Monday, June 11, 2012

Last Day


It's Parker's last full day at Shamrock, and I'm in the garden again. So much to do: bulbs to move, mulch to spread, seedlings to water. The long, hot summer looms.

When we got to school this morning, one of Parker's teachers was standing in the corridor outside her classroom, holding a copy of the Charlotte Observer. Students gathered eagerly around, marveling at the article that filled the center of the page. "Shamrock Gardens blooms with its kids," the headline read. We started at Shamrock with a story on the front page of the Observer, and now we're ending it that way.

Six years ago, the coverage struck an ominous note. "If it were your child, would you risk it?" the headline asked, invoking the phrases that strike terror into ambitious parents' hearts: "low scores," "high poverty" and "struggling school." The reporter followed several middle-class families who were thinking about sending kids to Shamrock, their neighborhood elementary. By the end of the article, we were the only family left.

Now, the pendulum has swung the other way.  "An elementary once so bad the state took it over has some miracle growth," the Observer informed its readers. The article went on to detail the progress we have made: new programs, more strong teachers, higher test scores, an abundance of gardens and a growing number of the neighborhood families who once avoided the school.

Growth? Absolutely. A miracle?


Schools and gardens teem with miracles, with seeds that unfold into magnificent green towers, caterpillars that transform into gossamer-winged wonders, children who surprise you at every turn.

But building places where children, plants and butterflies will thrive has little to do with miracles, magic wands or silver bullets. It calls for plain, old-fashioned, day-to-day hard work.

I say old-fashioned for a reason. We entered Shamrock in the midst of a national school "reform" movement whose backers clamored for sudden, radical transformation, championed firing staffs and closing schools, embraced the idea that destruction could somehow be "creative."

That isn't how we did it. Our successes were rooted in time-tested ideas – small classes, a stable, experienced staff, racial and economic integration – tempered with the understanding that good work takes time and patience. To use a garden metaphor, Miracle Gro may help you for a season, but if you want lasting success you have to build your soil. Our principal, Duane Wilson, had been an educator for more than thirty years, long enough to know that. 

We used some new ideas, of course. Teachers tested and retested students, studied the results and spent hours discussing specific strengths and weaknesses. A pilot bonus program gave staff an incentive to stay at the school. Mr. Wilson liked the young people who joined Teach for America, and several of them passed through Shamrock's doors.

But most important, we built connections. In the end, a school depends on the people who work there, day in and day out. A good school is a place where those people work hard, hold to a common goal, care about and look after each other. That kind of school doesn't make for a tear-jerking movie, or a riveting Power Point. It just works. 

It wasn't easy, and it definitely wasn't fast, for the school or for the garden that became my pet project. A couple of years into the garden work, I got frustrated with how long it was taking. We won a grant from Lowe's in the spring of 2008, but didn't get organized enough to build the beds until almost a year later. We didn't put much into the ground until the fall, when we cleared out the weeds and planted a handful of ragged-looking seedlings. 

One day, looking over those scraggly beginnings, I apologized to a fourth-grade teacher about taking so long. I shouldn't worry, she replied. It was good for the kids to see that some things take time, to learn the value of patience and persistence.

I don't know if the students learned that lesson, but over the years I certainly did. If you hit an obstacle, look for a way around. If something doesn't work this year, regroup and try it the next. If you hold together and keep pushing, step by step you'll move ahead.

One of my greatest pleasures was watching our young teachers bloom. When Parker entered kindergarten, Shamrock's staff was full of novices, the result of the revolving door that plagues so many high-poverty schools. As the school began to improve, more of those young teachers chose to stay, growing stronger and more confident with every passing year.

The garden grew as well. Our spindly transplants filled out and swelled the beds with leaves and vines and flowers. Butterflies began to visit.

One day, as a friend and I looked over one of the beds, she reached out to unfurl a spicebush leaf and reveal a bright green caterpillar, complete with yellow-rimmed black eyespots. Students crowded round.

A few months later, the passion vines were covered with fritillary caterpillars, spiked black and red. A nearby brick wall gleamed with their green-gold chrysalises, and a sharp-eyed student spied a spangled butterfly emerging from beneath a drainspout. 

The butterflies weren't alone in noticing the changes. Two years ago, nearly a dozen of our neighbors decided to put their kindergartners at Shamrock, bringing with them the time, money and connections that make middle-class parents such an asset to a school. Their work helped expand the garden, and multiply our enrichment programs. This past year, an even larger group enrolled.

Looking back, it's hard to believe how much that students, staff, parents and volunteers, all working together, have accomplished. Academics have taken off. Along with "gifted" classes, Shamrock has added Science Olympiad, Engineering is Elementary and chess instruction. The fourth grade traveled to Raleigh for the first time in recent memory, and the school now boasts dozens of garden beds for growing fruits and vegetables as well as flowers.

Attendance at school events can number in the hundreds, and volunteers step up from all the different communities our school serves.

Many of our students have risen to the occasion. The day of Parker's graduation I watched with pride as his classmates picked up end-of-year awards: Lawrence Thomas, who didn't get less than an A all year, Filiberto Esparza, who scored a triple 4 on his End-of-Grade exams, Phillip Nguyen, who started in the below-grade-level "inclusion" class, but ended in the advanced class and on the principal's honor roll, reserved for straight-A students.

It's still far from a miracle. Shamrock has not become an enchanted place where students' struggles are magically stripped away, and everyone soars into a bright future. More students pass exams than used to, but too many still do not. Many students seem primed for success. Others still face enormous struggles, both personal and academic, and it's hard to see what lies ahead for them.

Our nation's hard times have also hit the school, along with other challenges. Budget cuts have eaten into support staff, even as our students face growing economic and family stress. The small classes that allowed young teachers to develop their skills without being overwhelmed have grown much larger. Yet another budget-cutting move landed a hundred preschoolers in our midst, crowding our limited space and complicating school logistics. Federal and state initiatives focus far too much on high-stakes testing, and far too little on what really matters to schools and children. Mr. Wilson retired last year, and this spring a number of our key staff members decided to move on as well.

So the challenges are far from over. But with dedicated staff and a strengthened community base, the school and its supporters have the means to meet them. I know they do, because we did. 

Was it a risk to send Parker to Shamrock? Maybe. But we could not have asked for a greater reward. We made so many friends from so many walks of life. Working together, we all created a place where children who were sometimes overlooked could thrive. We learned that you can set out to do what you think is right, and with hard work succeed. Nothing in my life has given me greater satisfaction. I highly recommend it.

Note: Ann Doss Helms, the terrific Observer reporter who wrote the article on Shamrock, did not write the "miracle" headline. That person shall remain nameless. Ann knows better. Observer photographer Todd Sumlin took the beautiful swing picture.


  1. Brought tears to my eyes and warmed my heart. I am tucking this piece away so when I feel impatient about ed reform progress, I'll put this out along with the photo of the garden.