and recognition….This is why the Junior Achievement program exists. This is why the Junior League is here. This is why Communities in Schools is here.

We offer parents the opportunity to go back to school to enhance their lives. And we let them know that they have someone on their side. There are instances in which I have gone to court and represented the parent with the Department of Human Services when they cannot even get their family members to go with them.

So we go above and beyond all levels of expectations of what an educational establishment is supposed to be. And we go into the community to enhance, reach and transform lives. This is what the Village in Motion is.

Public School Insights: How do you form all of these partnerships?

Violet Kiricovski: We have people coming to us constantly. They hear about Carstens and all the good things here, and they want to work with our children.

Gail Nawrock: For example, there are no longer any Catholic schools in Detroit. But one of the parishes used to have scholarships for kids in the Catholic schools to go to a summer camp. One man [associated with that program] went to Carstens in elementary, and he thought about us. So he came and asked Dr. Mattison, and we sent about 80 kids over two years to camp. It is amazing the number of people who come back to us because they went here as students.

Another example…The Junior League was looking for a school to partner with. They had called around to a couple schools and did not get much of a response. And Dr. Mattison said to come on by. It is that kind of thing. A lot our partners just come and they ask, and we say to come on over. We do not put up a lot of roadblocks. There is not a lot of red tape, and we fit them in as well as we can. And one partnership leads to another.

Barbara Haug: What I see happening is that all of these things are coming to our students. Our students are seen as high-need or at-risk and people want to be a part of the solution.

And I see the students observing this and emulating this. Recently we did a fundraiser, so to speak—not funds but canned goods. And my 30 students, who all come from high poverty homes, brought in about 150 cans to give to the poor. They do not necessarily know that they are the poor in other people's eyes. They see people giving gifts, and so…

One of the things that I've done, and that other teachers here also have done, is use Donors Choose, which is an organization where people donate to classrooms. My kids have learned to write thank you notes for those projects, and in their letters write, “When I grow up I want to help other people just like you.” But I can tell them, “You do not have to grow up to do that. You are already doing that when you bring in canned goods.” And when the earthquake happened in Haiti, kids brought in money so fast. We ended up with a check for $164. While $164 might not be a lot, it was a sacrifice for our children, and they readily did it, because they have learned to think outside themselves.

Public School Insights: What does Carstens do to engage parents in their children's education?

Theresa Mattison: One thing is that we have a parent university in the summer. Along with their children, the parents go to school from 8am to 12pm for six weeks.

Also, I tell the staff that we have parent conferences every morning. School starts at 7:30. It is dark. So 90% of Carstens parents are here every day, and we can take advantage of that. If something needs to be signed, if we need to get a group together—we can do that every morning.

Every week we offer legal help. And we have medical help. All of that is in the building—it is not is like they have to go somewhere else. So when you ask, “What are we doing for the parents?” it is probably “What are we not doing for the parents?” that we need to find out, so that we can do it.

When we take our children down to the county building or on other field trips, our parents are right there. In fact, I hate to say it, but sometimes we have to limit the parents who can come. These field trips are funded by Title I and all educational. And parents want to be there. They want to learn right along with their students. Most of our parents are rather young—20 to 30 and their children are five to ten, so some of them had kids as teenagers. I feel sometimes when I watch them that they want the experience too. They will walk in the school from picking collard greens—yes, we go to the farm and we pick greens—and they are excited. “Look at my bag of apples. Look at my carrots…I didn't know we could do this.” And they just go on and on…

Abby Phelps: Also, we have an open door policy. If any of our parents has a crisis, we have a parent resource center and the door is always open. If need be, we will make emergency provisions for parents to get utilities back on. If they need housing information or emergency food, we can provide that resource in the parent center. And the parents have my home number. If something happens, they always have access to me. If I can't get them a critical service, generally I can point them in the direction of where they can get it. That is one thing most schools do not have—an emergency unit for parents in the midst of crisis.

And parents are involved in every aspect of the school, including the site-based management team, the PTA and just being able to give input as to how we can deliver our services better. Everybody is somebody here at Carstens Elementary School. That is the whole philosophy about parent involvement.

Theresa Mattison: I also wanted to talk about a parent this summer who wanted her child to attend summer school. The mother took him to his September through June school, and the principal said they were not servicing special ed. She heard about Carstens, walked in the door and said, “My child is emotionally impaired.” I had to say to her that we did not serve emotionally impaired, we serve other learning disabilities, including cognitive disabilities...She said, “Please, just give me a chance.”

It worked out so well that she did not go back to her neighborhood school. Her child is here now. Sometimes he might challenge us, but at his last school, at least every other week he was at home. Here, out of the first 100 days he had one day at home. This mother is now downtown petitioning for Carstens to become a middle school, because she feels that she has found the answer for her child. I'm trying to help her find a middle school, because we love being a K to fifth grade. But if the transformation to a middle school happens, we welcome it.

Rebecca Kelly: The thing that I notice with the parents…I myself can remember being a young parent going to my first parent teacher conference and feeling very vulnerable and intimidated. Our parents don't feel that way. That is not the spirit of this school. They are part of the team. We need them and they need us, and that is so well understood. I think that is why we have such high parent involvement. We do not have a teacher's lounge but we have a parent lounge and a parent room. That is because we need them, and we try to get that message across.

Public School Insights: Earlier we touched on Carstens’ role in meeting both the non-academic and academic needs of students. Does anyone have anything to add on that?

Theresa Mattison: If a child has an academic need—or any type of need—we make sure that we service that right away. We will stop what we are doing.

Gail Nawrock: Some of the nonacademic needs we touched on with all of the different people who come in, whether it is the nurse, the mobile dentist. We help kids get glasses, clothing, underwear, coats. All those kinds of things. If someone comes in late to school and is hungry we are going to find them breakfast, because we really have learned that it does not make any sense for them to sit there hungry. Better to get them a bowl of cereal.

Teachers can work out arrangements with other teachers to help support students. For example, last year one of our fourth graders was just struggling. He was getting extra resource room help, but he still struggled. He would go down to the first grade classroom and read with them. He saw his role as being a helper to that teacher, but in the meantime he was also strengthening his reading skills. It gave him a bit of a break, and he was less frustrated.

Or teachers will let a kid go to the office and someone will just sit and talk with them. I think within our building we are all able to engage with the children. And all the children are able to engage with at least one of us, whether it is our custodian or Dr. Mattison. We all do what we can to help that child calm down, settle down and stay so that they can learn.

I probably have close to 40 kids on my caseload, which is actually a lot for the number of kids in our school, but the referrals are more proactive and preventative. A parent will say that they’d like their child to see me. It is not ever seen as punitive, but as what we can do to help this child. And that builds into, what do we need to do to help with their nonacademic needs?

I wanted to touch on attendance, because that is an issue for some students. If a child misses three days or has a pattern, we have a system. A teacher notes it and an identified staff member follows up with attendance officers. We do what we can to help get that student back in school.

Public School Insights: Your school is located in Detroit, which is struggling right now. Have the city’s economic challenges had an impact on your school?

Theresa Mattison: We have been extra blessed. Only one of our partners has had to scale back somewhat. But I think everyone knows the problems in Detroit and in Detroit Public Schools, so we've had more than other schools, which is a blessing.

Public School Insights: I have a broad question to finish. Are there are any questions I should have asked but did not? Anything we have not touched on that is vital in telling the story of Carstens?

Rebecca Kelly: We did touch on this, but I would like to just say again—and our principal just left the room so I feel a lot freer saying this—it’s all about the leadership. I was shocked when I first came here. I went looking for the principal, and she was subbing. I had never seen that before in all of my years of teaching. If a child gets sick at school and does not have a phone, she drives them home. It is all about the leadership when it comes to setting the culture of the school. And that we have shared leadership is important, definitely. That is our strength. It truly is.

Vannessa Jones: And I do not know if we mentioned it or not, but we do use data to inform our instructional program. We use assessment data to form individual learning plans or student profiles and to improve our instructional program. That is very important, so we know where we are as a school, where we have been and where we are going.

Theresa Mattison: Just for the record, even if it is not totally academically, we have added value to our students. We can see that by their smiles. When they attend a field trip, if we talk about that particular subject they remember it. We have taught them to become great citizens. To say yes ma'am and no sir. And those things will help you—people want to be around people who care and who have knowledge of what is right or wrong. It is not necessarily all academics.

Gail Nawrock: I think sometimes what gets lost in the discussion about public schools are the positives. You see all the negatives in the media. But while they focus on “There was no toilet paper,” whatever we need here we get. And a lot of us—or I could probably say 100% of us here at Carstens—do not see all the negatives. We see the strengths.