Brentwood Elementary: “To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

“You never change something by fighting the Existing reality.  To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” 

Architect and System’s Theorist, Buckminster Fuller coined it. Assistant Principal, Patti Folino and the guidance staff at Brentwood Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida, are implementing it.

Patti greets me in the front office wearing a ‘big-bird yellow” hard hat and an equally bright smile.  We navigate our way through the library filled with parents, hot popcorn, and freshly completed student projects to the sidewalk beyond that is enhanced by temporary chain-link fencing and construction canvas that has literally taken over the entire interior landscape of the school.

“We have a lot of changes going on right now, so it’s a little crazy!”  Patti turns to beam at me as she explains that Brentwood is getting a new and highly anticipated state-of-the-art cafetorium.  It is 11:00 AM on a Wednesday morning, and I have been invited to sit in on the weekly Attendance meeting in Guidance Counselor, Cindy Rasmussen’s office.  We arrive to find Cindy, the home-school liaison, and the truancy worker already deep in conversation.

With a limited timeframe, and still many rivers to cross, the team is discussing a child that is reaching truancy status.  I listen intently as I wonder what ‘truancy status’ actually entails.   (In the state of Florida, truancy means 15 days of unexcused absences in a 90 day period with or without the knowledge or consent of the student’s parent or guardian. Tracking these attendance patterns from day one at the school level results in standardized, benchmarked protocols of communication and action).

Quite honestly, I am a bit taken aback by how much each of these professionals knows about each student and her or his circumstances, and I am more than a little shocked to realize that

A). They really do know what they know, and it is at times hard for me to process the realities they face, and  B). This has become a major, and time-consuming, cornerstone of the overall education process, even at the elementary school level.

I am even more surprised at the quantity of cases being discussed in this one-hour block of time as Cindy goes down the list on her computer and acknowledges each child as if she herself tucked them into bed the night before.  Clearly, a team with an agenda, the brevity of the situation is obvious, and there is an authentic element that goes well beyond the role of educators doing their jobs.   There is nothing short of a loving, concerned, weary, parent coupled with a ‘No challenge is too great when it comes to helping my child!’ level of concern and involvement here.

Children who are not attending school are missing out on vital instruction time, and thus the education gap constantly widens between them and their peers.  There is deep, warranted concern for their futures especially in the area of learning to read and therefore being able to read to learn.  It just so happens that all present today are women, and I watch with admirable curiosity as they huddle up, buckle down, and share their individual game plans for tackling the week ahead with compassion and gusto.  Mama-Bears in action, Truancy Worker, Bernice Fuller, as mandated by her position, prepares to go anyplace and anywhere to find answers, while Home-School Liaisons, Joy Striepe and Tenia Rumpf will diligently bridge the gaps between home and school by assessing and implementing ways the school can support the student or entire family, including bringing the families of kindergarten students out of a preschool mentality and up to speed on the vital importance of attendance and kindergarten-readiness.

As an administrator, Patti Folino oversees and administers that support on every level possible as well as the handling of requests for and issuance of the of Student Emergency Funds for everything from transportation to school while a bussing conflict is straightened out to delousing an entire house so that the children are cleared to attend school.  *(The Student Emergency Fund is set up and funded by The Patterson Foundation).

Attendance Ringmaster, Cindy, will once again track every single step of this process until the group reconvenes again next week to go over results. Meanwhile, Cindy has actively instituted the Attendance Bingo game school-wide this year and sheepishly confesses that she “stole” the idea from neighboring Tuttle Elementary, but more importantly notes that ‘the kids love it!”   She has a storage bin full of cool prizes for Bingo winners each week, and it’s a big deal that the children get to leave class and go to her office to choose their reward.  The bigger picture provides for both a team-building approach within the classroom (the whole class can also be rewarded for attendance as a collective unit) while also granting her moments of opportunity as the guidance professional on staff to acknowledge each child in a trust-building, fun, and positive way.  There is no doubt that the attendance journey is a day by day work in progress. However, one thing is certain: the 80-day mark data shows something is happening and the numbers are improving at Brentwood Elementary.  

For my/our friends at Brentwood Elementary, remember:

 Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.

Thank you and Bravo!

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