Jill Barker's comments to the state school board

Mar 06, 2013

For years we’ve been blessed with strong academic performance across our schools.  Recently, Jill Barker, the principal at Bethel Elementary, was asked to address the State School Board regarding the school’s recognition as a National Title One School of Distinction.  While our schools are not perfect, the root of their success is captured in Jill Barker’s comments to the state board.  Her comments were:

Many of you probably watched the Super Bowl with the Ravens winning the big game.  Most of you too have heard of Michael Oher, the Ravens player depicted in the movie “The Blind Side.”  Well, at Bethel Elementary we are feeling a little like Michael Oher.  As a National Title I Distinguished School, we have won a “Super Bowl” and like Michael, we have faced many obstacles along the way.

Ours is not a story of a magic key to student learning or a single program that teaches all students.  Our story is about challenges and no excuses.  Our school is situated in rural Appalachia.  Sixty percent (60%) of our students receive free and reduced lunch.  Many more live in poverty but are too proud to apply for help.  Yes, this is a challenge but it is not an excuse.

Our median household income is $11,000 below the national average and 8% of our parents have no high school diploma.  Only 7% of our parents have education after high school.  Again, challenges not excuses.

In the beautiful mountains of Western North Carolina, many of our families have additional problems.  One in every four deaths is attributed to prescription drug abuse.  The number of babies born with chemical dependency has doubled since 2008 in North Carolina.  The greatest increase has occurred in Western North Carolina.

So, instead of blaming parents or poverty or the drug culture, Bethel Elementary has embraced a culture of no excuses.  We worry about what we can control.  This overriding philosophy definitely put us on the path to winning the big game.  So, what exactly do we control?

At Bethel, there is no room for mediocrity.  Everyone is expected to grow professionally.  We seek out the best professional development in the country (Lucy Calkins, Richard Allington, Fountas and Pinnell) and we continually grow and strengthen our staff.  It is our belief that a child with a great (not good) teacher for 6 years is a child with a solid educational foundation.  There are no shortcuts to this.  We hire the best.  We only retain the best and we keep getting better. We make our entire staff stronger … period.

We control data and embrace it.  We know our kids and I mean “know” them.  Each child comes with their own data. This individual data is tracked throughout the school year.  Even before children start Kindergarten, we assess them based on a site-based screener we developed.  We pour over the data of our youngest kids and on one of their very first days of school we begin targeted interventions.  So, if they are already reading, we give them serious enrichment.  If they have never seen a book, we start making up for lost time quickly.

We worry about what we can control.  This emphasis on data has raised our composite score from 75% of students on grade level in 2007-08 to 92.8% in 2011-12.  We are proud our composite has steadily increased with no flat-lines and no regressions.  Sure, we celebrated a 92.8% composite for a short time.  But, the reality is close to 25 students still did not pass the reading End-of-Grade Test.  That is not good enough, not for those kids it wasn’t.

We control what happens in our classrooms.  We believe children learn differently and all children excel when there is a personal connection to their learning.  We actually get excited and invigorated about the challenges of serving our students and we spend a lot of time outside the box, innovating and thinking of new ways to reach our children.  As I mentioned earlier, we are way past the notion of having one reading program, one textbook or one staff development program serving our struggling students.  We have to serve each of them by thinking hard enough and working hard enough to address their individual needs.  For us, it is not a classroom of twenty-four students, it really is a classroom of one … one special, different, individual child.

Did I mention we love each other and our kids?  When interviewing, I always ask applicants, “Do you love children?  I mean really love them?”  These personal relationships with individual students, help develop strong relationships with parents.  Strong parent relationships equal healthy community relations.  Our success has truly been collaboration with many partners.  Our success is not based on a single million dollar check.  It has been all the donations, grants and programs over time that have helped to transform our school.  No money for a project, get out and find it.  Where there is a will, there is a way.

This dedication to the profession and our philosophy and collaborative partnerships have somehow made us a “family” along the way.  The sense of “family” and a warm caring atmosphere was mentioned by one of the judges in the Distinguished Schools Application Process.  Our kids feel this every day and it has made a huge difference in their lives.  Just as “family” made a huge difference in the life of Michael Oher.

In closing, thank you for your time this morning.  This national award has truly been a huge honor for our school and community.  If you are ever in Haywood County, come and visit Bethel Elementary.  It is like Super Bowl Sunday every day!”

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