There’s no perfect formula to help low-achieving schools improve. However, education experts say it’s almost impossible to turn around those schools without good leadership.
This week, we’re exploring how teachers at a school in Southwest DeKalb County are making progress with their students. Flat Shoals Elementary is in a poor community. As a result, a lot of students come to school behind.
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But last year, the school’s test scores improved. Flat Shoals teachers give a lot of credit to their principal, Laconduas Freeman. Freeman is tall, exuberant and usually smiling. She’s unfailingly positive. Freeman starts every faculty meeting with what she calls “celebrations.”
Teachers can celebrate anything – it doesn’t have to be school-related. At a faculty meeting during the first week of school, Freeman called on fourth-grade teacher Regina Edwards to celebrate something.
“I just want to celebrate my whole class,” Edwards said. “I’m loving this group of kids. Anything I send home, they bring it back instantly. No behavior problems the past three days. None.”
This is Freeman’s third year as principal at Flat Shoals. Several teachers credit her with changing the school’s climate.
First-grade teacher Alta Walker said Freeman created a family atmosphere.
“If she sees that you’re getting really stressed, she will come in your room and be like, ‘OK, Mrs. Walker, what do you need me to do for you?” Walker said.
Freeman just sees that as part of her job.
“The biggest thing is just making teachers feel that they are appreciated,” she said. “Even in the midst of them doing what they’re doing, you have to show them that you care, and that, hey, you’re in the trenches with them. So, there’s nothing I’m going to ask of my teachers that I’m not willing to do myself.”
But Freeman knows changing the school’s direction will take more than the resources she has within the school building. That’s why she has found unique ways to involve families and the community to help.
‘It Takes A Village’
PTA secretary Gloria Wilmont is raising her great-granddaughters, who go to Flat Shoals. Soon after they started school, she realized other grandparents were in the same boat.
“I began to meet so many grandparents that were not just doing this as a favor, but they are the caretakers of these kids,” Wilmont said.
So, she formed a grandparent group. She said seniors who take care of elementary school children need support.
“We need a group where you can come to us and cry, or if you need help, maybe we can refer you to the proper source to get help,” she said.
Wilmont said she’s as involved at the school largely because of Freeman.
“I’ve been at Flat Shoals before – administrations before her. And, Lord, this is a 150 percent turnaround for Flat Shoals,” Wilmont said. “That’s the reason my husband and I, we totally volunteer.”
In addition to inspiring these great-grandparents to volunteer, last year Freeman decided to reach out to fathers. So, she started a monthly Dads’ Breakfast.
“[We] just wanted to strengthen the relationship between students and their dad or the significant male in their life,” Freeman said.
On the third Friday of every month, dads come eat breakfast with their children.
Different community partners donate money to keep the program going.
That’s been another key focus for Freeman: cultivating partners in the community.
The Saturday before school starts, Flat Shoals holds a Back to School Bash. There are free backpacks and school supplies for the children – all donated.
There are bouncy houses, face painting and plenty of food.
Volunteers from local churches were grilling hot dogs and serving snow cones. It’s over 90 degrees. They were sweating but smiling. Neither the heat nor the humidity seemed to slow their pace – or dampen their spirit.
Tabernacle of Faith is one of the churches that work with Flat Shoals.
“South DeKalb area is an area that is fairly low-income, very transient, senior pastor Frances Mills said, “So, the children, the families here, they need whatever assistance we can give them.”
That assistance ranges from food during the holidays to etiquette programs that teach the children table manners.
Freeman has embraced the old proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” She wants to make sure her “village” is as robust as possible.
This story is part three of a series exploring how teachers at Flat Shoals are trying to help their kids beat the odds. Part one focused on the challenges teachers face in the classroom. Part two focused on strategies teachers use to reach kids on different levels.