A black school welcomes its first black principal

Teaching with flair: An occasional series of profiles of teachers who make the grade with students and colleagues.

A day in the life of Sister Roberta Fulton can include everything from giving eighth-graders a pep talk before a quiz to dancing "The Chicken" with her kindergartners. And after the students at Our Mother of Mercy Catholic School go home, she delves into the paperwork that comes with being principal.

This Fort Worth, Texas, school was set up in 1929 to serve African-American students. The current K-8 student body - 98 percent black - reflects that history. But the arrival of Sister Fulton last summer marked the first time the school has had an African-American principal.

Parents pay $2,115 a year for tuition. Fulton, who taught in Washington, D.C., schools and most recently served as principal of Catholic Central in Buffalo, N.Y., says it costs the school closer to $3,000 to educate each child. The student-to-teacher ratio is about 15 to 1.

The kids demonstrate a blend of discipline and spirit, greeting their principal with a chorus of "Good Morning, Sister Roberta" and eagerly raising their hands to respond to her questions as she visits various classrooms. Excerpts follow from her recent conversation with the Monitor.

What do you see as your primary mission?

Being an educator. I believe that education is one of the best ways to help children succeed, and also to help our society. And so I will definitely promote academic values as well as Christian values....

We work with the whole child, try to integrate all the aspects of life. And one of the things I've learned from my years of education is to not only just teach, but to develop in them a real sense of a love of learning.

A lot of times, children have this sense, 'Well, I have to go to school.' But [I want them] to come with that attitude of, I need to be in school because I can learn so many things. I can not only learn to read, but reading will help me learn about people, places.... I may never physically travel to those places, but I can learn about them....

We teach them to be kind to one another, to get along with people who are different from yourself or the community you have been a part of.

And school is more than just 'I come. I take. And I go.'... We expect them to be good kids. We do a lot of teaching about Jesus and Gospel values.

How much of the curriculum is Christian-based or specifically Roman Catholic?

Out of the 200 students, only about 25 are Catholic, but every child must take a subject of religion every day. Usually it's a 30- or 40-minute period, and it's taught from the [Roman] Catholic perspective.

Every Friday we have mass with the children, over at the church.

All the teachers are also taught that ... we try to incorporate religion in all the subjects. Say two children are having some kind of a disagreement. That teacher takes an opportunity - as we call it, a teachable moment - to practice the religion....

I was [visiting] the eighth-grade class, and ... [the teacher] was talking to them about the literal meaning of the Bible, and inspiration. It was fascinating, they were talking about Noah and the Ark....

But I was saying to the children, do you really think this literally happened? And we try to go beyond the literal translation, to the meaning behind it. That God is there for you even in the difficult times, even in the struggles of life. This is a message they can take with them.

Are many parents seeking this kind of alternative?

Definitely. [Public schools] do a good job, but parents want values instilled, they want their children to be taught from a religious perspective.

What's the significance for Our Mother of Mercy to now have its first African-American principal?

I think it's significant in the fact that, many of the people here had never seen an African-American Sister, [or] the possibility of an African-American principal. So it's a challenge for me, to live up to a lot of the expectations and a lot of the challenges that it brings with it.

How did you decide to become a teacher and a nun?

I grew up in South Carolina, and when I was young, the sisters were in my hometown of Kingstree. I was not Catholic - I'm a convert to the faith. I was always impressed by seeing what they did, that they were educators, they would attend all the functions at my high school....

Back in the '60s, I was impressed that they were really able to take some stands, and I was attracted to that. I also felt some kind of calling to be religious....

I graduated in 1966, and my senior year in high school was the year the schools were to integrate. I always had this desire that I wanted to work on behalf of having children know that with a good education, you can do so many things....

Martin Luther King Jr. came to [speak at] our high school.... Growing up, I saw so many people, older people [who] couldn't read or write or go to school.... I also put a heavy stress on voting, with the kids. I remember mom and dad would never not vote.

Why did you decide to become an administrator after teaching for 11 years?

When you teach a classroom ... you are working with a particular group of children. But when you are an administrator ... you help form a group of teachers, and you also work with parents and the wider community. So it's just a broadening thing for me.... You can touch a lot more lives.

How much do you get to interact with the children now?

A lot. My style is managing by walking around. I do a lot of in- and-out of classrooms informally. I also do formal observations of teachers.

Do you ever feel you need a support network?

I have been involved in the National Black Sister's Conference since 1969.... It's an organization of about 200 sisters from around the country. We meet and we share and we discuss ideas about our role as African-American sisters.... Within our Sisters of St. Mary de Namur, I'm the only American black person, and when we [in the conference] gather as a national group, that's a good support, because in most congregations, there are [rarely] more than two or three African-American sisters.

How do you discipline?

Discipline, I believe, is key to having you be able to teach. We do not believe in any type of corporal punishment.

I try to have the teachers at the beginning of the school year set up rules and expectations and consequences. I'm not just the person that you send kids to. You want to get to me when you've exhausted other forms of getting it settled yourself....

There has to be a pretty consistent pattern [of rule-breaking] for us to say, "detention."

How much do the current debates about standards and testing affect your school?

We do participate.... Catholic schools usually advertise that the children score above their expected grade level.

[Some Roman Catholic schools] do not accept children below the 50th percentile. Here, we have some children who are below the 50th percentile, and they qualify for Title I [a federally funded program for reading and math remediation]....

It's always a challenge - do you accept only the gifted? I think our history has been that that isn't what we see as our mission.

In New York [State]... the standards involve more thinking and writing skills. They might not ask, Who discovered America? but, Why was it that people moved forward into the land of America?

I challenge the teachers that we will go in the direction..., teaching beyond [rote] learning.

E-mail teichers@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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