When I began working with local elementary schools I was deeply impacted by the incredible odds principals and teachers were working against to try to educate our next generation. Fragmented families found it difficult to provide support for their students at school, teachers were underpaid and stretched thin by the sheer amount of need in their classrooms, schools were under-funded and parent engagement in education was extremely low. But in my role with students as a Young Life Area Director and later as a pastor at Pure Heart Church I also saw what a difference could be made in students’ lives when people went out of their way to care.
In fact, I was struck with the profound reality that a great deal of love and support and help was surrounding schools, but that very little of that help found its way inside. What if we were to build relationships, really listen, and begin to work together in partnerships to make a difference? This began a journey of discovery as I rallied a group of partners to adopt an inner-city school in Phoenix. The challenge was not in finding a way to serve the school, but in finding a way to make changes sustainable. After three years we learned a great deal from our successes and our failures and I knew that we were onto something!
This was when Dr. Cook from the Washington Elementary School District and her Community Outreach Specialist, Jill Hicks, asked me to consider gathering partners to Palo Verde Middle School to see if we could turn the school around. Palo Verde had been failing academically, the negative behavior of the 945 middle school kids was skyrocketing and the school had a negative reputation in the community.
Demographics had changed in the neighborhood in the last 30 years and with the recession, poverty had exploded. When I first visited Palo Verde everything was drab brown…from the buildings to the mud fields, to the metal cages that once housed lockers. Kids seemed uninspired at school and teachers were worn out and discouraged. A turnaround was desperately needed. Carol Patterson was a principal with years of experience who agreed to come to Palo Verde and lead change. She knew her first job was to encourage her teachers and raise the level of hope and expectation.
She also had community organizations that were willing to support the school, but there was no over-arching strategy that they were working from which left Carol feeling that the help being offered wasn’t producing the results they needed. Carol asked me to facilitate the partnership with the community so that these great resources could really make a difference.
We prioritized these areas and made plans throughout the school calendar that strategically focused on each one, but we knew that the immediate and drastic need was to turn the school around academically. This meant that our top priority was to encourage teachers because they could make the biggest and most immediate difference in the students’ academic success. With our strategic plan in hand, we then invited interested partners to join us in this challenging adventure. As we began that year we created a partnership of churches, colleges, construction businesses, and non-profits such as Young Life College and the 21st Century After-School Program. As we strategically worked with groups from different sectors we discovered how valuable each one of those sectors was to the overall welfare of a school. It was also encouraging to the entire community to see churches of different sizes and traditions working together.
Having a strategic plan to work from made all the difference to this process! Each partner was able to take on the projects that were best for them, they clearly understood the value of their service and they knew their role was significant in the effort to transform the school. As the facilitator of this partnership, it was my job to organize and communicate so that all of the pieces worked together smoothly and met the outcomes the school was hoping for. We started by providing teachers with meals and cards, Skin Care Bags, and an entirely remodeled teacher’s lounge. Carol Patterson worked with the teachers to raise morale and increase accountability for academic work achieved! We also raised the vision of the future for these middle school students by bringing university students into their classrooms to share the story of how they came to college. These were college students who looked just like them, who lived in their neighborhoods and who struggled with their same struggles, who were actually in college and moving toward a future. It was incredible seeing a majority of these students begin to think of college for the first time!
The staff of Palo Verde also realized that academic achievement was not the only goal they had for middle school students. They wanted them to grow in character and to make a positive impact in their community. With this in mind Palo Verde began the “Rachel’s Challenge” initiative. The family of Rachel Scott, who lost her life at Columbine High School, began this program. One hundred students divided into 10 teams were led by teachers to begin to foster kindness and respect in the culture of the campus. They were then joined by their peers, parents and community members to do service projects both inside and outside of the school. Watching middle school kids care about their school and community was inspiring. We knew that we were not just providing service “for” the students, but were joining them in making a difference! Carol Patterson also realized that one important way of impacting the community’s perspective of the school was beautifying its landscaping. So in partnership with the school district, all of us joined hands to raise money for plants, trees, and landscaping materials. We worked our hearts out so that the outside of the school could begin to reflect on what was happening on the inside.
The story of Palo Verde is continuing and the exciting thing is that the school and the community have fully owned the transformation. This is not about an outside organization coming in to “rescue” a school, but about a community that made a commitment to care for its children. Carol Patterson has passed the baton to her Assistant Principal, Jill Sarraino, and after working together for 5 years the school has turned around academically and discipline problems have decreased by 60%. Surveys of the students reveal that they see school as a place where they are surrounded by positive influences, where teachers support them to be “the best they can be” and where they are taught how to treat others the way they want to be treated. Teachers surveyed say they own the vision of change and that the positive attitude of adults on campus is contagious. The atmosphere is proactive rather than reactive, accountability is strong and expectations are high. Parent engagement is growing as they see their kids excited about school and the community. Palo Verde Middle School has its own unique pathway to change. The culture, demographics, strengths and challenges of every school will be unique so the actual projects and programs will vary from school to school. This makes serving schools creative! But the key process of building relationships and discovering how to bring significant change remains the same. It’s about a community caring enough to work together to make a long-lasting difference!
– Tracey Beal, Executive Director, School Connect
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