Principal Keeps School On The Move

by Paul Bass | September 1, 2009 2:13 PM | | Comments (11)

DSCN5121.JPGKenny Woodson knew he needed to get coat hooks up for the second-graders. Lola Nathan said so.

“I know she’s a no-tolerance principal,” said Woodson (at right in photo), the custodian at what’s the new temporary home of Davis Street 21st Century Magnet School on Legion Avenue. “I’m here to give her what she wants.”

They met only a few weeks ago. Nathan saw that Woodson works hard; she let him know that. She let him know how important she considers custodians to a school. She made a point of thanking him when he left every day.

As Wednesday’s first day of school approached, Nathan (at left in photo) wanted new coat hooks put in a former science classroom being transformed into a second-grade room, complete with cubbies. Woodson got right on it.

When Lola Nathan is in the building, people have a tendency to get busy.

They’re particularly busy right now on Legion Avenue, where Nathan is overseeing the temporary move of Davis.

Davis this week begins a 16-month temporary sojourn at the old Vincent Mauro School (where Woodson served as custodian the past four years) while its own 91-year-old home across town undergoes a $45 million renovation.

Davis is a school on the move in more ways than one. Under Lola Nathan’s guidance, Davis has emerged as a top performer in New Haven’s system. Test scores have risen noticeably for three years. The school — now a regional magnet emphasizing “literacy through arts, technology and multiculturalism” with a global accent — has become a hot ticket; some 180 of its 385 students come from outside the city. The students hail from 33 nations. They speak 17 different languages.

In a sense, Lola Nathan, who has been Davis’s principal for 19 years, has everyone from the students to the teachers to the parents speaking a common language: pitching in. That’s part of her secret, a secret that has relevance beyond Davis’s temporary walls.

As New Haven embarks on an ambitious reform drive aimed at making the city’s schools the best in the nation, the role of principals will be in the spotlight. Officials have identified recruiting and retaining top principals and teachers as a main priority of the drive. The evolving plan calls for shutting down low-performing schools, intervening more at struggling schools — and freeing up successful principals to make more of their own rules.

“She is the model,” said Superintendent of Schools Reggie Mayo, speaking about Nathan.

Mayo first met Nathan when he was principal of Jackie Robinson School in 1970. He immediately identified her as a leader and put her in charge of special education there. He has watched her develop as a principal who sets high expectations, holds people accountable, and gets parents involved. “Lola,” he said, “will bring anyone in if she feels you can broaden the horizons of her young people.”

The city will look to have other principals do some of what Lola Nathan is doing right, including her ability to inspire everyone from the custodian to the band leader to the teachers to pitch in.

A View Of The Action

DSCN5115.JPGNathan (pictured with staffer Marianne Apuzzo) and her teachers were busy unpacking boxes Monday to get the space ready for the first day of school Wednesday. Nathan roamed the halls checking on details like the coat hooks. Parents filtered in with last-minute questions.

“There’s a lot to do,” Nathan said. “It’ll all get done. You don’t panic.”

But you do stay in near-constant motion. At least if you’re Lola Nathan.

Like the rest of the building, Nathan’s personal office was still being set up Monday. She has decided not to occupy the former principal’s office, which sits at the back of the reception suite, away from view. She instead claimed the former secretaries’ space right in front, with a glass wall that looks out into the hall.

DSCN5124.JPG“I’m not an office person, anyway. It’s not like I’m going to be in here [much] anyway,” she said. “And if I’m meeting with someone, I can see what’s going on.”

Nathan comes to Davis each day energized by her morning routine. She rises at 5 a.m. to walk two miles, either at the Hamden High School track near her home or at Hillhouse High. A Seventh Day Adventist, Nathan then spends a while studying religious books. If she has time, she grabs some toast and oatmeal and juice before coming in to work, ready for the bustle.

While at the helm in one school for 18 years (a long time by industry standards), the principal has made a point of pursuing new ideas and new goals. This year she is challenging her teachers to improve students’ standardized test scores by 20 percent. In classes where performance has been high, the goal is to work on preserving gains; in one third-grade classroom, 100 percent of the students were reading at goal level in this year’s mastery tests.

For three years now Davis has seen its scores rise, faster than almost any other school in the district. Fourth-graders meeting the state math “goal” on mastery tests rose 38.1 percent since 2006, for instance; the fifth-grade percentage was 40.6. The percentage of fifth-graders reading at “proficient” levels shot up 30 percent; those at state “goal” rose 19.4 percent.

Click here for a spreadsheet detailing the school’s results.

Like schools across the country in the era of No Child Left Behind, Nathan’s team has adopted a numbers-driven approach — but one that also has an important human component, drawing people in to the process. She and her teachers keep close watch on student scores and performance in the classroom.

“We’re always looking at data, analyzing it,” she said. She keeps track of test results in each teacher’s classroom. She and the teachers draw up individual plans for struggling students. She holds grade-level meetings to discuss the plans, not just with teachers, but with paraprofessionals who work with the students, as well as with parents. They meet with a group of literacy and math coaches. Nathan said she also makes a point of getting to know the students herself.

Everybody Scrubs

DSCN5143.JPGOn Monday, the the first order of business was unpacking boxes, not reviewing test scores. For the past two weeks, Nathan’s teachers have come in on their own time to scrub desks and prepare bulletin boards.

Sue Baldino (at right in photo) was setting up her new kindergarten room with the help of her mom, Cindy Chandler. Chandler (pictured in foreground) has come in to her daughter’s classroom each day for the past week after finishing teaching her piano students; Monday she was cutting letters for the bulletin board. Chandler used to teach at Davis, too.

DSCN5131.JPGUnder Nathan, the school has kept valued teachers. Sixth-grade teacher Gail DeBlasio (at left in photo, beside fellow teachers Jess Atnes and Dina Spinelli) has taught at Davis for 17 years. Monday she was still getting used to her new classroom. She pointed out a spot on the wall needing new molding; Nathan made a note of it.

Nathan puts teachers like DeBlasio in charge of committees reviewing curriculum. “Everybody does extra here,” Nathan said. “You want to empower everybody.”

That includes parents. Amid the unpacking, Nathan has invited each of the school’s new parents in for a chat. She makes a point of getting to know all parents in part to recruit them to volunteer. In addition to sitting in on test-score reviews, parents help run the lunchroom at Davis. They tutor in classrooms. They serve on school committees, work in the library, coordinate school uniforms, and chaperone class trips.

Nathan has also put an emphasis on the “Comer method” of social development, named after Yale child psychologist James Comer. The approach enlists kids in solving classroom problems. Teachers like DeBlasio start the day with a 20-minute meeting with students, who talk about what’s on their mind. They discuss conflicts that have arisen in the classroom. The participants in a conflict talk; other students then offer suggestions. As a group, the class figures out how to solve the conflict.

As a result of the meetings, DeBlasio reported, she had “very few referrals for discipline” last year. And students performed better in class. (Superintendent Mayo has made tackling classroom misbehavior a priority this year.)

This year DeBlasio hopes to take the method to the next level in her sixth-grade classroom. She had many of her students last year, too, when she taught fifth grade; the other fifth-grade teacher used the Comer approach, too. Now DeBlasio hopes to have students lead the meetings themselves.

“We don’t become status quo,” Nathan said as she prepared for the next group of people bringing questions into her office. “Each year is a new challenge.”

Custodian Kenny Woodson will be part of that challenge. Nathan invited him to an opening-year staff gathering Tuesday to discuss the goals ahead. And she promised to buy him lunch.

Previous stories about Davis Street 21st Century Magnet School:

Pot Melts
So Long, Old Davis
Music History Steps Offstage

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Posted by: Chazmo | September 1, 2009 4:21 PM

It's about time someone in a leadership role in New Haven has gone on record to mention how important the custodians are to the school system. Thank you Lola Nathan. Maybe John DeStefano, Reggie Mayo & Will Clark will soon come to the same conclusion. Instead of trying to railroad the custodians on their new contract that is now in negotiations. Please Principles of all schools speak up and let the administration know how important your custodians & cafe workers are to your school. Because the don't think so.

Posted by: Nilda Aponte | September 1, 2009 4:25 PM

Love it, love it, love it... congratulations Ms.Nathan. Awesome job!!!

Posted by: robn | September 1, 2009 5:04 PM

It says a lot that she picked the office up front instead of way in back. I've never met Lola but you can tell she's got it. Its that indescribable combination of motherly warmth and feisty grit... kind of gives me warm fuzzy memories of the educators I loved when I was growing up.
New Haven needs more good solid citizens like Lola Nathan.

Posted by: New and Improved | September 1, 2009 9:27 PM

McCaslin has committed the cardinal sin of data deception by not scaling data on a 100% scale. The charts are misleading. Very dishonest, honey. ...

Posted by: Yes We Can | September 2, 2009 7:06 AM

Bravo Lola Nathan and the staff of Davis School!

Urban Education is a team game and everyone needs to be working together to make gains happen. The consistent gains at Davis and at other schools in New Haven such as King Robinson and Sheridan (which were just taken off the state NCLB watch list while schools in Greenwich and West Hartford were put on the list) are impressive. More work needs to be done and more schools need to follow the lead of these 3 but the gains and the hard work of the students, parents and staffs of these schools are worth celebrating. 22% of the schools coming off the list come from New Haven, more than any other District.

Oh and by the way Chazmo while neither the NHI nor Register chose to report it, the last BOE meeting included the Superintendent specifically thanking custodians and staff for getting schools ready for the start of school in a short amount of time following summer school. Mr. Clark and others also spoke at the meeting on the record thanking staff and specifically custodians for their hard work to get the schools ready for the children.

Posted by: Latrina | September 2, 2009 9:25 AM

Great article! Lola Nathan was my assistant principal way back in 1987 at Truman School and she had a great impact on my life. It's great to see an educator so dedicated to New Haven's children, on the ground, day after day, improving education. She has a wonderful spirit. Love you Lola!

Posted by: AgOr | September 2, 2009 6:10 PM

The custodians are a very important part of any school. I would like to see all principals tell everyone that we are needed. Our goal is to make New Haven schools cleaner and keep a better invironment for everyone. Yes we are doing a great job.

Posted by: Josiah Brown [TypeKey Profile Page] | September 2, 2009 6:52 PM

Congratulations to Lola Nathan and her team of colleagues at Davis Street School for their work and for this recognition.

Five of those colleagues have been Fellows in the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, including Waltrina Kirkland-Mullins (in 10 different years) and Stephanie Sheehan (three out of the past five years) in 2009. Thomas Holmes, Barbara Natale, and Lucia Rafala were Fellows in earlier years.

In 2009, both Waltrina Kirkland-Mullins and Stephanie Sheehan were Fellows in a seminar on "Science and Engineering in the Kitchen" led by Eric Dufresne, who has faculty appointments in mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, physics, and cell biology at Yale. Brief summaries of their curriculum units follow below, one a particularly interdisciplinary unit developed for students at Davis Street School, which features an international theme.

The full curriculum units that all 50 Fellows (from kindergarten to grade 12) completed across five seminars in 2009 will be published later this month at:

A Taste of Korea: A Geography-Chemistry Adventure!
by Waltrina D. Kirkland-Mullins

What do preparing kimchi, rice, and green tea have to do with science and the study of an Asian country? Through engaging, interactive activities, young learners will discover the scientific, cultural, and historic answer to this question. This unit explores aspects of Korean culture along with scientific elements that go into the creation of three of the country's traditional foods: kimchi, rice, and tea. Students will create these three foods, discovering food preservation via fermentation and the chemistry of creating perfect cups of sticky rice and green tea. Targeted at students ages seven through nine, this unit can be modified to accommodate upper elementary grades. The unit can be implemented within a 12-to-16-week time frame or expanded to accommodate the entire school year.

Non-fictional and fictional children's book selections, interactive Web sites, visits with local Korean merchants and restaurateurs, and more constitute an engaging language arts complement. A team-effort "We-Search" research project is included to promote greater understanding of Korean culture coupled with reinforcing social development and student work ethic skills. Have your young learners join in the adventure!

(Recommended for Science, Social Studies and Language Arts, grades 3-5)
. . .

Fluid Thinking about Liquids and Solids
by Stephanie J. Sheehan

Would you like your students to get excited about science? Would you like them to understand and use the scientific method and create delicious foods in your classroom? This unit is for you! Students will learn about states of matter as they make mayonnaise, chocolate sauce, and gelatinous fruit mold, as well as bread, right in your classroom. These activities will develop critical thinking skills, make the science curriculum more exciting for students, and encourage students to make connections between school science and real life.

The unit will consist of two main sections. The first section will provide various opportunities for students to sort and observe various properties of solids, then to do the same for liquids. The second section will provide hands-on experiments to challenge some of the generalizations they may have made during the first section. The experiments will help students to understand how liquids and solids react under certain circumstances. They will understand how energy affects matter and they will begin to understand how the movement of molecules affects the materials we see, touch and eat. The unit includes an annotated list of second-grade reading material for students to learn from and respond to.

(Recommended for Science, grade 2)

Posted by: Hood Rebel | September 2, 2009 7:44 PM

Great to see Lola Nathan featured. The woman knows how to get things done and she has mentored scores of teachers and others who are lucky enough to have been exposed to her guidance.

To "new and improved" are you kidding me? There are many cardinal sins of data deception including negligence, fraud,sabotage, plagiarism.... I am not sure how you concluded that THE cardinal sin was committed here..unless you just can't read! a first grader can LOOK and SEE that 69% is not 100%...honey..

Posted by: New and Improved | September 4, 2009 11:22 PM

Not scaling on 100% scale is fraud. It's a textbook example of data presentation ethics. If you have had any training in data presentation techniques my comment would have not surprised you. McCaslin knows better... or at least she should know better.

Posted by: New And Improved | September 4, 2009 11:30 PM

Cardinal rule of data presentation... All things most be presented true to scale. No compromising on this point. It's desceptive... honey.

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