By: Robert Schroeder
“This has been about a school becoming a beacon of hope in the community. It’s about us becoming a community school, with kids coming together to learn and parents coming together to work together for the betterment of our students.”
In her first year as principal at Harvard Elementary in 2012-13, Aisha McCarthy was confronted with a school failing to meet No Child Left Behind standards, more than 96 percent of the student body coming from low-income households and a shocking 11 percent of students currently homeless.
In spring 2013, the EdD Urban Education Leadership candidate received one more challenge: ready her school to increase its population by 50 percent as students from the closing Yale Elementary school (photo above) prepared to join Harvard in fall 2013.
“What a year for a first-year principal,” McCarthy said. “At first, it’s very overwhelming, but as an educator you are committed to the work, and that is improving educational achievement for all students.”
As a welcoming school principal, McCarthy (above, left) worked closely with Beverly LaCoste (above, right), leadership coach with the College’s Center for Urban Education Leadership, to develop strategies to ensure a smooth transition for both the incoming Yale students and the returning Harvard students.
McCarthy opened the process by inviting student ambassadors from Yale to visit Harvard to tour the school and meet with student ambassadors from Harvard. McCarthy invited Yale students and their parents to her school for a performance of a school play, in addition to hosting breakfasts for Yale parents.
In summer 2013, Harvard offered a series of cultural integration activities, ranging from sports camps to art fairs and Girl Scout camps, again seeking opportunities to bring together students from Yale and Harvard collaboratively. At the end of the summer, McCarthy led a back-to-school community fair involving the neighborhoods surrounding both Harvard and Yale.
“There is a lot of mobility in Englewood, and some parents were not open to going back to Harvard if they had been there [before McCarthy],” LaCoste said. “I worked with her to keep everything positive, keep the planning focused on the children first, and align the adults with what you need for the children.”
McCarthy fostered staff professional development to ensure her staff, which included one teacher and three teacher assistants from Yale, was ready to meet the new challenges of an integrated student body. In particular, McCarthy and her teachers readied to welcome Yale’s autism cluster program to Harvard (photo above), including preparation for effective communication with nonverbal students.
The results from the fall semester are largely positive. McCarthy says visitors remark they see no difference between Yale and Harvard students; students are indicating their satisfaction with Safe Passage corridors to and from school and both student populations are showing willingness to embrace both their new neighbors and the school’s nascent population of students with special needs.
“This has been about a school becoming a beacon of hope in the community,” McCarthy said. “It’s about us becoming a community school, with kids coming together to learn and parents coming together to work together for the betterment of our students.”
McCarthy cites the EdD Urban Education Leadership program’s emphasis on data analysis as key preparation for her new role as welcoming school principal. She says these analytical skills helped identify potential early problem areas and to develop new leadership capacity among her teachers.
LaCoste and McCarthy are narrowing in on specific curriculum challenges with the integrated student body. In particular, the two are focusing on how teachers start and end their classes, working with teachers to place a greater emphasis on planning their lessons with student outcomes in mind to guide the inputs of lesson planning. As an Academy of Urban School Leadership (AUSL) school, McCarthy continues to seek professional development opportunities for her staff to build instructional capacity within the context of AUSL’s turnaround model.
The early results of the combined schools are encouraging. Report card pick-up for the fall quarter increased by 33 percent from the previous quarters and the school has reported no incidences of violence inside its walls or on the streets surrounding.
The integration process continues into the spring semester. McCarthy is focused on building a school garden replicating a previous garden at Yale focused on health and nutrition, an illustration of what LaCoste describes as a need for constant engagement of students in working together to build one school community.