When I first came to Acacia Elementary School as the turnaround principal in 2003, I noticed three things: first, we had excellent teachers – but student performance was struggling and parent involvement was lagging. While many struggling schools in similar situations make the decision to boost up their reading and math interventions at the expense of classes like art and music, we did not.
Walk through our school today and you’ll see monthly special events with standing-room only attendance; kindergarteners excited to apply what they learned in reading class to P.E., like using patterns, for example; and a third grade music class where students are learning about beats, syllables, and counts so they can write powerful haikus in their writing classes.
While other districts debated whether to cut classes like music and art, the Washington Elementary School District Governing Board stood up for us because they understood that these “specials” are vitally important to the whole child. And our board has seen that as a result of that investment, students are doing better than ever.
To us, all subjects are equally important to a well-rounded education. Reading, Language Arts, Math, Science, Technology, Social Science, Art, Music and Physical Education interrelate and our teachers are committed to ensuring that our students are exposed to all of them to the greatest extent possible. In P.E. class, for example, kids don’t randomly shoot hoops; they’re being athletic in ways that connect to what they’re doing in math class, for instance by using fractions. During hockey lessons, points are added or multiplied depending on how many times the hockey stick hits the puck before a point is scored. So, while students are gaining new physical skills they’re also reinforcing and getting deeper exposure to concepts they were previously taught in math class.
One of the biggest impacts of this philosophy has been our transformed parent involvement. We knew involving parents would be vital to making progress on student achievement and yet, like parents at many Title I schools, many of our families were reluctant and often intimidated to come to the school. By organizing monthly special events like concerts and dinner musicals, parents could come celebrate their children and school staff could use that time to begin establishing positive relationships. Now, when parent-conference night comes around, parents are eager to come talk with the teachers they sat next to at their child’s concert.
In the last few years, I’m proud to say that Acacia Elementary School has been named a National Title I Distinguished School and an A++ School of Excellence according to the Arizona Educational Foundation. To me, one of the differences was in embracing our special classes on every level and working together as a team of educators to ensure that every student experiences P.E., Music or Art, as well as Reading and Math and Science, at dedicated times and throughout their whole day.
Christine Hollingsworth has been the principal of Acacia Elementary School in Phoenix, Arizona, since 2003.