Making the Grade

Written by Ashley M. Biggers Category: Valley News Issue: August 2014
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Phoenix teacher Kathleen Johnston gets an “A+” for uplifting students – and a grant from a national foundation to scale her methods across the country.

When Tuscano Elementary School teacher Kathleen Johnston asked one of her fourth graders, “Angela,” to describe herself, Angela replied, “I’m pretty stupid.”

Feeling slow and inferior may be common among students, but few confess it openly – or believe it as strongly as Angela, accepting her perceived lack of faculty as part of her very fabric. “I’ve had students who have been severely below grade level, but had never had a student who perceived herself as unintelligent,” Johnston says. Johnston set to work, enlisting Angela’s mother – who also struggled with literacy and reading comprehension – as a partner in her daughter’s education inside the classroom and out. Johnston hosted an after-hours pajama reading night, where Angela, her classmates, and their parents could share their favorite books. At home, Angela and her mother read together and discussed the books, capturing their conversations on an old-fashioned tape recorder or a Smartphone video. At the end of the year, Angela was performing at grade level.

Recognizing Johnston’s novel method of fostering positive academic outcomes, Tuscano Elementary Principal Mike Mannelly nominated her for the Toyota Family Teacher of the Year Award, a national prize that recognizes educators who incorporate families in the learning process. The National Center for Families Learning (NCFL) and Toyota awarded her second-place. That it takes a village to raise a child may be a Clinton-era sound bite, but Johnston and teachers of her ilk know the quote’s truth in practice. And it’s something she’ll be able to extend further thanks to a $5,000 grant from Toyota to build a multi-generational program that includes collaborating with Valley retirees.

At Tuscano, a Title I school in the West Valley, 80 percent of the students receive a free or reduced-cost lunch. Many students speak English as a second language. “We don’t see ourselves as at risk,” Principal Mannelly says. “We see ourselves as at hope.”

Johnston provides details on her teaching techniques on her website, both in text and as podcasts. Beginning with initial parent-teacher conferences, Johnston asks parents what they want their students to get out of class. “I want families and students to know we’re in this together,” Johnston says. She welcomes parents into the classroom. However, with many parents cobbling a living from shift-work that left them unavailable for classroom volunteer hours or even parent-teacher meetings, Johnston had to be creative. Rather than just providing updates about student progress (although she does that, too), she provides parents with strategies to help their students continue learning outside the classroom. And when parents can’t come to her, she goes to them. Along with a colleague, including Mannelly, she’s conducted home visits.

“She understands that the role of teacher is not confined to the classroom. If she sees students struggling, she doesn’t wait for a parent to come to her. She meets families on their terms,” says Emily Kirkpatrick, NCFL vice president. “She found ways to surround students with additional strategies. Education can happen 24 hours a day inside and outside of the classroom. Kathleen models that. We’d like to see her practices scaled across the country.”

During the 2014-2015 school year, Johnston is leveling up her family initiatives. NCFL and Toyota approved Johnston’s proposal to leverage Phoenix’s retiree population, which all parties saw as a unique asset of the Valley (particularly the West Valley), turning these seniors into mentors and tutors in the classroom. The prize funds will pay for required background checks, and for developing materials and programming. Johnston sees it as a win-win-win: Retirees eager to give back will have a way to do so. Students will have mentors who can open their eyes to careers and viewpoints they may never have experienced. Plus, contributing to Johnston’s vision to teach about more than the three R’s, “when kids get out in the real world, they’re going to have to deal with all types of people – all ages, races, personalities. It builds connections academically, socially and emotionally.”

The students and families, with whom Johnston built relationships during the 2013-2014 school year, will once again benefit from her vision. She’ll be their fifth grade teacher again this academic year. If the thank-you notes the students wrote to the NCFL and Toyota are any measure, her class is all for it:

“Thank you guys for choosing Ms. Johnston our 4th grade teacher the 2nd place bestest [sic] teacher and there is reason for that :) One reason is that Ms. Johnston’s class is hardworking, respectful, responsible, sharing, honest, caring. …Peace Out Man.”