Real champions inspire us because we know they give everything to make a difference. Through this column, we are helping make known real champions in the lives of children and youth. At NCUST, we are thankful for all the many equity champions who are, each day, changing lives, changing schools, and changing communities.
At Wynnebrook Elementary in West Palm Beach, Florida, 92% of the students are Black or Latino and 94% of the students meet free- or reduced-price lunch criteria. Twenty years ago, teachers at the school would say they were afraid to walk in the school’s hallways because of disruptive student behavior. Many teachers went through the motions of teaching reading from the basal reading textbooks adopted by the district; however, teachers knew students were not benefitting because they could not read the words or relate to the stories. Similarly, teachers followed the district’s pacing guide for mathematics instruction, however, few students learned the concepts and skills because teachers perceived they had to speedily “cover” the content whether students developed understanding of the concepts or not. Similar to the situation in many urban schools, the academic future seemed bleak for Wynnebrook’s students of color.
In 1999-2000, however, the district hired Jeff Pegg to serve as Wynnebrook’s principal. Shortly, thereafter, Principal Pegg hired Suzanne Berry to serve as a first-grade teacher. Later, in 2008, he promoted Ms. Berry to serve as Wynnebrook’s assistant principal. Then, in 2016, when Mr. Pegg was promoted a district-level leadership position, Ms. Berry became the school’s principal. While Mr. Pegg and a large team of teachers, counselors, other support staff, and administrators played major roles in the transformation of Wynnebrook, NCUST is acknowledging Principal Berry as a true equity champion for two decades of leadership that changed the trajectory of the lives of thousands of Wynnebrook students.
As a teacher, Suzanne Berry knew her students of color could develop strong literacy skills if she and her colleagues worked together to plan and deliver lessons that were designed to make literacy skills make sense to Wynnebrook students. Principal Pegg allowed Ms. Berry and other teacher leaders to receive professional learning community (PLC) training. They shared their learning in a way that resulted in teacher collaboration becoming a powerful engine of transformation at Wynnebrook. Wynnebrook teachers became dedicated to supporting each other in solving instructional challenges and elevating the academic success of Wynnebrook students. Ms. Berry and her colleagues challenged the use of the old ineffective basal readers and encouraged the purchase and use of leveled texts, including many stories that resonated with the lives and experiences of Wynnebrook’s students.
As an assistant principal, Ms. Berry frequently modeled positive approaches for interacting with Wynnebrook students. She helped teachers see how they could change the climate of their classrooms by frequently reinforcing students for their scholarly, positive behavior. She helped teachers understand how they could use the school’s simple code of conduct (I am respectful. I am responsible. I am a peacemaker. I am prepared.) as a teaching tool to help students learn how to interact constructively, regulate their behavior, and succeed in difficult situations at school and in life.
As well, as a school administrator, Ms. Berry knew she needed to advocate for her teachers. She worked with Mr. Pegg to find ways to support teachers in thinking through strategies to help Wynnebrook students develop deep understandings of the most important math concepts. Teachers developed challenging common formative assessments and then supported each other in creating engaging lessons and powerful teaching strategies that helped students demonstrate mastery of the concepts and skills they needed students to learn.
Even when Wynnebrook’s reputation had improved dramatically and the school had won many awards and distinctions, Principal Berry kept the school focused on improving learning outcomes for all students. Students have benefitted from a rich array of learning activities including science, drama, gardening, music, and art; often in ways that have enhanced the school’s success in literacy instruction.
True equity champions, however, fight to maintain a focus on equity and excellence in good times and bad times. In so many ways, the pandemic has been brutal for Wynnebrook. Students have lost family members. Some families have been reluctant to send children to school. Some key staff members have left for a variety of personal and economic reasons. Additionally, district-level changes have made it difficult for the school to maintain some of the practices that were instrumental in shaping the school’s success. Nonetheless, Principal Berry has kept the focus on her students. She shared, “It’s all about the kids, isn’t it? It’s about their lives and their futures.”
More can be learned about Wynnebrook Elementary, Principal Berry, and her impressive team of educators in the soon-to-be-released book, When Black Students Excel: How Schools Can Engage and Empower Black Students.
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