Southwest ISD is engaged in a 5-year partnership with The Holdsworth Center to help them grow outstanding leaders at the district and campus levels. Half the district’s campuses will go through a 2-year Campus Leadership Program, in which a team of school leaders work to strengthen their own personal leadership skills and tackle a problem on their campus that impacts student outcomes. Sylvia Denise Acuña is on the Sky Harbour Elementary Campus Leadership Program team and will graduate from the program in 2021.
It’s my second year as principal of Sky Harbour Elementary in Southwest ISD and I’m hurrying down the hall to my office when a little boy walks past.
“Ma’am wait!” he calls. I stop and turn toward him. “Who are you?” he asks.
“I’m your principal, Mrs. Acuña,” I say.
“You’re my principal?” He smiles and gives me a hug.
As I watch him walk back to class, my face falls. This little boy has been in school with me for more than 100 days and he doesn’t know who I am? Here I am, rushing to go bury my head in data reports and schedules and the students I am trying so hard to reach don’t even recognize my face.
Something needs to change.
Building a family climate
Sky Harbour is a beautiful school on the Southwest Side of San Antonio, but our students face big challenges outside of our walls. More than 96 percent are economically disadvantaged and 35 percent are English language learners. Growing up with 11 siblings and parents who were just trying to survive, I know their struggle.
A new principal can’t just breeze in and start changing everything. I knew I had to spend time establishing trust.
For me, school was always a safe haven, a place where people cared enough to help a struggling reader learn to love books.
I want to touch my students’ lives in the same way educators touched mine. I want to raise the bar for them – academically and socially – and give them what they need to reach it.
But a new principal can’t just breeze in and start changing everything. I knew I had to spend time establishing trust, building relationships and creating a family-like climate.
That tiny moment with the little boy taught me something important: it wasn’t going to happen if I stayed in my office.
Riotous swing music tumbles through colorful hallways, pulling students and teachers from classrooms into a large common area. They sway and shuffle as the room fills up, unable to resist dancing when Selena belts through the loudspeakers.
When everyone is assembled, I greet our 600 students and 60 staff members from the second-floor balcony. We say our affirmations in English and Spanish. They yell loudest on the last one: “I am somebody amazing!”
I put on “Eye of the Tiger” and students lead a calisthenics routine before everyone disperses to class in an orderly fashion.
This is how we start every single day at Sky Harbour.
After my encounter with the little boy, I did some reading and thinking. The idea of a daily gathering spoke to me. It was a mess at first; I had to plead with the teachers to follow me into my chaos.
Two years later, everyone loves it. Taking the time to connect, smile and loosen up helps everyone feel more ready to take on the day.
Bringing everyone along
Just like in any family, some of our kiddos need more attention and connection than others. We cannot ignore the ways in which they call for help.
This past year, we started a Sky Harbour Ambassadors program for students struggling with academics and behavior. When we gathered them together to announce that they’d been chosen for this program, they eyed us suspiciously.
“Mrs. Acuña why are we all in here?” one student asked.
“I wanted to create a group of leaders on my campus. Every teacher here wanted you to be part of this team,” I said, gesturing to the group of teachers who had volunteered to mentor the students.
The students would not only be tapped to lead tours and work school events, they would get one-on-one time each week with their mentors to talk about anything they wanted, and to learn a skill – basketball, chess, media, technology – whatever each teacher had to offer.
Each student got a lanyard with their name on it, a pass to leave class and go to their mentoring session.
Their skepticism quickly faded. Over time, these amazing kids have become model students.
A foundation of trust
Now in my fourth year as principal, I see evidence that Sky Harbour has become the family I always wanted.
Discipline issues are far less common; we are no longer putting out fires, we are checking in on kids. When I walk the halls, I see happy teachers in vibrant classrooms with curtains hung in the windows and cozy reading nooks for children.
Recently, a teacher confided in me about an ongoing health issue that she had been battling. When she got up to leave, she stopped in the doorway.
“You know, I’ve had about seven different principals and I’ve never let any of them know my health issues.”
I hugged her. “Thank you,” I replied. “I am so grateful and honored.”
Raising the bar
Now that we are a tight-knit team, we must work to improve academic outcomes for our students.
Last year, we noticed that our second graders were not making at least one year’s worth of academic growth in reading, putting them at a disadvantage as they moved to third grade.
No matter what problem we are trying to solve, before we can impact our students’ lives, we must reflect and improve ourselves.
As part of The Holdsworth Center’s Campus Leadership Program, we are focused on closing this gap as our problem of practice. We have set a goal to increase second graders’ end-of-year reading test scores by 20 percent by May 2021.
By training our teachers in the science of reading, we are giving our students more tools and strategies to use when learning to read. We also hired instructional aides to support students individually during in-class lessons. Outside the classroom, we used grant money to put books into students’ homes.
While that may seem like a small goal to tackle, the Holdsworth experience has been so much more than that. It has taught us that no matter what problem we are trying to solve, before we can impact our students’ lives, we must reflect and improve ourselves.
And once we reach our literacy goal, we will set an even bigger goal, and another after that. We may push our students hard when we know they can do more, but it’s because we care.
There’s a reason for the morning affirmations – because we hope that if they say it enough times, our students will believe it – they are somebody amazing.