A Community School Makes the Grade: Principal Eileen Santiago Tells Us How
Thomas Edison Elementary School in Port Chester, NY has earned its reputation as a success story. A decade ago, only 19% of Edison’s fourth graders were proficient in English language arts. Last year 75% were. Proficiency rates in math and social studies are even higher. Not bad for a school where over 80% of students live in poverty.
If you ask the school’s principal, Dr. Eileen Santiago, the decision over ten years ago to turn Edison into a full-service community school has played a key role in its transformation. Working with strong community partners, the school offers on-site health care, education for parents, counseling for children and their families, and after-school enrichment. Add that community focus to a robust instructional program and close attention to data on how students are doing, and you get a stirring turnaround story.
Dr. Santiago recently told us more.
Public School Insights: Tell me about your school.
Santiago: I have served as principal of this school for 14 years. And I have always felt fortunate that I came into a school with many, many caring people. I did not walk into a school where the adults felt negatively about the children.
However, I was faced with other concerns. One of them was that the school had a pretty significant level of poverty. We were at over 80% free lunch. We continue to have that level of poverty today.
In addition, Edison has always served an immigrant population. The school was constructed in 1872, so you can imagine that the population has changed a lot over the years. Today the population is primarily multi-ethnic Hispanic, coming from different areas of the Hispanic world. And many of our children are undocumented immigrants. That in itself adds several levels of challenge: The stress that goes along with not only immigration but possibly being undocumented, of being separated from your family for a long time and living in uncertain circumstances.
So this is the population that we serve. And once you understand that this is the population and these are the challenges, you begin to think, “Well, let's look at the glass as half-full.” We have wonderful diversity in this school. We have caring parents who just need to feel connected to the school. So we have to look at creating a sense of community.
That is what I can really share with you about our school. Challenges that existed 14 years ago still exist today. We just got better at addressing them.
Public School Insights: It seems like you got a lot better at addressing them. And if I understand it correctly, your work in building stronger ties to your community has a lot to do with that success. Is that right?
Santiago: Absolutely. For a while, when I first got here, the community was not part of the school. Our parents did not feel welcome, many times because they had language issues and were concerned about their documented status. So we worked really hard to form connections with the community and, on a whole other level, relationships with our community. Those relationships, over time, developed into support services for children, with leaders of the community helping us in the process. Therein lay the seeds of a community school: Building community with the community in which your school is situated, and then turning that sense of community into real services and programs for children that come from networks with community providers. So that was one thread of our transformation.
Another thread was really important and is very pertinent to the discussion I think is occurring nationwide: The notion that if you help children come to school healthy, well-fed and ready to learn, they are going to be in a better position. They are going to be more receptive to and more engaged with classroom teaching. In the past, education discussions have just been about how children performed on a test. Yet at Edison, early on and out of necessity, we brought in discussions about children's health and wellness. We asked whether children had a safe place after school, if they were getting medical care, if they were well-fed when they come into the schoolhouse doors. We had those discussions—which are now taking center stage with the new administration—14 years ago, because we wanted to start taking away the barriers to learning. Today organizations like ASCD refer to this as “whole child education.” We intuitively felt our way to the same conclusion.
Public School Insights: But if we look at Edison's test scores, they are pretty stellar.
Santiago: Yes. And while I can cite a number of other very, very important indicators that children are learning and healthier and that they feel safer, certainly the discussion is always about the academic growth that has taken place here.
We know that in 1999, when New York State first began to assess its children, 19% of our fourth graders passed the English Language Arts test. In 2009, 75% fourth graders passed. And we are testing more students. We are testing special-education students, for whom arguably the tests may not be appropriate. We are testing English language learners after they have been in the U.S a year and a day. So we are testing more children, but they are performing substantially better.
In 2006, the state expanded the testing pool to include third and fifth grade children. Happily, we have consistently had 80% or more of these children passing ELA assessments. In mathematics, we have consistently had, in third, fourth and fifth grade, 85% to 90% or above passing. In social studies and science, our children have scored 90% or above. Our English language learners have met annual performance targets for adequate yearly progress. So we do track performance over time.
But there are other things that are just as important that I want to put out there. When we started our transformation process, 23% of our children had access to adequate healthcare. But 14 years later, we have over 94% of our children enrolled in a health care program that allows them to receive healthcare services right within our building. We immunize children for H1N1 and for the regular flu. Parents do not have to leave work, which is important because many of our parents do not have “sick days.” If they don’t go to work, they don’t get paid. So their children are immunized right within the building.
Out of about 440 children, we may suspend 10 a year. Our suspension rate is very, very low. Student discipline is markedly improved when children feel connected to their schools.
Those things are as exciting to me as the academic success we've achieved. Those things are absolutely as important as academics.
Because of our successes, we have had people come from far and wide to see us. Last year we had a group of about 20 principals from the Netherlands who are looking to implement the community school model within their buildings. We have had people visit our district from other regions to learn about our support services, along with our academics.
I should clarify that in speaking about our support services I certainly do not mean to underplay our academic program. There has been so much really good research on effective literacy practice. Or what constitutes a comprehensive approach to literacy instruction. We put that research into practice in our building through our balanced literacy initiative, and I'm very happy with that component of our school.
But it is the other incidentals that I am really proud of, because we are removing the barriers to learning. If you have a rigorous academic curriculum, solid instructional practices that are supported by research—and there is tons of research about how children learn to read and write and be literate—coupled with a support network of wraparound services for the whole child, that is going to be the groundbreaking work that makes a difference in school reform.
Public School Insights: You have pointed to a lot of indicators of school success beyond test scores. That raises another question. As you know, nationally there is a real urgency to get some of our lowest-performing schools turned around. How can we be confident in the first couple of years of a turnaround that a school is on the right path? Is it going to be a question of test scores, or is there more to it?
Santiago: I think schools have to look at all of the other indicators.
There exist wonderful technological supports to assist principals and school staff in looking at academic data. When I started this process, during the summers we would gather the troops and we would literally sit down with calculators to see how we had done and what we could be better at. But nowadays, right at the computer, you can see how your school has performed compared to similar schools, or regionally. You can look at how your children within various subgroups, including special-education and English language learners, scored. That data is at your fingertips. And here we can also go right into our data warehouse—and I'm sure data warehouses and similar data systems are popping up across the country—and even connect a score to a specific test and to a specific test item. All of those tools are there, and they are at the most visible means of accountability.
I certainly encourage school teams to make use of this technology, but I always say dig deeper. Know your children. Know your families. Know your community. You really have to look at the variables within your school and community that are directly or indirectly affecting student learning. And you have to be able to discern whether there is a need for childcare, a need for afterschool programming, a need for tutorials or a need for parent engagement. But people don't necessarily look at those sorts of things.
In our building, for example, we track how many parents show up to our special events and our parent meetings. We probably get at least 75% turnout at our events, which are strategically spread out throughout the year and geared towards what parents want to know and need to know. The topics vary. Sometimes we talk about standards and supporting your child's literacy. We also cover topics relating to immigration, continuing education and obtaining a GED, and taking classes in English. And we can include information as basic as, when do I take my child to a doctor? You really have to assess the needs of your community almost as much or as much as you analyze the test data.
Public School Insights: That sounds like a much more involved kind of analysis.
Santiago: It is an analysis, and it cannot come out of the data warehouse. We can get at the percent of free lunch students. We can certainly ascertain the number of suspensions per year. That is all recorded. But there is a lot of other data. Some of it is soft, some of it is hard. Some of it is quantitative, some of it is qualitative. Leaders, whether they are teachers, principals or district administrators, need to uncover it. They need to unearth it, so they can plan accordingly.
Public School Insights: Are there any questions I should have asked you but didn't?
Santiago: You did not ask about my partnerships, which are a key component of our school.
The work that we've done in this school really is turnaround work. And I think an important message to get out there is that it is partnership work that really constitutes effective turnaround work. There is no way that a school staff can, if you have the kind of population that we have at Edison, provide all things to all people. But sometimes not having enough resources forces you to go outside of the building to find what you need. We have forged some terrific partnerships with agencies that might not necessarily be part of a school setting, but are serving our children. We have mental health agencies working with us, counseling kids who need it and providing collateral support for their families. We have a wonderful, outstanding partnership with a college that has brought us a tremendous amount of resources. It has brought us student teachers. It has brought us tutors for children in afterschool settings. It has allowed our children to go visit the college site so that they can see what the future holds for them. And, thanks in good deal to them, today Thomas Edison is not only a community school, but it is also a professional development school. So people who are coming into this profession are learning new ways to support children, and they are doing so at our school.
These partnerships are integral to the work of a turnaround school. Teaching and leading schools are hard work. It is hard managing the building. It is hard leading the instructional initiatives. You need as much support as possible, but you have got to be willing to open your doors and let the supports in.
We have a collegial environment. Someone said something really great at a conference I recently attended. Collegial is more than congenial. I was very fortunate to walk into a school climate that had good congenial relationships. But now we have high-level, professional collegial relationships that allow us to train others coming into the profession. That allows us to be presenters at conferences. That allows our teachers to take a stab at writing an article and even the principal to take a stab at writing an article. And our relationships kind of up the ante on professional performance.
This relates to our leadership as well. Our school leadership sets the direction for our school. But then we allow leadership to emerge at all levels, even among our partners. Marty Blank, of the Coalition for Community Schools, talks about it as “cross-boundary leadership.” That is a very, very, very important part of the community school that should be part of all schools.
Public School Insights: That raises another question for me. You say that when you came in 14 years ago, you had the kind of climate you could work with. But very often we hear how you have to get rid of the principal and you really should replace most of the staff or you are not going to have the kind of success you need to have. Is that an experience you had to go through?
Santiago: No, but that does not mean that if you do not have the elements that I had you cannot try to create them. And certainly there is value to moving some people to other buildings, because sometimes the match isn't good. Teachers in a specific culture, principals in a specific culture, and superintendents in a specific culture sometimes do require it.
But the kind of change I think is the deepest and most meaningful is building capacity among your own staff. Creating leaders among your own staff. Teambuilding with your own staff.
I am fortunate to be in a district where we can have very powerful retreat days. We go off-site to our partner college, which gives us the opportunity to be in their beautiful campus setting. And at that time we can reflect on achievement scores and on accomplishments. What do need to get us there, if we are not? What do we need to help us to continue to grow professionally? What do we need to have our children continue to grow academically and as happy, healthy children? We have our partners come to the retreats and share the work that is going on. We have had parents come talk on a panel about parenting, what school was like where they went to school and what their expectations are for us.
We follow up our retreats with strategic planning in the summer. We bring the teachers and specialists together and we talk about the work that has to be done. It is the rev-up time for the year ahead. And certainly we look at data. Every single time a piece of data is available to us we analyze it. But just the idea of bringing staff together…Teambuilding is important. When we are in the building, there is very little time for anything but tending to the children and teaching the children. So carving out time in the year to meet and reflect is really important. Whatever your approach to the turnaround school is, you have got to build in time for systematic reflection, time when you can look at and reflect on all kinds of data before making your plans for the year. And coming together…We don't do enough of that.
If you talk to a lot of teachers, they feel so pressured. Something that we have kind of lost is the joy of teaching and learning. We can sometimes lose that in the frenzy of trying to have our children do well. So our retreats are also a time to rediscover why we came into this profession. They are time to rediscover the craft. We talk about craft knowledge. We talk about what we have to offer the profession. These types of things make people feel happier to come to work, more valued, supported and that they have been given the appropriate resources.
Public School Insights: This pressure that teachers and educators feel—is there a way in which national policymakers can make it a little more productive and a little less destructive?
Santiago: I think so. It is not appropriate to be testing children every single year. For example, in June I will have to test third, fourth and fifth graders in the course of about one week. That means I will have to assess all children, including my ELL children who get extended time and special locations, and my special needs children. It is all pushed into one week. So something as simple as rethinking the testing timeline [would help relieve pressure on educators].
In general right now, policy-wise, I think that we are doing the right thing. We are looking to supporting partnerships; we are looking at a broader view of children. That is really the right track. But I think what also has to happen is that we have to step back at the policy level, nationally and statewide, to think about what is developmentally appropriate for children.
I had a child here I will never forget. I had to advocate for her to come off the test roster. She had a non-malignant brain tumor that would have her going into seizures to such a degree that she had a one-on-one just to monitor her movements. I have no problem with testing if it’s on a developmentally appropriate timeline, but is this test appropriate for her?
I understand the intent of this testing regimen was really good. Certainly I would not argue against the importance of monitoring children's progress, and this testing was a way to close the achievement gap and make sure minority children had access to a rigorous standards-based curriculum. And in many ways, we've done that. So let’s step back and ask, what is developmentally appropriate for children? The pendulum went one way. We are not asking that it go the other way, but let's find a middle ground. Let's start asking the experts. Talk to the Linda Darling-Hammonds. Talk to the Pedro Nogueras. Talk to the people who understand teaching and learning. Talk to the people who are experts with English Language Learners. No one is going to argue for this intense, over-tested calendar year that puts children in precarious positions.
I have to test children who have been in this country a year and a day. A year and a day. Plus, in New York those English language learners have to take an English language learners acquisition test. That test takes a month to administer if you have the numbers of ELL children that I have, which is about 40%. And those children have to take that test even if they pass the state ELA test. Now, you might argue that they are different kinds of tests. However, if a child passes the English language arts test that I take as an English dominant student, that in itself should be enough to exempt her from the English acquisition test that takes four days to administer.
The newest policy piece [to add stress], from our point of view, is RTI—Response To Intervention. Again, the intent of this whole initiative is good--making sure children have their progress monitored and are given the right amount of support, and that they are given special help outside of the classroom when needed but are given the appropriate level of support within the classroom as well. That is a wonderful idea. But adding a requirement that an intervention block be established when there are only so many hours in a day presents significant logistical challenges to school personnel. These are moments when the policymakers have to stand back and ask, what is reasonable, what is doable, what is developmentally appropriate for kids?
Public School Insights: And I would add they need to ask, what actually happens in the school buildings? What are the implications, and what is the impact, of their best intentioned policies?
Santiago: Yes, and recognize that the poorest schools get hit the hardest—for example, when I have to go through the rigor of putting students through a testing regimen and then have to put them through another one because they are second language learners.
And now we have progress monitoring for DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills)—we monitor student progress at the beginning and in the middle in intervals, as well as at the end of the year. It makes a lot of sense, except that it means stopping instruction. So you have to weigh the pros and cons. The bottom line is counting the minutes of teaching and learning, and determining how much is subtracted when we focus on all this testing.
And I think the time to do it is now. I think there are some really, really good discussions that are coming down from the national level about how to support kids. These conversations are different from what I'd been hearing before. So now is the time to seek the reasonable ground. I think there's going to be receptivity to it.
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- Best Selling Author Dan Ariely
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The views expressed in this website's interviews do not necessarily represent those of the Learning First Alliance or its members.
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