Seeking Challenge: Using Knowledge to Create Change
By: Lauren Kloser
Jenny O’Donnell stood in the entrance of St. Adalbert Catholic School, taking a deep breath as she prepared to start her interview with Principal Andrew Currier. As she looked around the school, at the brightly colored walls of each classroom and the hallway bulletin boards plastered with student work, she wondered: Is this where I am supposed to be? Where am I being called?
As she paused, the kindergarten class walked by on their way back to their classroom. The teacher prompted the children: “Students, say ‘good morning’ to our visitor!” As the students chorused, “Good morning!” and walked by with their smiling faces, Jenny felt the warmth and community of the school soothe her nerves.
Jenny was looking for that sense of community and vibrancy; after graduating from ACE’s Teaching Fellows Program, ENL Certification Program and the ChACE Program, she had settled in Chicago, where she co-taught second grade in a highly resourced Catholic school. She loved her kids and liked the school, but it seemed like something was missing. She felt she still had gifts and skills she was not using to the best of her ability. She kept wondering when people would start speaking in Spanish and giving her hugs, much like they had done in her ACE schools in Brownsville and Chile. When her future husband, whom she was dating at the time, took a job with ACE in South Bend, it seemed the ideal pathway to the challenge she was seeking.
Jenny was hired as the assistant principal at St. Adalbert, a school that serves a 97 percent Latino population. She jumped into a welcoming community and a host of new responsibilities. Her duties as assistant principal included being the “data queen,” monitoring the math and reading performance of all the students in the school. As she realized how many students needed interventions, she helped create after-school tutoring groups and changed the way that the students completed their math requirements.
Now, Jenny works with the students who need more help with math at the middle school level, which allows some students to take more time with the more difficult concepts while other students are challenged with a faster pace. They began using data folders with all the students, which have helped both students and parents have a clearer idea of each student’s abilities and needs. In first grade, these data folders might contain tables that showcase the current status of the student’s reading level, knowledge of math facts, and spelling comprehension. In middle school, the data folders include graphs depicting the student’s test scores and a grade tracker. Students and teachers use these data folders to better understand their areas of mastery and growth; teachers even have practice parent conferences, where the students are asked to use the data to explain what skills they have mastered and what they still need to work on.
The focus on using data as a concrete tool for student growth has led to impressive quantifiable academic growth. Previously, St. Adalbert had earned a D grade from the Indiana Department of Education A-F Accountability system. After two years of data-driven instruction, St. Adalbert achieved an A grade from the department, reflecting the students’ increasing test scores and, most importantly for Jenny, their continued growth. Many of her students may not yet be on grade level, but they are making significant strides in their academic development.
St. Adalbert offers Jenny an opportunity to use her gifts and talents in the midst of a community filled with energetic and loving students and families. As the assistant principal, she brings her knowledge from the Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program to ensure effective school-wide teaching and to create a school culture of academic excellence. The skills she learned in Teaching Fellows 16, ENL 5, and ChACE 11 are put to work in with the students in her math classroom and in her work with the families, especially with the Madrinos and Padrinos group. The Madrinos and Padrinos group empowers Latino parents at St. Adalbert to be involved in their child’s education as well as become strong partners with the school community.
Jenny smiles when she talks about the numerous ACE programs she’s participated in, knowing that everything she has learned in those programs has prepared her to be at St. Adalbert. It is the wide variety of her knowledge, which ranges from administrative techniques to accommodations for English-language learners to effective planning techniques, that allows her to contribute to the mission of Catholic education. When she first arrived at St. Adalbert, she could see that the school was already a place of great joy and mission; it is a home that is lived in and intensely loved. Now, Jenny is an integral part of that warm community, creating opportunities for her students and their families to grow together in knowledge and faith.