'I Can Teach You How to Teach,
But I Can’t Teach You How to Care'
Principal Helen Giles of Classical Studies Academy has every reason to be proud that her Title 1 school was one of 17 Connecticut institutions named a School of Distinction. After all, her school made the highest progress in the state’s Mastery Test, with a 29 percent gain in math alone.
“They look at students who move from below basic to basic, from basic to proficient, from proficient to goal, and from goal to advanced. Every child is taken into consideration,” Helen explains. With a complete turnaround in her staff since Helen took the helm six years ago and 98 percent of her students – who are admitted by lottery – on free or reduced lunch, such a feat seems impossible.
Helen credits her staff, all meticulously selected, with achieving the impossible. “The staff I have is really committed and dedicated to the students. They believe in the students. They have warm relationships, and they also have high expectations,” says Helen, who vets her staff based partly on their outside affiliations.
In an interview with one candidate – a single man – Helen found out he was a foster father. “He doesn’t need to be a foster dad. Immediately that told me he really cares. I can teach you how to teach, but I can’t teach you how to care,” Helen shares.
Helen’s staff’s commitment to children trickles down from the top. “I do what my heart tells me to. It’s about the heart. People tell me I’m doing a great job when I’m doing just what I think I should be doing.”
One of her fifth-grade teachers, 30-year-old Ryan Howard, recently won the Theodore and Margaret Beard Excellence in Teaching Award, established in 2002 to reward Bridgeport teachers who demonstrate professional excellence, a commitment to teaching, and an ability to inspire learning. “He makes students feel good about themselves and has some of the highest test scores in the district in fifth grade,” Helen boasts.
Fellow fifth-grade teacher Ruth Gaie was one of eight in a district of more than 1,000 teachers to receive the Inspiration Award for exemplary teachers. According to Helen, Ruth truly believes in every child she teaches and is what Helen and her staff call “a warm demander.”
Since arriving at Classical Studies Academy, Helen has put in place a multitude of ways to help her students excel, including positive behavior strategies, project-based learning using unit studies, and curriculum-related field trips. The school also has a partnership with the Aldrich Museum in nearby Ridgefield, through which students participate in a docent program each fall and spring, culminating in a parent night in which families witness the skills their students have developed.
An after-school enrichment program offers opportunities to learn gymnastics, swimming, baking, cooking, crafts, book clubs, and art history. “There’s a plethora of things we expose them to that help them understand this world is bigger than the one they live in,” Helen says.
To boost literacy, Helen holds two Book Fairs every year. Throughout the year, designated teachers coach children who are reading below level. Helen’s teachers “use Lexia to get our children reading up to par,” she says. In addition, some teachers hold literature circles in their classrooms.
Every quarter the school holds a curriculum night. “We recently had a Social Studies Extravaganza where we celebrated all the cultures in our school. There was a big scavenger hunt, and in each classroom there was a game about culture,” Helen says. Math and reading are also celebrated. A literacy carnival in January featured a reading magician and literacy games in each classroom.
Parents attend curriculum nights to help fulfill their end of the bargain when their child is chosen by lottery to attend the academy. Every parent is required to serve 40 hours a year, or roughly an hour a week, at the school. The school provides a stiff incentive for involvement: “If parents don’t keep their commitment, students are returned to their neighborhood schools,” Helen says. Some parents opt out even if their child is chosen by lottery, instead choosing a magnet school to avoid the time commitment.
The demands are high, but so are the rewards. “Our children are 98 percent free and reduced lunch,” Helen says wistfully. “That percentage is really true. I want them to know their lives can be much greater. We’re very proud of the work we’ve done here.”