News Detail


Ensley Elementary builds on sense of family

  • Oct 05, 2016
  • Shannon Nickinson
Teacher talking to students in classroom Teacher talking to students in classroom

Dozens of students at Ensley Elementary School listen to Sonia Manzano read her book, "A Box Full of Kittens."
Manzano is an Emmy award-winning TV writer, actor and author who starred as "Maria" on Sesame Street for 44 years.

This is the seventh in a series of installments on the improvement plans principals are implementing at the 11 Escambia County elementary schools that received a D or F on the Florida Standards Assessment.


Learn how Weis Elementary is working to improve student learning from the earliest ages.

Learn how Holm Elementary is working to improvement achievement among its students.

Learn how Warrington Elementary plans to boost student achievement.

Learn how Sherwood Elementary focuses on parent outreach and teacher training for school improvement.

Learn how Global Learning Academy is striving to overcome the challenges of poverty to increase proficiency.

Learn how Lincoln Park is working to strengthen relationships among staff, parents and community.

Learn how Oakcrest Elementary is building stronger relationships to increase student learning.

Learn how West Pensacola Elementary is helping students and teachers get resources to improve academic achievement.

Learn how Montclair Elementary is reaching out to the community and increasing parental engagement to improve student achievement.

Jayne Cecil knows what people think of Ensley Elementary School, if all they know of her school is its Florida Standards Assessment test grade.

“I wish they could walk a day in a Pre-K child's shoes, or a kindergarten child's shoes,” says Cecil, who is in her fourth year as principal at the school. “When you come in and your vocabulary development is not where it should be, and you can't even communicate your needs to your Pre-K teacher.”

But Cecil believes her school is more than the sum of its standardized test parts.

Assistant Principal Jessica Bryan says Ensley is a family, a place where teachers come to work and want to stay. It is, she says, the hub of a community of parents who are working jobs that often don’t have the best hours or the highest pay.

“We get them at kindergarten, and the expectation is for them to be reading around Christmas or January, and they're coming in on what 3-year-olds know,” Bryan says. “When your mom's working two jobs so that you can have a place to sleep, it's kind of hard for those kids to have those meaningful interactions.”

Ensley is one of 11 elementary schools that were graded D or F on the Florida Standards Assessment test for 2016. Each of these schools must have an improvement plan in place to boost that showing.

Assistant Principal Jessica Bryan in the Ensley Elementary School media center.

Assistant Principal Jessica Bryan in the Ensley Elementary School media center.

“Yeah, we're a D, but we're a higher D than what we were last year. That's progress,” Bryan says. “We've talked about, do we want to go to a D to a A? Not really, because you're not going to be able to keep that.

“Our goal this year, we want to be a C. We're not aiming way up high, we just want to keep pushing to where, eventually we're going to be an A, and we're going to stay an A, but you have to build that foundation.”

“The public may not see that, but our kids… they know what they've achieved, and that's all that matters,” Bryan says.

The plan for improvement at Ensley includes:

— Math in the morning: Bryan says this year, math fluency will be tackled in the morning.

“That was our biggest thing, our lowest quartile in math,” Bryan says. Only 29 percent of students in the lowest quarter were at proficiency in math.

Then teachers will move into what they call “the power hour” — extended school-day time — to focus on reading. The shift came in part, because tardy students were missing critical time in the language arts block.

“They miss out on a lot of the reading block if they're late in the morning,” Bryan said.

“We have really got to ramp that up this year, and do a better job of laying the foundation for these kids, because everything else is built upon that,” Bryan says. “If you don't have the vocabulary or the basic math skills, then everything else is just foreign when it's presented to you.”

Ensley Elementary Principal Jayne Cecil.

Ensley Elementary Principal Jayne Cecil.

— Signing a social contract: Staff last year were trained in “Capturing Kids Hearts,” a behavior modification program that involves teachers working with their students to create a social contract for what is and isn’t acceptable behavior in the class. It answers:  

— This is how I want to be treated.

— This is how I want to treat others.

— This is what I expect my teacher to do.

— This is what I will do for my teacher.

Ensley Elementary School, 501 E. Johnson Ave., Pensacola.

Enrollment: 540.

Staff: 36 teachers.

Demographics: Black is 45%, Hispanic's 19%, White is 24%, and then we have 4% Asian, 8% multi-racial, and we have 2 Pacific Islanders. Twelve percent of students are English as a Second Language students. Fourteen percent of students are homeless.

Free- or reduced-price lunch rate: 77 percent.

It includes “taking the pulse of the room” in the morning, and strategies such as anytime someone puts a classmate down, they owe three positives back.

In total, it gave kids the common language to connect their actions to the impact they can have on others.

“What we're doing is we're not focusing on a punishment of the behavior,” Cecil says. “We're looking for a replacement behavior.”

— Homework help for parents: Something else up for consideration: A couple of days a week where parents can come in and ask for help understanding homework.

“Our curriculum's changed so much, and it's a little bit more challenging than when I was in fifth grade,” Cecil says. “We're trying to figure out how can we establish a couple days a week where parents feel comfortable coming in and saying, "Can you help me understand the strategies my child's using for this particular thing?"

— Filling the gaps for families: Bryan said something else they’ve looked into is getting a washer and dryer for the school that parents could use.

“You have to meet people where their needs are. That'll get them here, and they can do things like counting out stuff that needs to be sent home, or tearing out workbooks, or if they're going to work on their GED, or if they're going to work on a resume, they can be doing that,” she said.

This summer, the media center was open two days a week for families.

“And it wasn’t just parents dropping off their kids; they came with them,” Cecil says. “They could do arts and crafts, they could read books, they could go in the computer lab and do Minecraft.”

Bryan says, those who needed food, got a bag of food to take home when they left.

— Parent outreach: Some teachers do home visits if they haven't seen somebody in a couple of days, and they can't get them on the phone. Often teachers communicate with parents via phone calls and text messages.

Says Bryan: “You're going to be more willing just to shoot a one liner then get on the phone and now the teacher's going to talk to you about your child.”

That flow of communication has helped conferences, when they do come up, go more smoothly and be more productive — for teachers and parents, Cecil says.

“One of the things Jessica and I have always said is you need to start out with that three positives,” Cecil says. “Try to get in at least three before you hit that negative, because you're going to have a better response. Every mom or dad wants to know what's good about their child. We know that a lot of our kiddos have issues. Our parents come up and tell us, "I want to go ahead and meet with you and go ahead and put this out on the table."

“I say, "You know what? It's a new year. It's a new day. Every day's a new day for us so every day's a new day for the kids."

Ensley Elementary School staff aims to fill the gaps for students and their families. Credit: Shannon Nickinson.

Ensley Elementary School staff aims to fill the gaps for students and their families. Credit: Shannon Nickinson.

— Building partners in the community: Cecil says throughout last year, several Ensley moms were going through their licensed practical nursing program.

“We were celebrating their successes with them because their children have been here since kindergarten, and now they're finally getting to a point where they feel like they can go out and do some things for themselves, and make that home life for their children, so we want to celebrate with them,” Cecil says.

Cecil says that for this school year, Ensley will partner with George Stone to offer adult education and GED classes at the school for parent who need them.

“We've seen so many of our parents with that need,” she says. “They want to know how to write a resume. We're going to be working with George Stone to help those parents. We just felt it was very important for us to do that. I've wanted to do it since I got here, but it just wasn't the right time. I think that this year was our year to do it.”

The large computer lab in the school’s media center will be the hub for those classes, with staff on hand to help as needed.

“We will start by offering the classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 4 to 6 p.m. or from 5 to 7 p.m.,” said Patricia Harrison, an Adult Education Counselor at George Stone. “As we find out more about the needs of the students interested in attending on the Ensley campus, we will finalize the times. So, if you are seriously looking for a site and Ensley would be your choice for a location, contact us.“

Ensley will be the fourth location where George Stone will host these preparatory classes. Other locations include the George Stone campus, 2400 Longleaf Drive, a site at Molino Community Center, as well as a site at Pathways For Change, near Baptist Hospital.

Call Harrison at (850) 941-6200, ext. 2361 with questions.

Heritage Baptist Church has helped the school with what began as Dad Nights but have evolved into Family nights, because, Cecil says, “we have so many blended families here.”

Cecil says the church has offered help in resume writing classes, vocational skills training, and the like. “We have some really good partners, and this year, it's all finally kind of coming together.”

— Building in arts time: Cecil and Bryan have been on the lookout for community partners to do after-school arts or music programs at the school. There are 15-20 kids who use the after-school care program at the school, but Cecil says another 40 or so walkers “who beg to stay with us.”

“I think it's going to take some community folks coming in and helping us in the afternoons with our after school clubs, because during the day I just don't have the time,” Cecil says. “If I could get the community and the volunteers in to do it, then I could tell those kiddos, ‘Today's your club day, you can stay.’"

Sonia Manzano, the Emmy-winning actress and writer

Sonia Manzano, the Emmy-winning actress and writer who portrayed Maria on "Sesame Street" read with students at Ensley Elementary during her visit in September.

For all of the work that will go into academics at Ensley, Cecil notes that behavioral and social challenges are part of the equation for some of her students too.

“A lot of times, we have to overcome some of those behavioral challenges as well,” Cecil says. “Just based on the expectation of them in their home, sometimes they can't transition out of it when they get to school. If mom or dad is working, then they are the adult at home, but you’ve got to come here and be a 9- or 10-year-old. We have to kind of help them shift. You've got to be able to know the difference and be able to kind of code switch between the two of them.”

Something Cecil and Bryan have continued — which began before they got to Ensley — is that at day’s end, the teachers do not let the kids get on the bus without a hug or a high five.

They just want them to know, when you leave here, don't forget I love you.

“They high five them, they hug them, they fist bump. Some of the boys are too cool, but then as you kind of watch the year progress, they want that hug. They're just like, "I love you."

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