Although the test scores at Joseph Pennell Elementary School are low and the school is working toward making Adequate Yearly Progress, the students are held to a higher standard.
“We don’t refer to our kids as students. We really refer to them as scholars,” Principal Jason Harris said. “It’s an exciting place to be because everybody here is new. All of the faculty here, for the most part, is new and so it gives us an opportunity to really shape this school the way we really want to.”
Harris initially agreed to become the principal of Pennell when he thought it would be turned into a Promise Academy. Those plans fell through because of budget constraints. However, Harris chose to stay and help turn around the low performing school.
“As a turnaround administrator, you work with what you have and you still make a difference,” Harris said. “So we’re still implementing a lot of the initiatives that were associated with the Promise Academy because they’re just best practice initiatives anyway such as professional development, positive behavior support and all those things that a school should have in the first place.”
Another key component was to change how the students viewed themselves and the perceptions others had of them.
“I’m charged with being accountable for scores, but that’s part of my job. My main goal is to really make sure that we are advancing students so that they are successful period,” Harris said. “It requires changing systems and that doesn’t happen overnight. It requires changing belief systems and that can take a long time to do. There’s a lot more work to do but I see a lot of progress.”
Thus far, the scholar mindset is one that has been embraced across the board at Pennell.
“I love it. Whatever you keep saying to them and keep in front of the students’ eyes, that’s what they’ll cling to,” said Trina Pemberton, a sixth-grade teacher. “It’s changing their mindset. I’m not a clown. I’m not hanging around. No, I’m a scholar. I’m an educated young man. I’m an educated young woman. I strongly believe in the power of words and the power in how you think affects how you act. And so, if they think like scholars, they’ll act like scholars.”
Pemberton has reinforced that they are scholars even though the test scores reflect differently.
“It’s a little frustrating because I see the potential in them. I look at their scores from previous years. I know that they make great gains when they come to me so it’s disappointing when it comes back and yeah, that wasn’t good enough,” she said. “But I don’t give up. I keep pushing. I know we’ll get there and I think that this is the year that we can definitely do it because there’s a change in the atmosphere. So, it’ll be good.”
Andrew Walker, another sixth-grade teacher at Pennell, spoke about how his students reacted to being identified as scholars.
“The first day of school, I actually wrote scholars and just what it means. None of them knew what it was at first but I gave them the definition. I told them that’s what I’m going to call you. We all are. Everyone in this school is a scholar,” he said. “It changed their demeanor and just how did they view themselves in the classroom setting. So, they feel they want to uphold that name because it sounds so prestigious. They really like that.”
Harris acknowledged that much rested on his shoulders but he was more than up to the challenge of laying the groundwork in order for Pennell to regain its footing.
“I think it’s all about being confident, being reflective, being able to have that ability to receive criticism and feedback and act accordingly,” Harris said. “If you have a vision for student’s success, then everything else falls into place and you have to be willing to act on that vision too and communicate it well enough so that people will be willing to follow you exactly where it is where you’re going.”
He was prepared to give it his all even during the difficult and trying times.
“This is a school that is making significant changes. We’re on our way. Things will be different and change might be difficult but that’s OK,” he said.