Wednesday, April 20, 2011

"A School with a Heart" Destroyed by a Tornado

On February 9, 2008, I posted an article on my Website about an exceptional school in a  rural, high-poverty area of North Carolina where staff members strive to make a difference in the lives of their students. That school was destroyed by a tornado last Saturday.

No one was hurt. But in an already impoverished area where so many children already struggle, this new obstacle is particularly hard for students and the teachers who care for them.  To learn more about this school and how they are coping, visit their Website:

Here is an excerpt from that 2008 article about the school with a heart and how the staff there makes a difference in the lives of at-risk children.

"Poverty has no pity. It strikes hardest at its most vulnerable victims—our children. Few other professionals are more keenly aware of this sad fact than teachers. Even those educators who do not teach in high-poverty areas will work with children whose home lives are marked by scarcity instead of comfort. In fact, according to the Children’s Defense Fund, one in six children in our country lives in poverty.

The implication for educators is profound. We are often the first defense in the battle to protect our students from the cruelties of privation. We are ones who watch for the child without a winter coat on a frigid day and who check to sure our students have lunch money or field trip fees. We listen to stories of life without books or museums or summer vacations and come to understand why school success is just a dream for so many. We are all too aware of the contrast between what life in the richest country in the world should be and what it actually is for many children.

In an occupation that is considered one of the most stressful of all, poverty takes its toll on educators, also. Trying to reach students who come to school unprepared to cooperate, listen, read or even plan for the future is stressful. Teachers in all too many schools, in both urban and rural settings, burn out quickly because of the helplessness they feel when faced with the almost insurmountable odds that many of their students face.

In one rural middle school in the heart of southeastern North Carolina, though, educators have made a decision to fight back—to work together to ensure that the lives of the children in their classrooms are better at the end of the day than at the beginning. The personnel of Greene County Middle School in Snow Hill, North Carolina, come to work with the conviction that what they do matters. During the course of the school year, the children of this school are not the only ones who benefit from the compassionate kindness inherent in the staff. The spirit of caring extends past individual students to touch everyone in the building. The result? A school with a heart.

When visitors enter GCMS for the first time, they notice the large banner over the front door announcing the school’s motto: “Creating a School of Significance.” The staff at GCMS works in collaboration with nearby East Carolina University in Project Significance to make sure that local schools are significant factors in creating successful lives for all children.

In addition to the school’s motto banner, at strategic areas visitors notice large signs with the same message: “It’s Not If You’ll Go to College, It’s When You’ll Go to College” to remind students of the larger purpose of their education. Because children pass these signs repeatedly throughout the day, the message is driven home.

Then there are the homemade signs just like in any other school across the nation. Only at this school, the signs remind students of good-will activities such as to bring in “Gifts for Guatemala” at Christmas or coins for a Special Olympics fundraiser in February. There are other child-friendly signs, too, as well as bulletin boards with messages supporting students as they move towards a better future. Students see photographs of their peers winning awards, reminders of after-school programs, notices of sports events, and other encouraging reminders of what school offers.

One of the best ways to help children of poverty is to extend the school environment into the community. At Greene County Middle School, the connection between the local communities and the school is strong. For example, Relay for Life events are now part of the American existence. This is true at GCMS also. Hoops for Hope is a much anticipated event for eighth graders as they come together to help fight the battle against cancer. Other school Relay for Life events include the seventh grade Ram Fest and Put a Cap on Cancer. In a small, impoverished rural community, the outpouring of funds from limited budgets is noteworthy. Students at this school do more than just sit in a desk; they develop a compassionate attitude towards those less fortunate.

At GCMS, the students are typical of many schools in high-poverty areas: they are an appealing mixture of cultures, experiences, backgrounds, and they sometimes come to school with innumerable problems. The Child and Family Support Team actively forms a strong bond between the school and home. There are two school nurses and a social worker who seem to know every family in the area. They visit homes, make sure students take prescribed medications, help in a crisis, provide transportation when necessary, and sometimes just offer comfort when life is too hard.

Another one of the sound educational practices that researchers and theorists offer to help children of poverty is to include as much computer-assisted learning as possible. At GCMS, the one-to-one laptop initiative allows every child a computer for his or her own use. Recently the school has even garnered the prestigious Apple Distinguished School award for the extensive technology use throughout the school. In class and in their free time, students log on to a much wider world than the rural life around them.

There are also many programs designed to help students improve their competency in learning basic skills. Individualized instruction in classrooms, cooperation among team teachers, grade level support, and after school programs are just a few of the ways that educators at this school work hard to make sure that all students catch up to their peers in more affluent areas.

One of the most important programs to help students acquire the tools they need to become self-sufficient learners is the schools’ balanced literacy program. Although teachers at many other schools give lip-service to the need to improve their students’ reading skills, at GCMS, every teacher is a teacher of reading. From the universal independent reading time every morning to the frequent professional development activities conducted by the school’s literacy team, the emphasis on the importance of good reading skills is inescapable for students and teachers alike.

The shared vision of the instructional practices at Greene County Middle School eliminates much of the confusion and professional competition that teachers at other schools can experience. As a result, at GCMS, students are not the only ones who benefit from the spirit of cooperation and mutual collaboration in the building. Staff members also extend their caring support to their colleagues.

Successes as well as the routine tasks of running a school are shared. Walk through the halls of GCMS and you will be greeted with friendly smiles. “Can I help you with that?” is the informal dictum at this school. The compassionate professionalism of the staff combined with the far-reaching vision of its motto creates a faculty buy-in that ensures that this school is indeed a school with a very large heart.

What lessons can this outstanding school offer the rest of us who struggle to teach the children of poverty?

• First, work to make the connection between what happens in your classroom and the home lives of your students as strong as possible. Move the information from textbooks to useful skills that students need now and in the future.

• Make the bond between school and home a strong one. Reach out to the families of your students. Don’t wait until a problem occurs to contact them.

• Build your students’ pride and confidence in their school work. Celebrate successes and keep aiming higher.

• Don’t allow students to just get by. Maintain high expectations for all students.

• Teach basic skills. Make sure students know what to do and how to do it well.

• Teach reading. Students should read in every class every day.

• Work to make sure that students have the financial support they need when you arrange field trips and other extracurricular activities so that no one is left out.

• Focus on school work as the way to a brighter future. While many students see celebrities with great talent as role models, they tend to overlook the role models standing in front of the class. School work, not dumb luck, is the way out of poverty.

To learn more about how you can become a successful teacher in a high-poverty area, try these resources:

• Dr. Ruby Payne’s Web site: Here you can learn specific strategies, more about Dr. Payne and her work, and how to purchase resource materials including A Framework for Understanding Poverty.

• Another useful site is This site, sponsored by the Southern Poverty Law Center, contains many useful resources, links, strategies, and activities for teachers."

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