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Difference Maker

Melissa Fink turned a struggling grade school into a national model

The principal of Jones Elementary School in Springdale, Ark., begins by addressing the needs of the 'whole child.'

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    Melissa Fink is principal of a school where nearly the entire student body comes from families at or below the poverty line.
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“Poverty is not destiny.” That simple idea is behind Melissa Fink’s approach to education.

As principal of Jones Elementary School in Springdale, Ark., Ms. Fink, along with her team of 45 teachers and 20 support staff, is charged with educating some 650 students, kindergarten through fifth grade. The majority of children face overwhelming challenges. In this largely blue-collar town of 75,000, Jones Elementary serves the poorest of the poor.

Ninety-eight percent of the students come from families living at or below the poverty line. For 80 percent of them, English is not their primary language.

Despite these daunting statistics, under Fink’s leadership, the school has experienced remarkable success. Eight years ago, for example, the percentage of students reading at their proper grade level was just 26 percent. By 2013, that number had climbed to 73 percent.  

Now news of the school’s success has reached the nation’s capital. Earlier this year, representatives from the US Department of Education traveled to Springdale to interview Fink and teachers at Jones for a video series highlighting schools that are making real progress and that serve as national role models.

Much of the credit for the success at Jones is given to Fink – based on the initiatives she has introduced and the environment of collaboration and innovation she has nurtured.

“When I started at Jones as assistant principal in 2004, we were very much focused on academics,” she says. “We wanted to get kids in the door and teach them to read, write, and do math.

“When you’re dealing with [the] population of kids that we deal with, we quickly realized that our focus had to be much bigger than the academic child.”

Fink’s approach addresses the whole student, taking into account cultural, economic, linguistic, and other barriers the child may be facing.

One recent initiative at Jones is the Home Library Project. The program was started several years ago and was the idea of Justin Minkel, a second-grade teacher, who sent books home with his students so that they could start their own libraries.

When a state assessment test showed that 92 percent of his students were proficient or advanced in reading, he attributed much of their success to the project. With Fink’s support, Mr. Minkel and another teacher enlarged the program: Last year every child in the school received books to take home.

Fink’s “whole child” approach to education extends to their families as well. In 2004, she started an adult literacy program at Jones in which parents come to the school several days a week and learn English along with their children.

Last school year she started Parent University, a twice-monthly program that offers evening sessions for parents on a variety of topics such as gang education awareness, nutrition, banking, and basic technology.

In 2010, she opened a health and wellness center at Jones, the first such school-based center in the Springdale school district and one of the first in the state. With a full-time nurse practitioner on staff, as well as a medical assistant and two full-time therapists, the school is able to provide health care for students and their families, who might otherwise find it difficult to obtain. The result has been far fewer days lost to absence and children better able to learn.

“If a child is in class and their ear is hurting, they can’t learn,” she says.” If the child is in class and they’re worried because Mom and Dad had a fight the night before, they can’t learn. We started peeling back some of the barriers these kids have to learning. We want to level the playing field for them.”

Level the playing field, yes, but not give them a pass because of their socioeconomic circumstances.

This, she says, is key to the success of the students at Jones, which is classified as both a “high poverty” and “high performing” school – terms not often applied to the same institution.

“Even if the students are poor, if the expectations are there for them to perform, they will perform,” she says. “It’s really about having the same expectation for our students that you would have for a middle- and upper-middle-class population.

“I don’t expect anything less from my students than [what would be expected of them if they were] across town at a more affluent school.”

Minkel says Fink’s approach to teachers is similar. “She has very high expectations, but at the same time there is a climate of support,” he says. “We’re pushed to get better every year, but not pushed in a bad way. It’s always very supportive. She has a lot of respect for the teachers.”

Minkel and Fink both came to Jones in 2004. He describes her effect on the school as “transformative.” When he started, student work on display tended to be math worksheets and rote copies of sentences the teacher had put on the board.

“Now when you walk through the school you see really creative writing that is truly a student’s voice and a student’s experience,” he says. “The kind of math work that’s up shows really sophisticated, high-order thinking that’s laying the foundation for algebra.

“It’s not that she turned over the staff. She put systems in place that helped us all become much better teachers.”

Fink grew up in Springdale, attended public schools there, and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from the University of Arkansas. She was a classroom teacher for five years, but always had her sights set on an administrative position. She became assistant principal of Jones in 2004 and was named principal in 2007.

“I got into education knowing that I wanted to make a difference and quickly saw that the further up the chain you got, the bigger difference you can make,” she says. “As a teacher, you’re impacting 25 students. As a principal, you’re impacting 650 students and their families.”

It’s a testament to Fink’s leadership that faculty and staff turnover has dropped to nearly zero. Additionally, staff members who live outside the Jones enrollment area transfer their own children into the school. Fink’s older daughter attended Jones from kindergarten through fifth grade, and her younger daughter is in kindergarten there this school year.

“That reflects the teachers’ absolute commitment to the services they are providing at the school,” says Dr. Jim Rollins, superintendent of Springdale Public Schools. “Melissa has assembled a phenomenal educational team that is committed to serving every child in school. They have found ways to personalize teaching and learning for those children. We’re creating a model under her leadership at Jones that not only serves our children well, but can serve as a great educational model anywhere in the country.”

The US Department of Education also hopes that Jones can serve as an inspiration for other schools. The four-minute video it produced has been viewed nearly 130,000 times on YouTube since it was posted last January.

“I was blown away by the school and by Melissa’s leadership,” says Laurie Calvert, teacher liaison for the Education Department, noting how well the teachers work together within each grade level. “One reason she has built such a strong community is that she really likes the teachers, and they like her. She nurtures them personally and professionally. She has raised the standards of the school, and the teachers are meeting them. They are not afraid.”

This school year, Fink hopes to expand Parent University, obtain funding for the Home Library Project, and get more students involved in after-school activities.

“Mostly, we want to continue getting better at getting better,” she says. “We won’t be satisfied until we have 100 percent of our kids reading at grade level.”

• Watch the YouTube video about Jones Elementary School at www.bit.ly/JonesSchool.

How to take action

Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to groups that provide books to children:

• Yspaniola Incorporated works to improve education in the Dominican Republic. Take action: Donate three books to the learning center library.

• Nepal Orphans Home provides aid to abandoned or orphaned children in Nepal. It operates four children’s homes. Take action: Provide books for a children’s book club in a Nepalese orphanage.

• Develop Africa changes lives in developing African nations by sending children’s books to schools, building libraries, and stocking classrooms with textbooks. Take action: Send books to children in West Africa.

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