Marcia Reed, principal of 186th Street Elementary School in Los Angeles Unified, was honored this month as a 2016 National Distinguished Principal by the National Association of Elementary School Principals. The association recognizes one outstanding principal in each of the 50 states each year.
Now in her 13th year as principal, Reed was selected by her fellow principals statewide, in part for the academic improvements at her K-5 school, where 86 percent of the 875 students are from low-income families, 30 percent are English learners and 8 percent are homeless. This year year higher percentages of her 3rd-, 4th– and 5th-graders “met” or “exceeded” standards in the statewide Smarter Balanced tests in both English language arts and math than the L.A. Unified average.
Here, she answers a few questions about her school, known as the “Home of the Wise Owls.”
What was it like in your first year as principal, as opposed to now?
The first year, my office was like the Department of Transportation, children coming in all the time for making poor decisions. I would call them, “My little naughty owls.” We knew we had to work as a team, to have our students become peacemakers instead of peace breakers. Now, they’re making wise decisions.
How do you approach instruction for so many children who come from challenging backgrounds and neighborhoods?
We approach instruction with a theme of peace. We believe that if you teach it, they will learn it. We have murals all around the school that remind children of a peaceful village. We have a Peace Pole at the front of our school. Our children learn a peace chant. We want them to have constant reminders all around the school that say we are peacemakers. Since my students live in neighborhoods where there is a lot of criminal and gang activity, we model peace and ask them to take it home to help their families. We firmly believe that if there is no peace, there is no learning.
Your school is a melting pot of cultures, children who are Latino, African-American, Asian, Filipino and Pacific Islanders. How well do they mix?
In the beginning, I felt that they hadn’t been exposed to each other’s culture. There was a lack of understanding. There was tension between African-American and Hispanic children. That comes more from older generations — their parents weren’t teaching the skills of understanding people from other cultures. We decided that if we could teach that, the children would lead and take home what they learned in school. We’ve broken down many of those barriers; through projects and an appreciation for diversity, children are learning that we’re more alike than we are different.
Given your students’ academic improvements, can you offer an example or two of how lesson plans have changed to make learning more relevant to your various culture groups?
Our lesson planning addresses the use of culturally relevant responsive education where teachers incorporate the students’ diverse cultural experiences to enhance their lessons. We use project-based learning and hands-on activities to engage all students. We have a Book-of-the-Month where every child hears the same story that usually addresses different cultures. This month we are reading, “The Skin You Live In,” by Michael Tyler, a book that talks about friendship, acceptance, self-esteem and diversity.
We are also an Academic English Mastery Program School, and our teachers use discussion protocols and participation protocols to reach all students and make learning a lot of fun. Teachers do a call and response, choral reading; students raise a righteous hand, students participate in round robin discussions and role-playing.
What differences in approach do you and your staff take now when dealing with a disruptive child, versus what you had done 12 years ago?
Our school has had great success with the Peace First program where we teach students how to create their own peaceful villages using conflict resolution skills. We teach empathy using the restorative justice model where students are asked what happened, what were you trying to do, who else has been affected by your actions and how, and how can the problem be fixed. We have a Wise Owl Connection where we give our little struggling owls a mentor. It’s amazing what happens when you put another caring adult in the life of child. We focus on building a positive relationship with the child letting them know that there is a champion inside that we know they can be. Our expectations are high and we are proactive rather than reactive. Now we focus on the positive behavior rather than the negative behavior.
You’ve praised your teachers and staff for your students’ academic progress, but you’ve also forged partnerships that had brought additional assets to the school. Can you mention a few?
We’ve had a wonderful relationship with Toyota, the Getty Museum, the LA Sheriff’s Department, Peace First, churches in our community and many others. USC has adopted us as a partner in athletic programs. We work with UCLA, California State Dominguez Hills, Loyola Marymount and West Point on other projects. We even have an exchange program with Japan. I’ll knock on any door for my students to help them receive a golden opportunity because every child deserves a champion.
What does this award mean to you?
I’m soaring on a cloud of happiness. I’m truly honored to get this beautiful, amazing award. It’s a celebration of my whole community, the school, teachers, students and parents. It’s not just me. It takes a team to reach all of our goals. This award represents quite a few people and shows what hard work and teamwork can do. It’s simply wonderful.