Principals Bring Big Ideas Home

MONROE – Each year the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation/Foundation for Educational Administration funds fellowships for a number of New Jersey school principals. These were just some of this year’s winners, and the group who presented their outcomes at a special reception at FEA back in May.

Every once in a while, we might be tempted to wonder what good it does to fund fellowships that allow the awardees to travel to destinations of their choosing and observe a foreign, or not-so-foreign culture. But listening to the recipients of the Geraldine R. Dodge/FEA Principal Fellowship grant, one wonders something very different—how it might be possible to fund more such experiences.


Far from returning with merely a renewed spirit and refreshed outlook, this year’s recipients brought back from their travels some very concrete action plans, which they outlined during a grant reception at FEA Wednesday night.

Sharon Biggs started a foundation that provides books to schools in Panama, Berthenia Harmon Carolina and LaShawn Gibson-Burney learned to question all of their closely held assumptions, including what it means to be a disciplined student, and Deneen Washington started a number of mentoring programs for at-risk students in her Newark school. Plus, Chris Lommerin wrote a book, and Tracey Severns plans to write one about her 25-mile trek up the Inca Trail to Macchu Pichu.

“In the U.S., we don’t know what poverty is.” – Sharon Biggs

Sometimes a plan is just a plan. Sometimes plans work out quite differently than we expected. Sharon Biggs of the Bloomingdale school district had a vague idea about going to Panama because her husband is a native of the country and because she wanted to learn about the schools there. She also wanted to deliver the 100 or so books she and her family brought with them. Living in the U.S., Sharon said, “We don’t know what poverty is. The schools we visited in Panama had no doors and no glass in the windows. The library was padlocked.” Inside the library—the library that had to be secured because it held such precious contents—were decade-old used workbooks—the only books available to the kids in this school.

The poverty was so severe that she and her family felt nothing less than grief as they began to understand the depth of the deprivation. Their grief, however, turned to resolve. After presenting students with the 100 books they brought with them, the family decided to start a foundation—the Lifeline Foundation and planned to collect 1,000 books to send to the elementary school in Cativa, Panama. They didn’t collect 1,000 books though. They collected 10,000. They’re now providing books to three schools in Panama, plus the Adelaide L. Sanford Charter School in Newark, the Saved Souls Ministries in Hamilton, NJ, and a school for refugee children in the Ivory Coast. The idea has blossomed. The foundation now has more than 25 business and education sponsors and donors, and a similar number of individual sponsors, so the good work continues. Not a bad result from a trip to Panama.

A trip to Kansas City Missouri was all the inspiration Deneen Washington of Newark Public Schools needed to conceive a number of adult/student mentoring programs for the students in her elementary school, Maple Avenue School in Newark. While she may have absolutely loved the food at two of the most famous soul food restaurants west of the Mississippi, the Blue Room and the Peachtree, she was inspired by the National School-Based Mentoring Conference she attended there. At the conference , she had an epiphany. What she discovered was, as she put it, that she and other adults can become change agents. That people have the capacity to make change happen and that sometimes all they need is to be empowered to realize that ability. She learned that by making the right connections between people, lives can change for the better.

The change is coming to Maple Avenue School in the form of a fairly large number of mentoring programs that were the progeny of Deneen’s trip to the conference. She implemented mentoring programs for her elementary school students by creating partnerships with adult community members, with nearby high school students, and with other adults in the school. She learned a lot, she said, about matching students and mentors while she was at the conference. “Sometimes adults know they want to be mentors, but there has to be the right match between the adult and the student,” she said.

“Sometimes people want to know why we’re giving the kids so many rewards. But they really need to know that they are making progress.”
–Deneen Washington

One of the programs Deneen has expanded (because she had started it previously) is what she called the girls’ club and now calls “Between Sisters.” The students in that club perform community service all year long. In fact, right now they’re making all the plans for a diabetes walk to provide one of their fellow students with the insulin that her parents, who have no health insurance, cannot afford. Another of their efforts collected purses for women in shelters. Often women in shelters don’t have a purse and have to use plastic bags, Deneen explained.

Her programs even run outside of school hours so that kids have something to keep them involved and engaged. While at-risk students benefit from many of the programs, Deneen recognized that school can be just as difficult for the more gifted students. She said smart kids have to be allowed to be smart without fear of retaliation or ostracism by other students. Her special program gives these kids a chance to bond and have a group to belong to and allows them to deal with the particular school issues that affect them.

All of the programs are having positive outcomes. As Deneen stated, sometimes progress means that a kid who gets in trouble for hitting three times a week is hitting less often. Sometimes it means making the honor roll. In any case, she said that it’s important to recognize the students’ success, and to do so frequently. ”Sometimes people want to know why we’re giving the kids so many rewards. But they really need to know that they are making progress,” she said.

Lifelong friends, Berthenia Harmon Carolina of Elizabeth Public Schools and LaShawn Gibson-Burney of Newark Public Schools were awarded the Dodge/FEA grant for their proposal to go to Japan to explore the Japanese concept of the “lesson study” and Japanese education in general. The trip, “an experience no one can take away from us,” and a lifelong dream realized, as Berthenia put it, taught the duo more than how Japanese schools implement lesson study. The biggest lesson they learned, according to both Berthenia and LaShawn, was that it pays to examine your assumptions. So many of their preconceived notions turned out to be wrong, they said, but they were thrilled to have their minds opened in this way.

The pair was struck by the difference between how they expected children to behave in Japan and the behavior they actually encountered. Students would run down the hallway, for example, when they needed to get around, and the principal wasn’t even concerned by it. So while the students were not sitting rigidly in the classroom at their desks all the time, they were still well disciplined. It was just more self-regulated. This observation led the two to wonder whether “discipline,” as we think of it here, is the right approach to keeping students engaged. They went back to their respective schools determined to rethink, or at least examine, concepts they take for granted.

Renewal was part of the plan when Pamela Moore of Milville Public Schools applied for the DODGE/FEA grant. Sometimes a principal’s life really is just too hectic. Sometimes you just have to learn to relax. Nobody benefits when the leader of the group is constantly under the gun. Pamela learned this when her family physician attempted to learn what Pamela does in her down time. Well, apparently there was none.

“I didn’t anticipate being insecure about sharing my work and feeling somewhat exposed.” –Pamela Moore

So armed with the advice that she isn’t helping anyone by being exhausted, she set off to New England to experience the majesty of the coast and to learn to paint. Kids are now taking art lessons with her as she joins the art classes in her school, knocking down the perceived barrier between a principal and the students. In addition, she has started a program in which students take art classes outside of school as well.

Pamela learned a number of things about herself in the process, not the least of which is that even a principal could be nervous about showing her work to the students. I have to admit that this was a little more intimidating than I originally thought. “When I wrote the proposal [for the grant] I knew my artwork was personal to me. However, I didn’t anticipate being insecure about sharing my work and feeling somewhat exposed. Once I got through a few presentations, I began to gain a little more confidence in my work and the message that I was sharing,” she explained.

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