With a master’s degree and the ability to speak two languages, kindergarten teacher Nancy Gonzalez had her pick of jobs at top-rated schools across North Carolina when she graduated in 2022. She chose Durham’s Glenn Elementary School, which was labeled as a “D” school at the time.
Last spring 100% of teachers replied “Yes” when the state’s Teacher Working Conditions survey asked if Glenn was a good place to work. That’s almost double the 52% positive response from four years ago.
Glenn Elementary School is a dichotomy, both struggling and excelling in myriad ways. Six years ago, the school was at risk of being taken over by the state because of low performance. In the past two years, Glenn, where students speak six different languages, has improved from an “F” to “C” status based largely on students’ test scores.
“To [go up] two letter grades in two years is really exciting,” said Glenn’s principal Matt Hunt, who came to the school two years ago. Throughout the two years, Glenn Elementary has found ways to rewrite its own narrative in the school system.
First grade student Karla Montoya Godinez raises her along with the other first grade students to answer their teacher Rebecca Javadi’s question about “sh” and “ch” sounds in class. (photographed by Jessica F. Simmons)
Hunt said that each year, Glenn has goals that focus on student achievement, school culture and family engagement. Student achievement increases are byproducts of some of the other things the teachers worked really hard to establish, he said. Hunt and his faculty have created a work environment where good teachers want to come, stay and work together as a team.
“I think that more anything is going to drive student success in a school,” he said.
Part of that positive work environment is supporting teachers, which leads to high retention rates.
Support can be as simple as Hunt picking up a Starbucks coffee for a teacher who’s had a tough week. The school also makes the effort to hold additional teacher training in the summer.
The training is paid for by grants, unnamed individual donors known as “Friends of Glenn” and federal COVID-19 funding. During the past two summers, eight instructors are working on National Board Certification, which would result in a 12% raise.
In addition to the focus on teacher retention, the active engagement of Glenn families plays a pivotal role in their children’s education.
Tamara Vanie is one example of an involved parent. Three of her children previously attended Glenn and two are currently enrolled. Her engagement has ranged from donating school supplies to sitting on a committee interviewing candidates for principal.
“It’s definitely a privilege,” she said. “I don’t take it lightly to be able to be involved in this way.”
“We have incredibly involved parents,” said Sean Mournighan, who goes by “Mr. M.” Mournighan is the Academic and Intellectually Gifted (AIG) specialist at Glenn. “We don’t have a PTA because it would be redundant. When we put out the call, our parents show up.”
Mournighan said that parents with small independent businesses have even donated and catered for hundreds of people.
The level of effort parents put into the school’s success is “truly humbling,” Mournighan said.
Parent involvement at Glenn goes beyond showing up for events. Glenn parents have also played an active role in staff changes.
“The focus in terms of having more bilingual staff came from, when first coming here, connecting with families, and asking them, ‘what do you feel would make this an even better school?’ And that was something that came up,” said Hunt.
TalkingPoints, a free app available on the App Store and Google Play, allows easy communication between teachers and parents. It’s taking family engagement to a whole new level. Glenn was part of Durham’s pilot program last year to try the app, which is used nationwide. TalkingPoints can translate 150 languages and enables parents and teachers to easily converse via phone.
Kindergarten student Legend Moody fills in a capital “D” with small pom-poms as a learning exercise in Gonzalez’s class. (photographed by Jessica Simmons)
“I can type a message in English and I don’t have to do anything to automatically translate it into Spanish,” said second grade teacher Anna Britt Hardy. “If a kid is stuck on homework, or a parent needs help explaining homework to their kid, I’m still able to speak to them. Even though I don’t speak Spanish, I can use voice to text or type out the process and then they can see it.”
Gonzalez, the kindergarten teacher, records many class lessons on her phone and shares them through TalkingPoints so parents can help their children at home.
With 45 percent of the student body taking English as a second language classes, Hunt along with parents and faculty wanted to offer these students more support when he came on the job.
“We created a position that was a bilingual family liaison and built a family center on campus where our liaison and social worker work out of. We’ve gone from one K-5 bilingual teacher two years ago to, I think it’s 11 now,” said Hunt.
Along with increased support for ESL students, Glenn has Mournighan, who works with struggling students in addition to gifted students.
“One of these math groups is a nurture group. These are students that are more in the middle, sometimes they struggle, but they’re hungry,” said Mournighan. “Their teachers said they want a challenge, they need a challenge, and so I’m working to push students that might otherwise just be coasting and be fine.”
One of the catalysts for an increase in test scores at Glenn is data-based small-group interventions, Mournighan said.
“We have a large team of interventionists that are pulling small groups, three students at a time, to just focus in on the skills that we know they’re missing from the data we’re collecting. It’s not just data collection, but it’s utilizing all of the data we’re collecting,” he said.
These small-group interventions are happening in almost every classroom, he said.
Language barriers and opportunities
While Gonzalez always wanted to be an educator, the school’s large population of Spanish-speaking students is what made her want to join the faculty at Glenn.
As a bilingual educator, it was important for her to work with a population that saw themselves being represented by the teachers they were learning from. Out of her 18 students, nine are native Spanish speakers. In her class, she tries to connect English with Spanish so her students understand the similarities between the two languages.
Gonzalez and kindergarten student Angelyn Reyes Espino share a high-five while fellow kindergarten student Cinthia Argueta Rodriguez looks on. (photographed by Jessica Simmons)
The new teacher said she is always asking herself: “How can I associate the language that they have with the language that they’re acquiring to help them learn?”
Gonzalez said her students have so much knowledge, but with many of them still learning English and with standardized tests only being offered in that language, she said she understands how an assessment might not be the most accurate representation of a student’s progress.
“The state does look a lot at test scores and that’s just the structure of education,” she said. “With tests, they measure such a small portion of what we do here.”
Glenn’s successes and changes in the past two years show a school’s story goes well beyond those standardized test scores.
“I have mixed feelings about how the letter grades are calculated,” Hunt said. “[They’re] calculated on test proficiency versus student growth and that creates a narrative that is unhealthy for schools and school systems across North Carolina and the country.”