As vision statements go, Enterprise Elementary School’s is pretty simple:
“Change is possible. Success is expected.”
Principal Pam Stead says that belief drives every decision at the south Wichita school, which has become an island of hope and success in one of the district’s poorest areas.
“When people know you care about them and love them and want them to succeed, they do it,” Stead said.
“That really is the biggest piece of the whole puzzle.”
Five years ago, state officials listed the high-poverty school as “on improvement” because it didn’t meet test targets, and it faced a host of sanctions under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
But the school has battled back. Last spring its scores improved for the third year in a row, and it has nearly closed an achievement gap – more like a canyon – between white and non-English-speaking students.
“We study hard for tests because that’s how to show what you know,” said fourth-grader Axel Becerril.
Enterprise’s recent success “feels good,” he added. “Really good.”
‘Climate of trust’
In the 2007-08 school year, just over half the school’s third- through fifth-graders passed state reading assessments. Students for whom English wasn’t their native language fared even worse: only one in four passed the reading test.
But that wasn’t all, said Stead, the principal: Many Enterprise students and families just didn’t see the point of state tests or school in general.
About 90 percent of children at Enterprise, near I-235 and MacArthur Road in south Wichita, receive free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty. Many live in forgotten, run-down neighborhoods or in kitchenette motel rooms along South Broadway. They move a lot.
They struggle to scrape together meals and buy clothes. Many parents dropped out of high school and figured their kids would likely do the same.
“You had teachers blaming parents and parents blaming teachers” for students’ poor performance, Stead said. “We had to build a climate of trust.”
She began by insisting that every teacher earn an English as a Second Language endorsement from the state, and she let them use planning and team time to work toward those credits.
“They still had to do quite a bit of homework and studying on their own, but we worked as a team,” Stead said. “We were cheering each other on.”
Teachers learned strategies to help not only English-language learners, the principal said, but other students as well.
Next, parent involvement coordinator Misty Seeber launched an effort to help parents get their high school or general equivalency diplomas. Parents work in the school’s library or computer lab, or can print out assignments to take home.
About 40 parents signed up for the program the first year, but many didn’t want to come into the school for the first informational meeting.
“We’d see these people driving around the parking lot or sitting out there. They were scared. They were embarrassed,” Stead said.
“So we just walked out there and knocked on their windows and said, ‘What are you doing? Get in there! We’re all ready for you. … You need to get to work.’ ”
This year, 120 parents signed up for the program.
LaShunda Wooley learned about it when she enrolled her daughter, Antonia, in kindergarten at Enterprise. The 27-year-old single mother of two had given up on high school long ago – she was a freshman at East when she dropped out – but now she’s learning fractions again and doing homework with her daughter.
“She’s proud of me. She’s proud I go to school,” Wooley said. “This program just opened my eyes. It shows my daughter that I think education is important.”
The atmosphere at Enterprise helps, too, Wooley said.
“That is the best school I’ve ever seen. They are so willing to help – and loving,” she said. “I never felt that in a school before.”
Each morning at Enterprise starts with triage at the doors. Teachers, paraprofessionals, bus monitors and others make a point to greet each child and look them in the eyes.
“If someone’s crying or mad or there’s something going on, we address that right away,” the principal said. “We’ll pull them aside and say, ‘Is something bothering you? Do you need to talk to somebody?’
“If we can spend five minutes right now fixing whatever it is that’s upsetting them, it helps the whole day go more smoothly.”
Sometimes a student had a fight with a sibling, she said. Some went to bed too late and had trouble waking up on time.
Some problems are easily fixed, Stead said. Donations from Bethel Life Center allow the school to buy or replenish school supplies for kids whose families can’t afford them. The church also helps finance coats, shoes, haircuts and clothes for needy children and adopted 10 families at Christmastime.
Other situations are trickier. When a fifth-grader started defying teachers, hanging with a bad crowd and getting into trouble recently, Stead called him and his parents in to her office.
“I had to say, ‘Look, your parents are working hard, night and day, to get you what you need. This school is working hard. Everyone cares about you. So you have a choice to make,’ ” Stead said.
Shape up, get it together, or end up in jail – or worse.
“You have to give them some sign of hope,” she said. “Some belief that there is something out there to work for, and education is the way to get there.”
Assessment time again
When Stead walks through the halls or into classrooms, she greets children by name, puts her arm around their shoulders and asks how they’re doing.
In Shonda Haught’s first-grade class, a boy showed Stead his haircut. In a class for behaviorally disturbed children – a program to transition them out of or into regular classrooms – a girl ran up to Stead and whispered that, earlier in the day, her teacher had thrown a pretzel.
“She needs to get in trouble,” the girl said, smiling.
“OK, thanks for letting me know,” Stead replied, smiling back.
In just a few weeks, Enterprise students will prepare to take state assessments again. Teachers and younger students will line the hallways and cheer like fans at a pep rally.
If the school meets or surpasses improvement goals set by the state, the students will get some kind of special treat. Last year, they threw pies at Stead and some teachers.
That’s a good incentive, said 9-year-old Kevin Tran. But it’s not his only reason for studying and working hard at school.
“I want to go to college and get a job,” he said. “I want to be a success.”