Oh, the Places They’ll Go

How a Springdale principal has made her elementary’s “whole child” approach a model for the nation’s poorest schools
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By all appearances, Jones Elementary School in Springdale is typical of any public school in the United States. The playground buzzes with the energy emanating from dozens of unleashed kindergartners through fifth-graders. Interior walls display primary-colored signage and student work in a variety of shapes and sizes. Caricatures of a team mascot—a jaguar, in this case—abound.

But Jones isn’t a typical public elementary school. That its students face some overwhelming challenges—98.5 percent of students come from families that live at or below the poverty line, and for 80 percent, English is not their primary language—is not what sets it apart. What makes the school unique is what it has done to overcome these challenges.

Case in point: This school year, the school launched Parent University, a program that offers free night classes to parents on topics such as computer literacy and gang-awareness training. Another relatively recent initiative is the school’s home library project, whereby every child at Jones gets 20 to 40 new books per school year to keep at home—an idea first hatched when a teacher realized many of the students in his class didn’t own a single book. Older programs, such as the school’s free daily breakfast and its on-site health and wellness center, highlight how Jones has tackled student problems such as hunger and access to basic health care.

Behind each one of these initiatives is Melissa Fink, who launched these programs and more in both her previous role as assistant principal and in her current one as principal. Fink believes that poverty is not destiny, as she’s been known to say, and that every child can succeed at high levels. It’s a lofty notion, but no one can accuse her of not being realistic about the challenges her students face.

“Poverty, hunger, not having adequate clothing or health care, safety issues—these are the barriers our students are up against,” she says. “If you’re hungry, you’re not going to learn. If you’re worried about what’s going to happen to mom while you’re in school, you’re not going to learn.”

The many programs Fink and her faculty have instituted to remove those barriers are paying off, and not just anecdotally. Today, the numbers tell the story: Eight years ago, only 26 percent of the kids at Jones could read at their grade level. Today, that number is 73 percent. The school’s successes have even caught the attention of the nation’s capital. Earlier this year, U.S. Department of Education representatives visited Jones with a film crew in tow to interview Fink and other school faculty for a video series highlighting schools that are role models for the rest of the nation.

We caught up with Fink during a hectic week of standardized testing to hear more about the school’s successes and on where it’s headed next.

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That’s a pretty significant jump in literacy improvement these past eight years. Looking back, what were the biggest factors contributing to the increase?

One of the biggest factors was instilling a culture of collaboration among the faculty. For so long, teachers shut their doors and just kind of did their own thing. What we found at Jones over the years is that when teachers get together, when they collaborate and talk about their students, that’s when we can really see a change. For instance, it’s not uncommon for a fifth-grade teacher to check out a first-grade reading class. In fact, that’s something that happens here on a regular basis. Sometimes we get kids in the fifth grade who are struggling readers because they’re missing the reading foundational skills that are taught in the first grade. And fifth-grade teachers don’t have the experience working with kids on those basics, so they’ll look to their colleagues in the first grade for guidance.

In addition to focusing on academic improvement, you’ve been recognized for focusing on the well-being of students. Can you give me some specific examples of how you do that?

We started our health and wellness center about six or seven years ago. Having the center helps us support our parents in providing medical care for the students. We have a full-time nurse practitioner on staff, as well as two mental-health specialists and a nurse. Thanks to the work they do, new kids who are uninsured can get their vaccines here at school instead of having to go to the health department in Fayetteville, which was a strain on parents who didn’t have transportation or couldn’t take time off from work. The nurse practitioner can also treat chronic illnesses, such as asthma or diabetes.

In the past, if we had a kid who came down with an illness—strep throat or an ear infection, say—we’d have to call mom or dad and have them come and pick up the child. A lot of time they wouldn’t have transportation, or they wouldn’t have insurance to get their child the proper medical care. Three or four days would pass, and if the child didn’t come back to school or we didn’t hear from the parents, we’d go knock on their door. Often we’d find that the parent hadn’t taken the child to the doctor for whatever reason, be it financial or a lack of transportation. And we’d have to load the kid in my car or the school nurse’s car and take him or her to the emergency room.

Was your approach a radical change for the school? Were district folks a bit gun-shy at first?

Yes, it was a radical change, but no, district members were not gun-shy—not at all. Jones is what it is today because we have such a supportive district and superintendent, not to mention our entire community just wraps its arms around us. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to raise a school. I think what [the school district members] have come to realize over the years is that because of the socioeconomic challenges our kids face, many of the approaches we take to successfully educate our kids will have to look different from those taken at other schools. There are simply a lot of services we have to provide our kids to remove those barriers to learning. And they get that.

Can you give me an example of a child whose life was impacted by the programs in place here at Jones?

We had a student who started second grade not being able to read. Because of his struggles with reading, he was frustrated and acted out a lot. He came from a two-parent family where Mom managed a restaurant, but Dad was unemployed. We were really concerned about his struggles with reading, but Dad was frustrated with the reading homework we sent home. You see, Dad was illiterate, and I think he was frustrated that he couldn’t help. So there was a lot of tension in the home, and between home and school. So we wondered, “How can we help this child without creating problems for him at home?” And we came up with the idea of finding him a homework buddy here at school.

He worked on his reading with our librarian assistant every day after school, and steadily, his reading began to improve. In the third grade, he had a teacher who was very involved in the home library project. She was very intuitive about what his interests were—he was crazy about Harry Potter, so she made sure he was picking books in the same genre. When most kids go home over the summer break, they regress in their reading and English skills. But when he came back and started the fourth grade after the summer break, not only was there no regression in these areas, his reading score actually improved by 10 points. A big jump! So I called him into my office, and I asked him why he thought he’d made such an improvement, and he said it was because he read all summer long. He said he read every book he had in his home library. I asked him who had helped him. And he said, “My dad did!” He said he and his dad would set daily reading goals. For instance, his dad would say, “I want you to read 10 pages today.” But, he admitted, once he started to read his book, he couldn’t put it down. This child went from a child who could barely read and had a lot of anger issues in second grade to a confident and self-possessed kid who is now a voracious reader in fourth grade.

How have other schools in the district reacted to the success you’re having here at Jones?

It’s not uncommon for other schools in the district and in the state to come and observe what is going on in our school. For instance, we have several teachers here whose classrooms are model classrooms for the nation, especially in math. But we ourselves are eager to learn from the successes of our counterparts in the state, so it’s also common for us to pay them visits.

I’ll be honest with you—the Department of Education video has thrust us into the spotlight, and it hasn’t been very comfortable for me. I don’t do the spotlight well. But I do it because I want the same for every other poverty-stricken kid in America. I want people to see that these kids have potential, and when you commit to them and to collaboration among your teachers, and you think outside of the box, it’s endless what you can accomplish with these kids.

What inspired you to take on this challenge?

I’m a person of faith. I have a very strong belief in God. I sit in church, and they talk about the mission field, and I think, “I go to my mission field every day.” Some people go across the ocean to do mission work. I go across town. I believe this is what I was called to do, and I can’t imagine serving any other population. I feel very passionate about what I do. It’s very rewarding to empower kids who in the past might not have had hope for their future.

What is next for the school?

We just want to continue to get better at getting better. We won’t be satisfied with ourselves until we have 100 percent of our kids reading at grade level, and until we do that, we have to keep getting better and examining our practices, and looking at what our data is telling us, and putting systems in place to achieve that big audacious goal of 100 percent.

Plus, we’re committed to growing our parent support. We’ve progressed at this school from serving the academic child to serving the whole child, which means focusing first on meeting their basic needs—food, clothing, shelter, health care. Now we’ve begun to focus on another layer: helping to support their families so they can have better resources and be knowledgeable about how to better serve their kids. Specifically, we’re committed to growing our Parent University, and also, we’re in the discussion phase of a program that would offer family mentoring in conjunction with it. It would be other adults mentoring other adults, but we don’t know exactly what that looks like yet. Our goal is to work out the specifics for the next school year.

What fulfills you the most?

Anytime that I’m in a classroom and I see kids working at grade level who have overcome so much—I know the story behind the kids and their families and the situation they come from. When I see them in a classroom and I see the strong relationships they’ve built with their teachers and their peers, and I see them learning and achieving, that makes me go home at night and think, “This has been a good day.”