The National Title I distinction was given to only one other Nevada school and is reserved for schools which demonstrate two or more consecutive years of success in closing the achievement gap between student groups. In bringing the school to its national recognition, Principal Richard Swanberg said the tools to earn the accolade come almost entirely from collaboration.
“The first thing is building relationships with the teachers, students and the parents,” Swanberg said Tuesday while visiting classrooms around campus. “We really work hard to get the parents to buy into what we are doing. We have a lot of support but we really need the kids to know this is a safe place, we care about them and we want them to do better.”
Swanberg said his school is battling high poverty and English language learning rates, making it difficult to create resources to engage students. Swanberg said the 21st Century After School Program has been one way to get students and parents working together to advance the students’ education.
“We really talk about how graduation begins here,” Swanberg said. “We can't wait until middle school or high school. We have indicators that if your kid is not doing well in third grade, they are not going to do well in high school.”
Dr. Guthrie said he could feel the enthusiasm each time he entered a classroom and said it provides the perfect example for each school in the Washoe County School District.
“It’s very difficult to miss the spirit in this school,” Guthrie said. “These students are happy. These teachers are attentive and professional and this is a monumental reflection on the leadership of this principal and the teachers he has recruited.
“This is a model for how it should work throughout the state and throughout the nation. The principal knows what he is talking about and the teachers know what they are supposed to do. They are doing it in a most professional way, and it has reflected in the smiles and the engagement of the students.”
Lynn Rauh, director of Title I for WCSD, said that the schools classified under this category are determined by the number of free and reduced lunches the school provides to students due to high poverty. Rauh said Kate Smith Elementary ranks 10th out of 32 Washoe County schools in terms of free and reduced lunch rates.
“I was thrilled to see Dr. Guthrie and Mr. (Pedro) Martinez visiting with the principal and the teachers who do all of the hard work,” Rauh said about visiting the school Tuesday morning. “To see them honoring and respecting them was truly great because all the hard work they do doesn’t come easy. It is nice for them to be there to recognize that without those people doing that hard work this sort of thing couldn’t happen.”
Superintendent Martinez said being notified that Kate Smith Elementary was a National Title I Distinguished School came as no surprise to him. After having worked with Swanberg previously, Martinez said he saw promise in the school before its national recognition.
“I wasn't surprised because I remember visiting when I was here in 2009 and talking to (Swanberg) about the kind of academic systems he was putting in place and I knew we had an amazing principal,” Martinez said. “We then had a great conversation with the parents about how they wanted to be more involved in the school. Now I am not surprised that I have come back to see he has a high-performing school.”
Martinez said aggressive home visits and collaboration with parents has made the school “an extension of the (students’) families,” providing enthusiasm to participate in programs. Martinez cited investments in early grades, preschool programs, full-day Kindergarten, interventions in all grade levels and after-school programs as tools for Kate Smith Elementary’s success.
“What I love is that some of his colleagues that are in supervising schools just like Kate Smith that have 80 to 90 percent poverty and 50 to 60 percent English Language Learners, they are looking at this school and saying there are no excuses. That is exactly what we want,” Martinez said.
Swanberg said the school is showing immense improvement but his focus moving forward will be on improving proficiency rates. Martinez the school’s growth rate is one of the highest in the district and will allow the proficiency rates to hike in coming years.
“I think it is exciting for us because we have worked extremely hard over the last five years. It is not something that happened overnight,” Swanberg said. “It all comes down to the teachers. The teachers are able to make connections with the kids and the kids know that we care for them and they are happy. When you look in the rooms, the kids are happy and they want to come to school and they are glad to be here.”