School Reimagined

Updated: Apr 1, 2019

I found myself fighting back tears more than once today. As I spent quite a bit of time at the Fall-Hamilton Enhanced Option elementary school in Nashville, what blew me away most was the heart of the Principal, Mathew Portell.

This school is adjacent to the Fairgrounds in Davidson County. The children that attend this school come from often difficult homelives. They have experienced trauma via having their parents taken from them due to incarceration or premature death, many face homelessness, many face disturbing abuse, and a variety of other challenges.

Mr. Portell's heart for these children, not simply their education, is off the charts! He is profoundly committed to impacting their lives for the good and giving them a phenomenal contrast to the detrimental and toxic experiences they have had so far.

Another wonderful room I visited today with low lighting, paper lanterns, and a variety of methods for children to learn.

My reason for being there today was to get an up-close view of how he's doing things differently and how some of those differences could positively spread to other schools. I also have a personal interest in looking into this school deeper.

As a child, I grew up with a lot of instability and trauma, as well. I moved 22 times before high school, always the "new kid" in a school without much money and no opportunity to make lasting friendships. I was trying to "process" a lot, and learn, at the same time. So, I truly do "get" what he is saying and appreciate his approach so much!

When I asked, specifically, what is working really well here, here are a few key take-a-ways:

INCREDIBLE TEACHERS WHO LOVE WHAT THEY DO: You won't find any disgruntled teachers here! Mr. Portell explained that he is incredibly intentional about hiring for mindset above all else. He says "I can train someone on curriculum, I can mentor them, but I can't train on actually wanting to be here." Mr. Portell also explained that he takes a team approach to interviewing new faculty. He understands that his culture plays a huge role in the success of the team's level of inspiration, the school's educational objectives, and ultimately the success of each student! I LOVE this!!!

APOLOGIES TO KIDS WHEN TEACHERS MAKE A MISTAKE OR RAISE THEIR VOICE: This really resonated with me. I'm sure many of these children don't often experience an apology from an adult. Mr. Portell explains that even in their best effort to provide the most nurturing environment for kids to learn, sometimes the teacher's can make a mistake. I found it very refreshing that they would allow children to see that teachers/adults are human, too, and that they can ask forgiveness from a child when appropriate.

THEY TEACH THE 7 HABITS OF HIGHLY EFFECTIVE PEOPLE: Many successful business people have read Stephen Covey's book by this name, but this is the first time I've seen it taught in an elementary school! As I walked the halls and talked with children today, I asked them what they liked best about their school. Amid the many answers, many of them said they loved learning how to "sharpen the saw", the 7th habit in the book. One little girl explained to me how she helps her older brother when he comes home. She said "I help him calm down when he's frustrated and sharpen his saw." I was mezmerized!!!

MULTIPLE LEARNING STYLES, INCLUDING A PEACE CORNER: Mr. Portell explained "we don't have kids in desks all day, expecting them to pay attention, engage, and behave perfectly". He went on to say, "as adults, we don't do that...why should we expect a child to be able to do it?". He talked about how there is a lot of hands-on learning, there is audible and visual learning, and they are even allowed to take time in the Peace Corner when they need to collect themselves.

This was especially interesting to me. This is an area of the room the child can go to and fidget with something, squeeze something, work out a little frustration, yet it is structured around a group of principals to help them diffuse their emotions and process them. He said he got a lot of pushback initially because people would say, "adults don't have a peace corner". Yet, he begged to differ. He explained how his office, his car or his restroom can act as a Peace Corner when necessary to help him get 5 minutes to regroup. He argues, "why shouldn't a child have this same option?" I couldn't agree more!

When I asked where the government could do better, it was a very enlightening conversation. One thing he and I agreed on, wholeheartedly, is that we have to have new and different measuring sticks. We need to look at the whole child and not just the standard test score. There is much more to consider.

For example, children who begin school without being properly nurtured or taught how to read at home need to be measured differently. They cannot possibly be measured by similar standards as a child with attentive parents reading to them and supplying them with books from a young age.

One child was so proud to show me their group quilt they made together today.

Another area we agreed on completely is that when children have experienced trauma at home, it must be taken into account when testing time comes around. For example, if that child has had an extremely upsetting situation at home the week before the big, annual test, of course they are not going to perform at their best.

There also needs to be some education around integration. As adults in society, we are integrated with people of all demographics. Yet, at the school level, families can be very protective about separation. I could see a potential argument from parents who want their child to have a top-notch educational opportunity. So, it begged the question if, at his school, they were teaching at a reduced level in order to meet the kids where they are at?

I loved their problem-solving ideas displayed on the wall outside their classroom.

He said it was the opposite...the way that they are able to actually nurture the children helps them process and overcome the trauma, which then opens them up to a new ability to learn, and then they bring the children up to a higher learning standard. Many of the children in his school are learning at an advanced rate.

The teachers love their children! They work hard to not only teach, but nurture these precious souls, and this is a breeding ground for healthier students and future leaders! I am so impressed with Mathew Portell and what he has accomplished here in just 3 short years! George Lucas's company came and filmed a documentary on the school. You can see it here.

As I continue to circulate in this community and hear more inspiring stories like this, it certainly gives me a wonderful foundation to build from in potentially bringing modern and relevant solutions to the Senate floor. Best of all...we'll arrive at these solutions as a community!

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