Andrew Campanella: Terry, you helped build New Emerson Elementary from the ground up. What inspired you to do that?
Terry Schmalz, principal: This was all based on my own educational experience. I went to school and had teachers that really didn’t engage me like I felt they should have. I recognized that at a really young age and so my life’s mission has been to create a place where kids could be nurtured every day. When I had the opportunity to do that, I took it, and it’s been wonderful.
Andrew: Tell me more about STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) and how New Emerson uses those subjects as magnets to teach in all areas of education.
Miranda Bailey, libratory/makerspace coordinator: It’s a lens to look through how we do instruction and learning. We keep on the forefront that STEAM is a primary focus of our school and those principles will be integrated through all of the subject areas. We offer the kids not just a libratory of making and building and technology. They can go to art also. Other elementary schools in our community do not get that designated art class for elementary level. We offer explorations where kids can choose different subjects they’re interested in and the teachers will offer courses. So the component of flexibility comes up as well. The libratory has helped us really pull that all together, giving us a place to focus on projects that might take several weeks that integrate all of those STEAM skills together.
Andrew: It is pretty impressive that 82% of your students are proficient or advanced in Math when only 39% of students across the state are. What do you chalk that up to?
Terry: I chalk that up to all of the small school research. We know each other and we really keep our focus on our learners.
It’s very learner-centered and we always go back to what’s best for our learners and not what’s best for adults, so it is really the learner-centered environment.
Also, we are able to have a learning community once a week and we do study together, so our staff is very cohesive. It’s a district expectation that we keep growing and adding new things and trying new things so we’re not stagnant. Having that time to learn together and to look at what our learners are doing and where we need to take them next, those are key elements to our success.
Miranda: I’ve been a parent here and I’m a teacher who’s worked in different states as well. People often think that it’s one thing that makes a school successful, but it’s many factors here. The small size is definitely one. My husband’s always saying, “Why can’t we just have more New Emerson small schools everywhere?” If I had to choose just one thing, and educational research says it too, it’s our principal that makes this school special. I have worked for eleven principals and assistant principals in my twenty years in education and Terry Schmalz is by far the most effective leader with whom I have had the pleasure of working. Notice I say with— because I never feel like I am working for her. Also, this staff has worked together a long time. You don’t see that in a lot of schools. They love it here, they’re happy, and because they’re all long-time professionals, they know what they’re doing. So that’s another element of unity and speaks to how their contentedness helps with the learning.
Andrew: I love the idea of your Early Bird Reading Program, where you invite parents and community members to listen as kids read before school. How did that come about?
Terry: The Early Bird Program is based off of the bedtime story approach. I was able to create the school from the ground up and one of the things that I really wanted to have was that wonderful atmosphere of reading together, sharing literature together with your parents at school. So we created this program. It’s a low-key, 15-20 minute time period where learners can read with their parents. For those students who do not have a parent that’s able to come and participate in the Early Bird Program, they’re able to have a fifth grade mentor who will come and read with them. But the whole goal is to enjoy literature together and experience that wonderful time together before they get their day started.
Andrew: As students, what does it mean to you that your family chose this school?
Kate, fifth-grader: I really like it here because we’re a great school and we really learn what we need to learn moving on from New Emerson.
Maya, fifth-grader: It means a lot to me because all my siblings are at different schools and my parents teach at different schools, so it means a lot that they chose this school.
Nic, fifth-grader: I think it’s super special that they chose this school for me. I have friends that are from other schools and they talk about how kids there do bad stuff.
Pedro, fifth-grader: It means a lot to me that my parents chose this school because it’s such a great school. Everybody’s kind here. We learn a lot and we learn how to be good people to others, so I really like it here.
Andrew Campanella is President of National School Choice Week.
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