This is the extended version of the interview published in the February 2011 newsletter.
Written by Jessica Archer
My toddler is getting big, so I have schools on the brain lately. In the news, I read about how poorly US students perform, especially in math and science, so I decided to start investigating schools in our area. The Office of Superintendent of Public Schools has a tool called “Washington State Report Card” http://reportcard.ospi.k12.wa.us/summary.aspx?year=2009-10
You can use this tool to compare schools by standardized tests, teacher education, special programs, etc. Of course, these statistics don’t really give you a “real feel” for the school so last summer I interviewed Gayle Mar-Chun, the principal at Madison elementary school.
How long have you been the principal at Madison Elementary?
I have been a principal at Madison for 5 years. Prior to that, I was involved in teacher leadership and professional development at North Thurston Public Schools and the ESD 113 for 15 years. I have been an educator in Fairfax, Virginia; Elk Grove, California; Honolulu, Hawaii.
How did you decide to go into this line of work?
I always knew that I wanted to be a teacher. I can remember when I was 8 years old, I would round up all the neighborhood kids and invite them into my parent’s garage that I turned into Miss Gayle’s School. When I became a real teacher, magical moments happened each day. I was hooked my first day of teaching and continue to be as a principal.
Why did I become a principal? Well, a few mentors along the way encouraged me to become a principal because they believed in my capacity to make a difference for students and families beyond the classroom. Being an educator is hard work, but it is also the most gratifying job because each day you get a chance to laugh and learn right alongside the children.
Do you live in the Eastside neighborhood?
No, I live in on the westside in a neighborhood called Tamoshan. However, I love the eastside neighborhood’s sense of community. It reminds me of our first house we bought in Curtis Park in Sacramento. The homes were small with a lot of character; the school and park drew many young families to the area. Some of our closest friends today came from the neighborhood babysitting coop, and that was 30 years ago. The Eastside has that same feeling of supportive families and friendship.
What do you like about having the school in this neighborhood?
The architecture of the school seems to fit into the beauty and the active lifestyle of this tree-lined neighborhood. As I peer outside my office window, I am struck by how many people walk or bike to and from the downtown core.
I believe that Madison has always been an integral part of the neighborhood. I know that our school, our families, and our students have benefited from it. The majority of the students walk to school so I know that our neighbors keep a watchful eye on our students. It seems that the school has become a focal point for the neighborhood, drawing families to come for a picnic at our new garden, to donate school supplies at the beginning of the year, or to volunteer as a weekly lunch buddy or reading buddy. Madison has that inviting feel open to neighbors. Just drop by and you’ll see.
What programs & events are you most excited about and proud of at Madison?
There are so many things that make Madison unique. Our focus truly is on the whole child.
Madison’s small size allows us to personalize each child’s education. For instance, we have a walk to read program where students have 90 minutes of reading instruction in small groups at their reading level. That means students who are higher readers can be challenged at their reading level, and not held back. We offer that for our struggling students as well.
The other program that makes us unique is the Welcome Room. As you may know, the downtown core has had many homeless shelters for families. The Welcome Room came about in response to providing a safe haven before and afterschool for these students. It also sends a message to everyone that Madison is a place that welcomes everybody.
Our latest endeavor is the Madison-Avanti Giving Garden. It has become a wonderful project that has involved the families, students, neighbors, and the community. The “giving” part of the name came about when we realized that the students would be donating some of the vegetables and fruit to the Thurston County Food Bank. We know that we are transforming the way students think about food when they get to grow it. Just last month, one first grader said, “This is the best tasting lettuce that I’ve ever eaten”! Come join us for picnic dinners on Tuesdays at 6:00pm, even during the summer.
What are the unique challenges with leading Madison?
Madison faces many challenges that all schools face: dwindling resources, students with greater needs, families struggling during difficult economic times, and demonstrating to the community that public education is making a difference. We feel very fortunate to have dedicated teachers and parents who partner in educating all our children.
As the principal, I believe that leadership is all around us. Each and every parent, caregiver, friend, and neighbor can take a step in significant ways that embraces the concept that “it takes a village to raise a child.”
I’ve read that you split your time with leading Madison and coordinating the Title 1 program. Can you tell me about that?
Yes, 40% of my work is to coordinate the district’s Title 1 program. Title 1 is the largest federal aid program for our nation’s schools. Many of you may know it as “No Child Left Behind.” Every year each state receives a basic grant for the program. The state then sends funds to
school districts based on the number of low income families. Currently, five Olympia School District elementary schools benefit from this program – Roosevelt, Garfield, Hansen, LP Brown, and Madison. (Madison has close to 58% poverty rate) These schools focus on whole school improvement.
Title 1 funds remedial education programs for poor and disadvantaged children so all children can obtain a high quality education. The idea is to close the achievement gap between schools that have more and schools that have less.
Title 1 provides extra help for struggling students. Children living in a Title 1 school are eligible for extra assistance regardless of family income. Funding is used for “proven” teaching methods and programs like all-day kindergarten, preschool, hiring specialized teachers and
assistants, afterschool programs, 1:1 tutoring, supplementary materials, computer assisted learning, home visits, parent involvement activities, or staff training.
I’ve used the OSPI School Report Card tool (http://reportcard.ospi.k12.wa.us/summary.aspx?year=2009-10) to compare Madison to other elementary schools in the Olympia School District. It looks as if Madison is struggling. How does Madison compare in academic achievement with other schools in the district? What are your plans for improving the school?
Madison is a great school and I believe it compares very well to other schools in the District and throughout Thurston County. For many years, Madison has had excellent student achievement results, especially considering that so many of our students come from families in poverty or face other challenges. Compared to other schools with similar demographics in the region, we have very strong reading and math scores.
We have been especially successful with students who arrive at Madison in kindergarten and stay here through fifth grade. Over the past couple of years, we have seen a higher number of students who are moving in and out of the neighborhoods that we serve at Madison and we are working to address their individual learning needs and help them succeed. Our school improvement plans focus on providing more individualized instruction to make sure every student can maximize his or her learning and greater teacher collaboration to intervene early when students are having difficulty in a particular area. We’re on the right path.
What can folks in the neighborhood do to improve Madison and help neighborhood kids?
There are so many ways for people to get involved and help at Madison. People in our neighborhood often serve as lunch buddies (a program where adults share a lunch with students once a week). Many of our neighbors helped create our school garden ,and others volunteer in the classroom.
Several local groups have raised funds to help us provide enrichment activities or basic classroom supplies. There is no limit in ways to help and I encourage anybody in our neighborhood to contact me so we can get them involved at Madison.