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Best of Class

The 2006 Intel and Scholastic Schools of Distinction Award winners prove that when it comes to managing a successful and happy school, nice guys finish first.

The refrain you’ll hear most from the leaders at this year’s top award-winning schools is how terrific everyone else is—their teachers, support staff, the kids, the parents, the outside partners. But everyone has to be great to make it work, according to Barbara D. Brown, principal of P.S. 161/Don Pedro Albizu Campos School in Harlem. “To make a successful, sustainable school, we need to allow all participants to bring their gifts to the table,” says Brown. As a result, she jokes, visitors to P.S. 161 often can’t pick the principal out of a crowd of teachers.

Perhaps it’s no accident that both P.S. 161 and Chisholm Middle School in Newton, Kansas—this year’s two Best of the Best award–winning schools in the Intel and Scholastic Schools of Distinction Award (SoDA)—were also selected as winners in the Collaboration and Teamwork category (see page 26). As their school leaders have discovered, real collaborative effort takes hard work and a commitment to infuse team spirit into every decision that’s made—both inside the school as well as in the community at large.  

During his 12 years as principal of Chisholm Middle School, George Leary epitomized this strategy. He created teams among his staff that collaborated with an area college, recruited business and community volunteers for one-on-one tutoring, and started a Bigs in Schools program, which is a spin-off of Big Brothers Big Sisters. A local church held homework classes for Hispanic students two nights a week. The “community as team” approach paid off. In 2000, 43 percent of eighth-grade students at the school were reading at or above proficiency; by 2005 that number had risen to 72 percent. In math, student proficiency jumped from 60 percent to 90 percent. “We always had a lot of great, caring teachers,” Leary notes, “but the structure we have allows things to happen.”

Principal Brown points out that building a successful team doesn’t happen overnight. A team has to be on the same page about what it does, how it will function, and how its members will interact with one another and with outsiders. “We spent a lot of time on training up front,” Brown notes. Then, she says, it’s critical to prove to staff members that it’s safe to take risks. The old model of teaching is very isolated, with everything happening behind closed doors. The collaborative approach puts strengths and weaknesses on display—and that can be scary. Brown sees it as her job to say, “You can take a risk. You don’t have to be perfect, but you have to improve.”

Working as a team allows educators at these two Best of the Best schools to see and think about the whole child in new and unique ways. Cesar Pena, who succeeded Leary as principal at Chisholm Middle School, believes that the team approach brings new insights to staff and also bonds them together. “We’re a family. We talk about everything,” he says.

Working with the community offers new and exciting opportunities for enrichment. Brown says that many of these external collaborations strengthen academics while exposing underprivileged kids to new experiences. When P.S. 161 received funding for a new outdoor track, for example, Brown contacted the New York Road Runners for help in developing a track program. A desire to increase language skills led the school to partner with Rosie’s Broadway Kids and learn more about music and lyrics, while introducing students to New York’s thriving theater scene. Music and the Brain, funded in part by the Ford Foundation, helps parents and children connect math and music skills.

For Brown, Leary, and Pena, working as a team means working smarter for kids—and the results show. “Our parents are sending us the very best they’ve got, each and every day—and that’s their kids,” Brown says passionately. “We feel we are an institution in the community, and we should make a viable contribution.”

Along with P.S. 161 and Chisholm, here is a look at the 16 School of Distinction elementary and secondary winners. Each has valuable lessons for school administrators. 

About the Author

Pamela Wheaton Shorr is editor of The Heller Reports' Educational Sales and Marketing Insider, and is a frequent contributor to Scholastic Administr@tor.

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