Hirsh, executive director of Learning Forward, brings a wealth of leadership experience to LFA as the organization continues its work for the advancement of public education
Soaring with the SkyHawks
Story posted January 22, 2009. Story updated April 22, 2014.
- In 2013, students in grade 5 met or exceeded average state proficiency rates in all subjects.
- In 2013, students in grade 4 met or exceeded average state proficiency rates in all subjects but one.
Although it opened only six years ago, Skyview Elementary School in scenic Lizella, Georgia, has already gained a reputation as an educational star. As a member of the National Basic Schools Network, which focuses on the four building blocks of community, curriculum, climate, and character, Skyview has a sound framework. But it is the passion, dedication, and wonderful vision of its dedicated former and present staff that has made this Title I school, where 50% of students qualify for free or reduced price lunch, soar to great heights in academics and character.
Connecting to the Community
Parent after parent interviewed about the school said their children were so happy at school that they objected to staying home even when sick.
The school’s first principal, Gail Gilbert, brought with her a trust in the power of effective character education and a belief in the Basic School philosophy. This philosophy, advocated by Dr. Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, promotes a comprehensive approach to education, marked by four “connections”: community, climate, curriculum, and character. Fortified with Boyer’s philosophy and a passion for character education, the Skyview staff began their journey.
Although this torch has been passed to its current principal, Richard Key*, the belief in the Basic School philosophy is still at work. Mr. Key and his staff continue to work tirelessly to ensure that the comprehensive approach to education is infused into all opportunities for learning and personal growth. Soon after the school’s founding, staff set out immediately to woo the community into accepting the school—to make the first “connection.” After a gathering with the community “to address rumors and misconceptions,” the staff conducted home visits or made phone contact with every child and parent over the summer. Aware of the anxiety caused by a move to a strange, new school from a beloved community elementary school that was closed by the school board, the Skyview staff held a picnic open house and manned information booths where they answered transportation questions, gave out carpool numbers, supplied schedules for afterschool programs, and distributed school supplies. Additionally, the original Skyview administration planned occasions for staff bonding: a “get acquainted” staff meeting and visit to the new school while it was still under construction; a pool party; professional development workshops; and pre-planning days.
Connecting Character to the Curriculum
The community connection is strong today because of a carefully planned structure. From the beginning, the student body has been divided into a “family within a family” arrangement: Three PreK–5 families exist, each with classes of all grade levels. Every class is paired with a buddy class of a different grade within its family. Moreover, the Character Design Team is kept busy in guiding the character development effort and in connecting the values to the curriculum. Music teacher Susan Mincey points out one of the strengths of Mr. Key’s leadership: “No matter the enormity of the idea, he is always supportive and finds an avenue to make the connection between fine arts, character, and the curriculum.”
A character education curriculum, written by the staff, provides a host of engaging character lessons as well as suggestions for journal topics, home activities, Web-sites, and service-learning projects. Each month the school is abuzz with talk of the Book of the Month, which serves as a common reading experience for students, staff, and parents. Lively discussions, written reflections, and artistic renditions show the impact of the selection on school life. For example, after the students completed If I Ran for President, a story about the possibilities that could open up for those who decided to make a bid for the nation’s highest office, the students participated in discussions, speeches, and illustrations that depicted their time on the quest for presidency.
Although Skyview does encourage its students to be proud of their performance on the state tests, the emphasis is on developing self-motivated individuals who are “knowledgeable, responsible, and caring.” A cornerstone of that goal is the Pride Folder maintained by every student in grades 2–5. This folder contains the student’s goals, reflections, and important achievements as well as the teacher’s Professional Education Dedication Statement.
Developing Student Leaders and Improving School Culture
Parent Lester Miller says, “It’s not enough to just get all A’s here. You have to be good, too.” It is obvious that the school agrees, for the Skyview Superior Award is given to students who combine all A’s with good citizenship. The school believes strongly in fostering student leadership, even training kindergarteners to assume roles of responsibility. Every class elects a representative to the Student Council, and students vote on both grade-level and school-wide service-learning projects.
Life is never dull at Skyview, and it is never without the student voice. In the student-run television broadcast, WSKY, announcers read the school announcements, lead the school in a character pledge, display the student art of the day, and introduce birthday celebrants. What is more, students may take on many interesting roles in other aspects of school life. They can voice an opinion at a class meeting, conduct an actual transaction at the Skyview Community Bank (sponsored by Bank of America), or function as a host or hostess in the cafeteria.
Connecting to Parents
From the first “hello” at the welcoming social, parents feel they are vital partners in their children’s education. The SkyHawk Talk Newsletter apprises parents of the latest events; a special Parent Character Corner provides ideas for parents to promote character at home. In addition, workshops help parents hone skills in rearing children and dealing with problems; to encourage parent involvement with our philosophy, the Character Design Team elicits suggestions from parents on ways to improve character initiatives.
Soaring into the Future
Skyview has already made a name for itself on both the state and national levels. Georgia Family magazine chose the school for its Spotlight on Education feature in 2004, since it was already shaping up to be “one of the highest-performing schools in Bibb County” because of the high percentage of students meeting or exceeding reading and math standards on the CRCT. A 2006 study by Patricia Davenport and Terri Smith, Are We There Yet? Continuing to Close the Achievement Gap, also accented the school’s continued strong performance on standardized tests.
Ask the staff and students at Skyview about the school’s accolades, however, and you will find them to be characteristically modest. Skyview considers itself, first and foremost, to be a school of character. It should come as no surprise that its students perform well academically, because that is what students strive to do in a culture of excellence. After all, students who choose powerful, legendary birds as their mascot have high expectations.
*The principal at this school has changed since the story was written.
Adapted with permission from the Character Education Partnership.
Copyright © 2007 Character Education Partnership.
Click here to access the original article as contained in the 2007 National Schools of Character Award Winning Practices book.