Carter In The Classroom
Focusing on unique things school districts are doing to help children succeed.

Brag About Your School: Kipp Pleasant Grove Primary School

There's a rotation going on in classrooms at KIPP Pleasant Grove Primary School in Dallas.

Students are on the go, moving from table to table on a mission to master reading.

Teachers divide their classes by reading level. Each group stays in their lane, with their peers. Every 15 minutes or so, the groups go from one corner of the room to the next. The stations include working on computers, having one-on-one reading time and then, front and center with their teacher.

"When we talk about closing the achievement gap, we focus on our kids who are behind, I think it's absolutely critical that we get those kids to where they need to be, but the children that often get lost in the mix are the children who are reading above grade level. I think we owe them just as much," teacher Shameem Patel said.

So, one group may work on sounding out words, then they switch stations and now a new group is in front of the teacher tackling topics you normally hear in middle school.

"Nobody is left behind. I am meeting you where you are and I know what's going on with you," Patel said.

The students know too. First graders Aubrey and Christian have cheered each other on since kindergarten.

Aubrey said she struggled with how to pronounce the word "like," but Christian helped her understand it.

Their teacher, Patel, wound up in their classroom by chance.

She graduated with a nursing degree from an Ivy League school. She even had a job in hand as a pediatric nurse in Philadelphia.

One day, Patel happened to go back on campus and popped into a lecture by a professor.

"His opening line was literally, 'If you were privileged enough to receive an education at a school like the University of Pennsylvania, you have no business doing anything with your life other than ensuring that children around the world got the same opportunity you got,'" Patel said. "I walked out of the room that day and went home and applied to the graduate school of education and I haven't looked back."

Eventually the Ohio native wound up in Dallas teaching first grade.

"We run the gamit in first grade, from kids who this is their first year of school, they are still learning the alphabet and letter sounds, to the group I have here who is doing pretty intense critical thinking and most of them are already reading on a third grade level," Patel said.

Patel chose KIPP Pleasant Grove Primary School largely because of the principal, Dexter Chaney.

"With the drives to constantly achieve and be high-scoring, people can lose sight of the humanity in the job," Patel said. "Mr. Chaney is the first school leader that I have found that has found that magical balance."

Teamwork is one reason Chaney said this relatively new charter school on the east side of Dallas has a waiting list to get in.

"It is a partnership with everybody -- we look at it as a three legged stool. Us as a school is one leg, the family and then the Kippster. If any one of those pieces is missing, that stool is going to fall," Chaney said.

Remember Christian, the student helping his friend Aubrey learn how to read the word like? About 30 minutes after NBC 5 spoke to him in class, he was spotted pushing a janitor's garbage can down the hall, working to help keep his school clean. That teamwork is something Chaney said the school thrives on.

Creating that type of character is not accident.

Walk by Ann Rodriguez's classroom and you might listen a bit and wonder what subject is bring taught.

"We were teaching the academics and there was something missing and we had to bridge that gap, with the emotion the students were not fulfilling," Rodriguez said.

It's called Social And Emotional Learning. Basically, it's how to manage your feelings and communicate better with others.

"It's empathy, empathy is when you know how someone feels and you put yourself is someone's shoes," student Kirsten Clark said.

Clark said she's been at other schools where she felt less understood. She said this class helps the students understand each other.

"When I'm sad sometimes, my friends come by and give me a hug and make me feel better, they tell me to stop, name my feeling and tell them how I feel," she said.

Naming your feelings is one of the techniques taught at KIPP Pleasant Grove.

Principal Dexter Chaney said the school believes in building 51% character and 49% academics.

"Being the smartest person in the room doesn't matter if you can't get along with others," Chaney said. "We actually look at it as an investment in time, we invest that time on the front end and build in, so we're not so reactive with behavior and choice making."

It's helped build the culture they want at KIPP Pleasant Grove Primary School, and it's not just with the students. The school is kindergarten through third grade, and the third graders took their first ever STAAR test Monday, and the staff made sure they went into it feeling supported.

The school held a pep rally where faculty talked about their pride and strong belief in the students' abilities. They even had the test-takers younger siblings come up to share words of encouragement as well.

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