Sherwood staff brings everyone to table to help students

Assistant Principal Sunday Tindell and Principal Larry Knight talk about the strategy for Sherwood Elementary staff to improve the school's Florida Standards Assessment test grade. Credit: Shannon Nickinson

This is the fourth 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.

Larry Knight knows what many of his students go through every day just to get to school.

He knows what it’s like to have an absent father, a mother with substance abuse problems, a household where resources were hard to come by.

ABOUT THIS SERIES

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

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

Learn how Ensley Elementary is planning to boost math and reading skills as part of the school’s improvement plan.

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.

It was his world, too.

“I was a child of poverty myself and a lot of craziness went on,” says Knight, now in his sixth year as Sherwood Elementary School’s principal. “I went through a lot of the struggles that these kids went through — mother on drugs, no father, I am (them).”

He shares his story with his teachers because he wants to share the impact that teachers had on him. It is an impact he believes they can have on the young people now in their care.

“One of the things I like to cultivate here is people who want to be here, because you really do have to love this population in order to be successful here,” Knight says. “What I love about (Sherwood) is the community of teachers we have here, how much they really do love the kids.”  

Sherwood Elementary, 501 Cherokee Trail, Pensacola.

Enrollment: 645.

Teachers: 34 Pre-K through fifth-grade, five special education teachers.

Free- or reduced-price lunch rate: 100 percent.

Demographics: 47 percent African-American; 48 percent white; 5 percent multiracial.

Sherwood is on Cherokee Trail, off of Fairfield Drive and 58th Avenue, south of Osceola Municipal Golf Course. It is one of 11 elementary schools in Escambia County that received a D or F on the 2016 Florida Standards Assessment test.

About half of Sherwood’s kindergartners have been to some kind of preschool before they started kindergarten. There is one Pre-K classroom in the school and Head Start is on campus, with four classrooms, Knight says.

But more of his students need a strong early learning background.

Sherwood Elementary Principal Larry Knight hosts Coffee with the Principal to keep parents, grandparents and community in the know. Credit: Shannon Nickinson.

Sherwood Elementary Principal Larry Knight hosts Coffee with the Principal to keep parents, grandparents and community in the know. Credit: Shannon Nickinson.

“One of the things we do try to do is, our data clerk does a great job with this, whenever she does see a parents come in and there's a younger child, she always says, ‘Hey, how old is your baby there? We have a Pre-K program.’ She talks about the Head Start Program. She's a real big advocate of those,” Knight says.

Knight says focusing on grades K-2, especially in reading instruction, is key getting ahead of the curve.

“If we do not get it right in kindergarten and first, we're going to keep chasing our tails over and over again,” he says. “We’ve got to make sure we get it right. In third-, fourth- and fifth-grades, we’re catching up.”

Among the strategies this year at Sherwood for catching up:

Handling discipline in new ways. Discipline and safety were key points for teachers when Knight first came to Sherwood.

“They felt like they were having a difficult time there,” he says. “We targeted it in a different way, not in a way of a punitive sort of way.”

A turning point came from a bus driver, who noticed children on his bus struggling with anger management, says Assistant Principal Sunday Tindell.

Working with the school’s guidance counselor, Tindell says they formed Mission 21 — with the mantra, ‘Think twice, act once.’

“He (said he) would work with these kids. He really did make a difference,” Tindell says.

It started last year as a six-week program for 15 students that helps children who were facing repeated disciplinary problems how to identify their anger, deal with it in better way, and teach traits such as empathy and respect.

Tindell says two more groups of 10 students will enter the program this year. The kids who have graduated from the program will be kept in the loop as well.

Breakfast and drinks are part of Coffee with the Principal at Sherwood Elementary School. Credit: Shannon Nickinson.

Breakfast and drinks are part of Coffee with the Principal at Sherwood Elementary School. Credit: Shannon Nickinson.

“The goal is to continue mentoring them through high school,” Tindell says. “(The bus driver) personally wants to track their data and see if this is making a difference.”

— Mentoring outside the classroom. Another intervention still being developed would see teachers paired as mentors with students who are having repeat discipline issues.

“It’s not a punitive thing whatsoever,” Knight says. If something happens throughout the day, the classroom teacher can send the student out of class for a quick visit to their mentor teacher, who can help them navigate what the issue of the moment is.

“That's kind of in its forming stages right now,” Knight says. “Like I said, the teachers here, they love these kids. They're looking for ways for them to be successful.”

— Training to keep up with changing student body. Enrollment at Sherwood is 645, up from 450 when Knight came there from O.J. Semmes six years ago. Sherwood has one Pre-K class. Knight would love to have more, but there isn’t room.

That bump in enrollment has meant some growing pains. Knight says in his tenure, the student demographics have changed in terms of poverty level.

“It’s gotten worse,” he says. “One of the challenges we've faced is keeping up with that change. It's a different thing, teaching children of poverty, it really is. Those are the facts.”

Knight says staff development aimed at giving teachers strategies for reaching that population have helped.

Knight says that school choice, which allows parents to request to send their child to a school other than the one in their neighborhood, has brought more students from the neighborhoods around Montclair and West Pensacola elementary schools to Sherwood.

“We've had a lot of students from there, and that's where a lot of poverty issues have come in,” he says.

Staff at Sherwood will use this wall to track their students data, spot trends and plan interventions for students. Credit: Shannon Nickinson

Staff at Sherwood will use this wall to track their students data, spot trends and plan interventions for students. Credit: Shannon Nickinson

Parent outreach by any and all means. From phone calls to Facebook, Sherwood is working on ways to open the door to parents. Knight said building the relationships between parents and teachers is something that is always being worked on — from both ends of the spectrum.

From monthly events like Coffee with the Principal to family nights, outreach to parents is taking many forms.

“That's one of the things that we've tried to really stress with our teachers,” Knight says. “You can kind of get a negative (impression of parents). They're not responding to your phone calls, it appears they don't care because they're not helping with homework, when they really can't sometimes.

“They’re working two or three jobs. They just don't have the opportunity to do those things.”

Last school year, Knight says, after hosting a traditional orientation day for students, staff paired up and went to homes to visit with parents and students who didn’t come to the orientation. It was something Knight did at Semmes.

“We went to them,” he said. “Everyone teamed up and we went to the houses to meet the parents.”

Tindell says they made more than 100 such visits.

“When we got back, one of teachers said to me, ‘Larry, I was not digging this. I did not want to do this,” Knight says. “(But) the parents, they were so appreciative of us coming there.’

“It was great because they that initial contact (with the school) was something positive. It wasn't calling about someone being in trouble….That's something I feel we'll do each year.”

— Getting it right at the interview stage. Building the right team is crucial for Knight.

“If we're not working together as a team, it's too much we have to do,” says Knight, who asks candidates about their experience working with students of poverty.

“That's kind of a new one for me that I've added in this year, because that's been a big deal for us,” Knight says.

Another is how teachers handle discipline.

“I want to hear about the relationship,” Knight says. “What did you try to do? What happened before the incident? What was your problem-solving process? Was the parent involved in that process? A lot of times, the first thing is send them to the office.

“I'm looking for people who are problem-solvers, team players, and have a heart for our students.”

— Targeting reading to boost math — and everything else. Improving reading skills among his students is key to improving their showing on standardized tests and classwork in every subject.

“Even with the math, a big part of that is reading. If they're not reading and they cannot understand what those math problems ask,” Knight says. “We're going back to some very basic things here.”

Because Sherwood is on the extended-day schedule, Knight says reading basics will be the emphasis in that time. There’s one program for grades K-2 and one for grades 3-5, with an intensive focus on decoding.

“That intensive instruction is what a lot of our students are needing,” Knight says. “Our mobility rate has increased. We have students who are making the circuit. They're here, Warrington, Navy Point…In making that loop, they've lost some skills along the way. Using this program can really fill in some of those gaps.”

— Shared planning. Using the Google Drive cloud-based platform for sharing files and documents, Knight says that his staff will have lesson plan templates to share among each other.

Sally Bergosh shared information about the Youth Motivator mentoring program at a recent Coffee with the Principal at Sherwood Elementary School. Credit: Shannon Nickinson.

Sally Bergosh shared information about the Youth Motivator mentoring program at a recent Coffee with the Principal at Sherwood Elementary School. Credit: Shannon Nickinson.

Knight hopes that will also help ensure that when substitutes are needed, “learning continues.”

“In Google Docs, it'll be an easy way for us to ... monitor lesson plans as well and give feedback a lot easier than the past….I'll be able to get a look ahead of time before I walk into a classroom to find out what I should be seeing when I walk in here. I think that'll help.”

Knight knows the perception some people have of his parents.

“I think they think that the parents don't care and they're not involved, which is not the case,” Knight says. “You're dealing with parents who, their big concern is putting food on the table for their child. (Parents deciding) whether or not I'm going to skip work and go to the PTA meeting or whether I'm going to my second job. Not many of them have jobs you can take paid leave for, I should say.

“I've not met a parent who doesn't care about their child,” he says. “They may be lacking some tools that they need and they're doing the best that they possibly can with what they have.”

Knight knows that as an African-American male elementary school principal, he is a bit of an outlier.

He takes that responsibility to heart. The advice he got early in his teaching career — ‘don’t smile until Christmas’ — he says is not realistic.

“And who wants to have that type of relationship with the kids where it's just a fear sort of thing? That's not our role,” he says.

“It’s very important for them to see a male caring for them, to see a male as a leader,” he says. “A lot of time they're not having that at home, and not seeing a man taking care of them like that.”

Sherwood Elementary School

He says he’s asked Superintendent Malcolm Thomas to “to leave me where I am for a while, because my work here is nowhere near done yet.”

Home visits like those his staff did last year is something Knight wants to see more of.

“Going to college, that was not even something we talked about at my house,” he says. “Your job was to get through high school to either go in the military or find a job as soon as you got out. That wasn't because my grandmother didn't love me. The reality for her was, we need to get food on the table.

“I think sometimes the general public doesn't understand that with some of our families. Sometimes our teachers don't understand that either.”

 
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