The Reflective Principal: Dalton’s Call to Action – 2

By Gabe Simon
Principal, March/April 2012
“Be anything. Create anything. Dream anything,” urged charismatic 10-year-old Dalton Sherman in a convocation speech to 17,500 teachers and administrators of Dallas School District. Dalton’s speech, which has attracted more than 700,000 hits on You Tube, reignited the passion that once drove me to this profession.
As resources dwindle and unemployment increases across the nation, this student’s message is more important than ever. Why do we keep delivering inspirational words like Dalton’s year after year without changing our practices? Who is listening? Who is acting with any sense of urgency? Why do we continue to struggle to meet the needs of our growing population of diverse learners?
Schools have placed too much focus on giving our students the skills, drills, and standards they need to be successful. Beyond the textbooks, homework practice pages, and assessments, they simply need hope. Inspirational speakers such as Dalton package up this hope for us as does each student for whom the light bulb begins to flicker or burn bright. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “If you lose hope, somehow you lose the vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of it all.”
How do schools inspire hope? Several key elements must be in place and periodically monitored in order for students to feel cared for and connected.
Accountability for Instilling Hope

We need to hold educators accountable for instilling hope, whatever it takes. Los Penasquitos Elementary in San Diego, California, requires all students to be college ready. With more than 40 percent of students in poverty and 39 percent English-language learners, this school’s California Academic Performance Index (API) score was an impressive 936 out of 1000 in 2011. Los Penasquitos succeeded because of its web of support and hopeful practices. The staff, parents, and students are held accountable for specific and measurable goals for academic growth. Through “parent universities” parents and caregivers receive education on everything from helping with homework to finding low-cost or free health care. Students cheer for each other’s success through fight songs from their adopted colleges or universities and offer concrete examples of what it takes to be successful beyond high school. These practices can be easily replicated in numerous schools. However, very few schools with similar demographics in California and across the nation are getting these results. Where is the hope in that?
Hope is found in caring and heartfelt adult-to-student interactions, including informal feedback. The feedback can be about student effort, academic growth, or improved behavior or attendance. Phenomenally rich levels of learning occur when children are given permission to spread their wings in the directions that they hopefully envision. These levels of learning also take place when students self-assess their progress with formative checkpoints along the way. But educators have forgotten the human element of our craft and those crucial caring connections adults must have with children within our schools’ walls.
In the midst of accountability measures, fiscal uncertainty, and increasing pressures to mass produce student success, what can teachers and school administrators do to inspire learners and create the powerful change agent of hope? Administrators, teachers, and students in our district’s elementary and middle schools have implemented several ideas to increase the resiliency and academic success of at-risk students. Like most great ideas, they were plucked from various and sometimes unlikely sources and adapted for the specific needs of our students.
Daring to Dream
Students envision their future through an idea that was brought to life by Oprah Winfrey in one of her thought-provoking episodes about her Angel Network. Dream boards are visual representations of each student’s future. Students create a display board with images and explanations of the college they would like to attend, their career aspirations, where they will live, and how they will get from point A to B. At the center of each board, a graduation cap is purposefully placed on the top of each student’s photo. Every student proudly displays the visionary board in his or her home and school and revisits it often to dream big and feed aspirations to make those dreams a reality. As a result, each student’s self-esteem and classroom participation escalates. Students who create this impressive landscape of their future set more rigorous and realistic goals for themselves in each of their subject areas and are more likely to experience spikes in academic achievement.
At our middle school, we identify the most at-risk students by analyzing discipline and attendance data along with academic screening data. These students meet with administrators, teachers, and counselors to discuss the importance of setting goals and defining success. Then students set academic or behavioral goals for three weeks into the future. Students who meet their goals receive public recognition.
In setting short-term goals, students must identify personal and academic strengths that will support them in reaching their goals. They also must consider challenges or road blocks to success and come to terms with them. Before long, students all across campus wanted to set goals with our staff. As a result, we implemented Plans for Success in our advisory classes where every student self-monitors his or her academic performance each week and sets three-week goals for success. Administration then rewards students who reach their goals. The Plans for Success also include areas for student reflections and journaling as well as templates for setting goals and planning for life beyond high school.
Caring Relationships
Using standardized testing data and local measures, we identify and build relationships with students who are below proficiency in language arts and/ or math. These students need staff to give them hope and mentoring but often do not voice their needs. Adults on our campus must be the vehicles for these voices to be heard. Each staff member adopts and mentors three to five targeted students. Administration, office staff, and other support staff also join in, and each staff member receives a small budget for activities with their mentees. Some of these informal and caring connections included snacks and lunch with students, sports and physical education activities, weekly check ins, homework support, and providing gym clothes or school spirit wear for students in need.
Hope is hard to measure, but it has skyrocketed among these students in the form of academic improvements and increased student involvement in extra-curricular activities. We have transformed the overall school climate as teachers and support staff demonstrate increased commitments to fostering student-centered practices.
When school and classroom cultures, in the words of Dalton Sherman, “feed us, hug us … love us when sometimes it feels no one else does,” students are propelled to high school and beyond and contribute astronomically to our economy and society. Dalton’s simple message will be lost unless educators harness and experience the power of hope and the amazing influence that caring adults can have on our children. Building student-centered relationships and resiliency in our disadvantaged students costs nothing and pays dividends for decades. Administrators, teachers, and school communities must act now because as Dalton said, “We need you now more than ever.”
Gabe Simon is principal of Creekview Ranch Middle School in Roseville, California. He also teaches courses in research methods at California State University, Sacramento.
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