What Makes a School Exceptional? One Parent’s Perspective

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By Parent & #PTchat Moderator Gwen Pescatore

Through #PTchat, Gwen has come to know many parents and educators working to provide better schools for kids. Gwen was invited by Cantiague Elementary PTA Parent Lisa Davis and Principal Tony Sinanis to make a visit to their Blue Ribbon School. As Gwen describes, we can learn a great deal from the students, teachers, parents and leaders in Jericho, NY. 

What makes a school exceptional has nothing to do with a fancy building or the gadgets inside (although they can add to it).  It’s about the learning that happens and the community it builds. I was invited to visit Cantiague Elementary in New York.  Upon arrival I can tell you the building is nothing out of the ordinary.  Their classrooms were filled with 25 students but not all of the latest and greatest technology.  Yet, it might be one of the most remarkable atmospheres I have witnessed.  Below is what I saw through my lens a parent.

Image credit: http://cantiague.jerichoschools.org

District administrators, including superintendent Hank Grishman, came to the school and spoke not just at, but with families.  What better way to learn about the needs and concerns of families and students than to speak with them at a small gathering such as the monthly parent association meeting.  Seeing Mr. Grishman, and the assistant superintendents attend the PTA meeting, show up early and chatting with families was tremendous!

The school is 100% about learning. The world is shrinking and our children have to compete more so with students from all over the world, to be part of a college’s student body and for a job.  I am not saying school can’t be fun; just the time spent at school needs to be used wisely and planned with purpose.  Collaborative efforts not just between teachers in the same grade, but also with the rest of the school can produce impressive results.  What’s done in 3rd grade should be building on what’s introduced in 2nd grade and preparing them for what’s to come in 4th. In addition, maintaining an environment that inspires students to want to learn more on their own.

The principalneeds to be the leader! Not just managing day to day functions but in building real relationships with everyone from the students and families to staff and district admin.  In my visit to Cantiague, this was one of my WOW moments of the day. Tony Sinanis, their principal, didn’t just know every student’s name – but also referenced something personal.  He asked about a sibling (by name), about a book read in book club last week, if a zipper had been fixed on a jacket and even reference which teacher a child had currently and previously.  These are only a few in our short walk down the second floor hallway.  The staff – he acknowledged each and every one we passed, addressing an earlier concern or asking them a question and really listening to the answer for everyone from the secretaries, to the teachers, to the custodian.  Later that evening, at the monthly PTA meeting, he also hosted a Twitter information session.  There was not only a good amount of parental support and interest, but also from the district.  In my mind, the best way to get support for any and all efforts is to build relationships (regardless of who you are or what job you hold).  If people feel you care and support them, they in turn will care and support you and your efforts. The mutual support ultimately benefits the students.

The teachers were teaching (using various ways) not just so their students memorize facts to do well on an upcoming test – but so they learn about the topic and can use that knowledge down the road.  Reading wasn’t just done in their workshops, Cantiague also has book clubs.  Several students I spoke with really enjoyed these. How fabulous to hear so many kids love reading!

The parents appeared supportive of the school’s efforts.  They not only support events such as the writing workshop celebrations, but also the PTA meetings and the Twitter info session.  Although the board sat separately from the rest of the group, it didn’t seem to stifle participation in conversation.  Parents were asking questions and making comments freely.   One thing that caught my attention was the number of men/Dad’s at the meeting…this was not a room filled with only moms.

None of this is rocket science or cutting edge – but sometimes the basics can be equally important. I know many schools can say they have/do some of these things, but what impressed me was that all the basics were in focus at Cantiague.

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