As competition increases between schools to attract students, the pressure is on for principals to raise test scores and retain good teachers. Yesterday, we spent time with principal Peter Sherman as he got ready for the new school year. The 9-year principal is fresh off a training fellowship. Today, Colorado Public Radio’s education reporter Jenny Brundin follows Sherman around in his first week of school.
Sherman: Buenos dias!
Reporter Jenny Brundin: In many ways, Peter Sherman is the face of Valdez Elementary School, a dual immersion Spanish-English school in Denver’s Highland neighborhood. Today, he’s standing smack dab in the middle of the school’s busiest intersection, greeting parents and children on their first day of school.
Sherman: Bienvenidas, good morning guys!
Reporter:The bilingual Sherman has an easy rapport with students and parents alike. He knows most of their names, and many of their backgrounds. Like the kid who tells him how excited he is to be back at school because he had to say inside all summer long.
Sherman: Good morning fifth graders! Look how tall you are!
Reporter:He fields questions from concerned parents.
Parent: Please emphasize where the distinctions are for the playgrounds…Sherman: Great idea, Thanks. Parent: …because we have toddlers out here going over all the place.
Reporter: Sherman’s principal training from Get Smart Schools has helped him with the larger, over-arching issues in running a school: hiring the best teachers, effective budgeting and managing, and finding a good testing system. But at the beginning of the year, it’s the minutiae of being a principal that consumes his days. Just after the bell, Sherman begins his regular routine, dropping in on his teachers to see how things are going. We head into the first grade class – which today – has many hovering parents, one with tears in her eyes.
Mom: I ‘m like hangin’ out in the teacher’s classroom (laugh).
Reporter: Sherman politely nudges and the others out. Their kids have just spent three years with a Montessori teacher in a small classroom. Now, it’s a regular classroom, big in numbers, with brand new teachers. Sherman knew he had to hire right.
Sherman: One of the factors in hiring teachers was how are they going to be with parents, you know, are these going to be people they just exude enthusiasm and sell the program to parents, and I think, so far so good.
Reporter: Up until now, the school has been primarily Latino. Five years ago, Sherman pounded the pavements, posting fliers on Federal Blvd. storefronts, trying to attract families to the school. At the time, they were fleeing neighborhood schools. Sherman got some to stay, for pre-school, at least. And this year he managed to keep most of them, but he knows he has to keep convincing them it’s the right choice.
Mom: Then walk over and get your name tag [child crying].
Reporter7: But for now, one of the kids starting first grade doesn’t want to go inside. Not much progress is being made. Sherman has an idea. He gets two little pig-tailed girls to come out to guide Emma back into the classroom.
Sherman: Emma, I brought some of your classmates, Ella and Eva. They’re going to help you find your seat, ‘cause you’re sitting right near them.
Reporter8: It takes a few minute. Emma emits one last yell for good measure.
Emma: Mommy, mommy!
….as mom makes her escape, .and Emma dutifully follows her pig-tailed enforcers to her place at the table. One down. But, as Sherman heads up the steps, a group of parents is waiting for him.
Parent: There’s Peter. Should we gang up on him? (laugh)
Reporter: They’re worried about the size of the first grade class.
Parent: We were just saying that there’s a lot of people in the first grade and we just wanted to put a plug in for help.
Reporter: They ask if a paraprofessional can help out.
Sherman: It’s not something in our budget right now but we certainly have been talking about how we can shift some things around.
Reporter: He tries to reassure them.
Sherman: Take a deep breath (laugh).
Reporter: The parents look skeptical and worried, but they thank him.
Sherman: It’s fine, we’ll keep talking about it and I’ll keep you guys posted on what we can figure out.
Reporter : We move on to watch a new teacher in action, Julio Alas’ 4th grade class.
Teacher Alas: [Bell rings] Ojitos de nuevo.
Reporter: He has his class in rapt attention, reading a book about a wolf.
Alas: Hizo un esfuerzo, entonces, esfurerzo. Children: Esfuerzo. Que hizo el lobo, un? Children: Esfuerzo!
Reporter: Sherman carefully observes the teacher’s techniques.
Sherman: It’s great that in the first 2 hours of school he’s using these techniques to get kids to talk.
Reporter: For the rest of the day, Sherman makes sure classes have fans or AC, gives the district superintendent a tour, picks up the odd orange peel off the ground and confers with parents who haven’t yet registered their kids for school. But he seems to always make time for kids.
Sherman: What are some of the ones you guys came up with? Kids: No yelling at the teachers. No breaking the windows, no spitting. Sherman: I see all your rules say No. What are some of the things that you do want to do? Kid: I did something that you do want to do. Take turns. Sherman: Take turns. [fade down]
Reporter17: After school, he has to talk to a teacher who arrived late, on the first day of school. But all in all, the day goes smoothly. He gives high gives to the new teachers. Next week, he says, he’ll start observing them with a more critical eye.
Sherman: But all in all they looked good, and they looked tired. Hopefully they’ll all go home and have a nice meal and get a good night’s sleep and wake up and do it all over again.
[Photo: CPR's Jenny Brundin]