On Thursday Jan. 11, ACSA’s Elementary Education Council met at 186th Street Elementary School in Gardena, a city of 60,000 people located in the urban South Bay of Los Angeles County, to witness what an extraordinary school community can accomplish under years of great leadership, even with limited access to resources.
The Council aims to be the voice of elementary and pre-school administrators in meeting students’ goals, upholding the ACSA vision: to serve educational leaders in the pursuit of equity and excellence in order to meet the diverse needs of all California students.
For this site visit, Council President Ron Tanimura expressed a hope “to take a look at what an urban school setting looks like” and to see how a dynamic principal like Marcia Reed tackles the challenges of access and resources that stand before the Council.
When Reed arrived at 186th Street 14 years ago, achieving reform was “really a challenge” due to behavioral problems and a high absence rate. Even today, the school’s population has an 86 percent poverty rate (the national rate is 12.7 percent), but Reed has never let this lower the standards she set for her school. Instead, she patiently completed her goal of reforming school culture in order to enable teachers to teach and worry less about external factors.
One of the keys to Principal Reed’s success is her unwavering commitment to fostering a school climate that clearly emphasizes the importance of love, kindness, acceptance, and anti-bullying. Reed told ACSA:
“It’s not about everything that you have. It’s about what you do with what you have. We have an amazing staff. I always say we’re soaring with America’s best educators… There’s just something that’s so special with seeing our teachers sitting with our children and interacting with them. And just building those relationships. It’s letting them know that I care about you. And I care about your future.”
In terms of finding more resources and funding, Reed’s advice is: “Be willing to go out there and be a foot soldier. To find resources for your children. Just ask. The worst thing that can happen is they can say is no. But what if they say yes?”
Scott Borba, principal of Stroud Elementary, put it this way:
“When you visit suburban settings, you look for innovation that’s supported by a tremendous amount of funding in the community. Here, you look at innovation through a different scope… It’s what people can do with little. And that type of innovation where a principal is stretching and finding community partnerships and encouraging teachers to volunteer. And getting the community to come into the school and onto the campus to support students, that’s really what Marcia’s done.”
“It’s not always about the resources that you have,” added Christopher Downing, LAUSD Local District South Superintendent. “It’s about the first teaching. It’s about the high quality instruction. And it’s about the people that are working directly with the students and the practices that they use.”
Community building, for example, is crucial, especially when resources are limited. “There are generations of parents who have sent their kids here, and really are adamant that their child should go nowhere else other than 186th Street Elementary School.”
Behind the scenes, Principal Reed uses best practices that Downing said “we should all replicate.”
“Marcia has a true focus on the whole child. So with the students who attend this school, they receive wraparound services, support. [The] teachers receive specialized training to make sure they’re able to address the barriers that sometimes our children bring when they walk through the doors… As Marcia says, we want attending school to feel like you’re going to Disneyland. And that’s how the children feel. There are students who cried when winter break began because they were sad to be leaving school for 3 weeks,” said Downing.
Principal Scott Borba was also inspired by seeing Principal Reed’s students thriving despite the odds of poverty and complications they may face at home. “This is why we do what we do.” he said. “To see kids learning. To see students who are learning in spite of. That’s what inspires us as administrators. That’s why we got into this profession.”
But the real driving force behind Principal Reed’s success and ability to connect with students is her passion for the job and willingness to tackle difficult questions.
Kimberly Attell, principal at Loyola Elementary, describes Reed:
“Her enthusiasm is such a driver for the cultural climate of the school. Her cheers, her chants, her creed, her motto, her songs…the enthusiasm, she’s a leader for herself. You feel it coming from her and the kids…watching the kids today as they were chanting and singing. They were in awe of her.”
Principal Reed told ACSA, “This is a joy for me. I love what I’m doing. I think it’s a calling versus a career.”
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