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July 24, 2014, 5:01 pm

Smith Elementary strives to rise above circumstances

Walter G. Smith Elementary School has a new principal in Rachel Marianno who is determined to see the school strive beyond its potential despite statistics that state otherwise on paper. The tests scores may be low but that has not capped Marianno’s belief in the potential of her K-8 students.

Marianno was filled with emotions during the first full week of school, which concluded with a back to school night attended by more than 400 parents.

“Challenging, rewarding, exhausting, rejuvenating; if you could put all of those things into one sentence. It’s been a lot of work but good work,” Marianno said.

She was overjoyed that so many parents attended back to school night held in the school yard. A moon bounce and cotton candy machine were just some of the amenities offered to the kids as their guardians came into the building to meet with teachers.

“It’s about reaching parents in a way that confirms who they are and what they are about.

A lot of our parents have responsibilities that go far beyond what we had or even our great-grandparents had in the past,” Marianno said. “So, they’re raising children on their own but without the support of an extended family. So, you’ve got to find a way to network with them.”

Another crucial part of Marianno’s agenda has been to help raise test scores. Her goal is to raise the Adequate Yearly Progress, otherwise known as the AYP, but not at the expense of making the children feel bad about themselves. Smith’s new motto is “Where Above Average Is the Norm.’”

“I struggled with that because on paper, we are not above average. We’re 30 percent at advanced and proficient in the area of reading. That’s not above the average. But our mindset in order to get there, it has to start here. It has to start in your head. So, therefore, I can fully embrace that model,” she said. “It’s a careful balance because I don’t want to come in here with a pie in the sky attitude like you can do it and not acknowledge how you can do it. I want our children and our parents and the whole community to embrace the fact that we are from an AYP standard not cutting it.”

She further explained another area that will help reinforce the student’s abilities, which are not correlating with standardized tests.

“The other part of the model is SOULFUL, which is School Of Unlimited Learning For Unlimited Learners and that’s something that has been with me since I went into administration,” she said. “I want children to know that there are no limits.”

Smith’s renewed efforts to get the test scores up has been a team effort. All of the teachers have been doing their parts since the first bell rang this school year.

“They’re getting to know my expectations and I’m getting to know things about them which makes learning better. It just makes everything better,” Chanel Pope said.

Pope teaches fifth grade and this is her first year at Smith.

“I expect my children to give 100 percent effort every day because I believe every child can learn. Every student has their own talents. Every student has their own gifts and it’s just my job to bring some of those gifts, talents and interests but also try to make sure they meet the curriculum standards,” Pope said. “We’re striving for proficiency.”

Tangela McClam has taught at Smith since 2007. The seventh-grade math teacher tries to incorporate pats on the back for her students as they work through solving equations. She has also tied to prepare them early on in the school year for what is to come.

“One of the things that I really like to make sure my students understand is the importance of the test. We don’t wait until the day before the test to do that.

So, I tell them on day one that they should look at the PSSA (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment) as a major test that we’re going to run and we only get one shot to run that race and we’ve been training all year long. So, we’ve got to get our stamina up. That’s how we look at it,” she said. “Some students aren’t good test takers but we still have to continue to strive to not only make every child feel important because we don’t want them to feel, ‘oh I’m below basic I’m not important,’ because anytime you turn children into numbers, you’re doing them a disservice. But we just have to find other ways to address them.”

John Waters, another teacher at Smith, believed that the aesthetics of the school has also gone a long way towards improving morale.

“It’s such a nice place to be. Ms. Marianno has gotten the place so cleaned up,” Waters said. “By cleaning up the school the way that she has and having the special events come in, I think that the children feel more respected. I think that when the school was dirtier, the children didn’t take the school seriously and I feel they’re taking things a little more seriously now.”

Marianno also credited the youth for already rising to the challenges facing them this upcoming year.

“The kids keep me motivated,” she said. “They are resilient and no matter what you throw at them, for a long period time, they will bounce back. Not without some wounds, but they will bounce back and they’ll say something that just motivates me and they’ll usually do it on a day that I need it the most. They won’t necessarily know what they’re doing for me but they’ll just say something that gets to the heart of the matter.”