Friday, August 26, 2016

Toledo magnet school is all about community

Community leaders greet students on their first day at the
Martin Luther King, Jr. Academy for Boys
(photo from Toledo Public Schools)

It was the first day of school in Toledo and Rev. John C. Jones was up early.

Not because he is a teacher or administrator. Not because he has children in the Toledo Public Schools.

He was part of a group of men recruited to greet students at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Academy for Boys, a magnet school in the Toledo Public School District.

"We greeted every single kid," he said. "We wished them a good year, made sure they had a good handshake, helped some fix their ties. We wanted them to see the faces of positive role models as they started the new school year."

Rev. Jones said some of the kids were a bit nervous about "walking the gauntlet," especially the kindergartners, but most had been through it before and knew what to expect.

"They were excited to come through the line," he added. "You could see the excitement in their faces. But what was more critical was the excitement in the parents' faces and their appreciation for the men for investing their time to see that their child had a good start to the year."

Rev. Jones has been involved in leadership development and education for a number of years.

"Education is the bedrock of every advancement that takes place," he said. "There are things that happen in the psyche of a child that allows them to build and develop. Positive role models are one of them. We hope the boys look at us and say, 'I can do this just like this guy in front of me who is modelling success.'"

Willie A. Ward, the principal at the Academy, said it's all about community. The school population is 98 percent African-American and more than 75 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch.

"Our community has some individual and unique challenges when it comes to education," Ward said. "When our young men can see others being successful, they can internalize that success as we emphasize and urge them to be college or career ready through their education."

He explained that all the students at the Academy, regardless of their background or economic status, need to know they have the support of the community.

"It's great for the kids to be able to say 'This is my pastor and he's here to support me,'" Ward added.

The school, which serves pre-kindergarten through 6th grade, emphasizes respect, responsibility and building positive relationships with others. As a magnet school of choice, it accepts applications from anyone within the school district. Students are admitted based upon attendance and behavior as well as parent involvement, Ward said.

Parents are required to sign a contract with the school and must commit to at least 10 hours of service throughout the school year.

"Parents have to agree to be involved in their child's education and to support the direction of the school," Ward explained. "Whenever there is parental involvement, the school and the child will be successful."

During the Academy's first years as an all-boys school, the school's state report card showed improvement increasing from a 66.6 performance index to a 93.3 performance index, on a 120-point scale. By the 2011-12 school year, the students were out-performing the district average in both reading and math in grades 3 through 6.

But several things happened in the district that negatively impacted test scores and student performance.

"We had a huge change-over in staff," Ward said. "We also went up to 8th grade and then back to just 6th grade. And then the testing changed. As soon as you learn what's on the test and what the kids have to know, they change the test. We knew it was going to happen, but it still takes time to adjust."

Ward believes he now has a stable teaching staff and a good culture in the school, with "everyone on the same page in terms of the expectations of teachers, parents and students" and is confident their school report card will improve from the "F" it received for 2014-15.

He said they extended the tie requirement in the dress code to kindergartners this year, because "something as simple as a dress code can change the mindset of the children."

"We've found that if you look your best, you perform at a high level," he explained. "It's had a major impact on students and on teachers in their delivery to the students. Additionally, the teachers are here and understand the school's mission and vision. You'll see all this reflected in the (test) results for this school year."

And the reinforcement from positive role models throughout the year will continue to provide encouragement, Ward added.

"We didn't just invite the men for the first day of school," he said. "Our objective is to get these role models into the building on a regular basis."

Ward has invited them to talk with the students at lunch time, to be involved in preparations for the state achievement tests, and perhaps read with the kids.

"We want to take advantage of the fact that we have people who can come and give individual support to the students," Ward added. "Last year we got about 30 percent who came in as their schedule permitted to take part in the school."

He said that others who were not able to provide physical support made donations to help pay for field trips, clubs, celebrations and recognitions.

Rev. Jones said he is proud to be a part of the mentoring program that is being built at the Academy.

"There is research that exists that speaks to the importance of community engagement and involvement particularly in the learning for students," he said. "If you provide positive reinforcements - if they see models of that throughout the school year - they will want to emulate that behavior."

And what did the kids think?

"We took a straw poll of what they were feeling," Ward said. "The impact was huge!"

"We teach them how to give a firm handshake and to look people in the eye and show respect and this first day greeting was an opportunity for them to practice that," he added. "To hear (a student) say 'I felt really good,' and see that student with a gleam in their eye, ready to go - it was rewarding."

"We can talk all day about the negatives that revolve around our kids," Rev. Jones added. "We spend a bunch of time telling kids what they cannot do. We need to spend at least a proportionate amount of time telling kids what they can do. And that's what we're doing."

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