School success

Carver Elementary teamwork fosters rewards for students

Joey Matthews | 2/6/2015, 12:57 p.m.
“We take an all-hands-on-deck approach to educating our children.” That’s how George Washington Carver Elementary School Principal Kiwana Yates enthusiastically …
Carver Principal Kiwana Yates gives kindergarten student Jajuan Dickerson a high-five for a job well done. Photo by Sandra Sellars

“We take an all-hands-on-deck approach to educating our children.”

That’s how George Washington Carver Elementary School Principal Kiwana Yates enthusiastically describes the full community involvement approach she and her staff utilize.

With it, they have achieved academic success against tall odds in the largely impoverished community served by the school at 1110 W. Leigh St.

“Each school faces different challenges,” the third-year Carver principal told the Free Press. “A kid is a kid, and it doesn’t really matter where they come from. It takes a level of excellence from the teacher and the ability of the school to meet the needs of each child.”

Carver is among only 11 of Richmond’s 44 public schools to earn full accreditation from the Virginia Department of Education after surpassing state standards in four core Standards of Learning tests administered last spring.

Carver, with 95 percent of its 592 students in kindergarten through fifth grade being African-American, scored an average of 90 in science, 88 in English and 84 each in math and history. At least 75 percent of a school’s students must pass English and at least 70 percent must pass the other three tests in order for the school to be fully accredited.

Carver also has been recognized as a Title I Distinguished School by the Virginia Department of Education. To qualify, a disadvantaged school receiving additional federal aid must meet all state and federal accountability requirements for two years and achieve average reading and mathematic SOL scores at the 60th percentile or higher.

The school’s theme this year is “The Jewel of the Carver Community.”

Early in the school year, Ms. Yates and her staff organized an “SOLabration,” a day of creative learning activities capped by a family fun night to recognize their accreditation. Staff wore “SOLabration” shirts to mark the day.

Another family fun night is scheduled in March.

Carver also has hosted four “chat and chew” informational sessions prior to school with parents and other guardians to discuss a range of issues affecting their children.

At one, parents were good-naturedly provided gender-specific refreshments, muffins for the five mothers, donuts for the two dads.

Ms. Yates said a big reason for the school’s SOL success is, “We align our curriculum” with the Virginia Department of Education to ensure teachers and students are in sync and fully prepared for the tests.

She touted VDOE’s enVision MATH instructional materials as “phenomenal,” the use of vocabulary flashcards at every grade level, benchmark literary reading programs and SOL preparatory tests available online for children to take.

Ms. Yates also praised the school’s Carver Promise Mentoring program. It pairs volunteer mentors with students in first through fifth grades for an hour each week to work on academic and social activities.

“We have the largest mentoring program in the state and maybe in the nation,” program coordinator Casey Rogers said.

She said the program currently has about 370 volunteers, enough to have one-on-one mentoring for every student in first through fifth grades.

The program, in operation since 1992 and partnered with Communities in Schools of Richmond since 2009, won the state’s Chairman’s Award in 2013 for its sustained commitment to mentoring, Ms. Rogers noted.

The Carver Promise is funded through private and corporate grants and donations, she said.

Ms. Yates accompanied a Free Press reporter and photographer to a kindergarten class taught by Deborah Pendleton.

Enthusiastic children were playing letter and word games.

Ms. Pendleton pointed to a pumpkin patch reading board on one wall.

She said one of her chief tasks is to aid some children who enter Carver with “more of a limited ability to read.”

The seventh-year Carver teacher, who previously taught 12 years at affluent, predominately white private Collegiate School in Henrico County, emphasized the importance of parents reading with their children at home.

Ms. Pendleton, who is assisted each week by community volunteers Bob Lipper and Morgan Bartolini, praised the staff at Carver for going beyond the call of duty.

“Carver is really filled with dedicated teachers who continue to learn on their own to explore what the best practices are to fill the needs of the children,” she said. “We have teachers who are here until 6:30 at night, who show a high level of dedication.”

She said teachers care for the students like they are family members.

“We treat students like they’re our own,” Ms. Pendleton said. “We ask, ‘What would we want our child to learn?’ ’’

Ms. Yates said teachers “focus on kinesthetic (movement) learning and visual and auditory learning.”

She said cross-grade teach ing also is encouraged, where a teacher from one grade may fill in for a teacher in another grade.

The principal said enrichment specialists make sure struggling students are brought up to speed in subjects in which they need help.

She said teachers also take students to one of two school computer labs to work on assignments.

Ms. Yates said the school encourages teachers to attend workshops to show them creative ways to keep up with the latest teaching techniques.

En route to Evanique Donaldson’s first grade class, Ms. Yates told how parents earn honor roll certificates from the school for participating in field trips, parent-teacher conferences and other community events.

“We are very family oriented,” Ms. Yates said.

She also said the school gives a trophy at each grade level to the class with the best student attendance.

Students held hands, clapped and sang along with Spanish teacher Sobeyda Rivera as music played in Ms. Donaldson’s class.

“Hola amigo (Hello my friend). Como esta usted (How are you)?” they merrily sang.

Standing nearby, Ms. Donaldson watched, wearing colorful oversized glasses and a huge smile.

“It’s a cool way for us to get the students excited about the day,” she said of her eye-catching glasses.

The tour concluded at Jo Anne DiMaggio’s second grade class. (Yes, she was named after the former Yankees great, Joe DiMaggio.)

The teacher has “looped up” with her students from kindergarten to first grade and now to second, Ms. Yates said.

She quizzed the attentive students on words with long vowel sounds, such as roar, sounds and goat.

The walls of her room were filled with word games designed to help students learn, such as weather words and a continents song.

Ms. Yates also touted Richmond Public Schools’ participation in the federally funded Community Eligibility Provision, which provides free breakfast and lunch to all students — regardless of family income — to enhance their ability to learn.

“Students who are fed with nutritious meals are best equipped to learn,” she said.

In the school office, Tassy Mason, a fifth-grade Carver teacher, offered her formula for educational success.

“I have a relationship with my children,” she said. “I make sure my children know I care about them, first and foremost, then we go into the educational part.”

Toyinette Tuck, whose grandson is a Carver kindergartner, said she’s appreciative for the school’s work. “It’s an excellent academic school,” she said. “They have excellent reading programs and excellent after-school programs. And they communicate real well with us.”

Those words are music to the ears of Ms. Yates and other Richmond educators led by Superintendent Dana T. Bedden, who are at the forefront of efforts to turn around other struggling city schools.

“Everyone believes we can do it,” Ms. Yates said of Carver unity. “We all pitch in to help each other. We all believe we can do great things here.”