By: Principal Simaran Bakshi
Here’s a lesson that students at my school are far too familiar with: if you hear a gunshot, jump in the bathtub. It’s the best way to survive if someone continues shooting into your home.
If you grew up in a neighborhood ravaged by crime and violence, then you may have collected your own survival tips. I didn’t know this one, until one of my precious elementary students told me.
For her, being prepared to protect herself from gunfire was just something she had to do to make it to another day – and if she beat every odd stacked against her – maybe graduation day.
For students living in Valencia Way – one of the poorest neighborhoods in Jacksonville Florida – students live in what I call a feeder pattern of failure. Through absolutely no fault of their own, they are zoned to attend underperforming schools from Kindergarten through twelfth grade.
Two out of every three students at my school – Wayman Academy of the Arts – call Valencia Way home.
Wayman is a Title I charter school that serves students from Kindergarten through fifth grade. All of our students come from economically challenged families. Most don’t have both parents in the home, far too many have experienced losing one or both parent to incarceration or violence.
When I interviewed for the school’s principal position in 2013, I was told that my predecessor had quit and the school was struggling. I had faced similar situations before as a “turnaround administrator” at a local public school district. But this time was different.
As a charter principal, I would have greater autonomy to turnaround academic progress, but fewer resources like funding and district support. Overhauling the school was daunting and for the last few years I have spent many sleepless nights starring at the few dollars we had left over after paying our teachers, repairing aging buildings and ordering classroom supplies.
However, it was in those moments that I got a taste of what my students go through – students like Sammy. When the school doors open, Sammy is there waiting to enter. His last meal was a juice box at 5:00 p.m. yesterday. After tossing and turning all night from hunger, he runs to school and gulps down cereal in the cafeteria. He eyes his classmates’ trays too. In his rush to get food, he forgets his book bag and homework.
From an outsider’s perspective, Sammy may appear apathetic about school when in reality Sammy is doing his very best to survive. We have supplies ready for when Sammy needs them. His teachers work with him to see if he has mastered the concepts in his homework.
There are many, many Sammys at our school and each one we meet with love, compassion and a strong belief that they can learn, no matter what the circumstances. This is where our school differs from most.
We bring understanding to each one of our students’ situations, along with high expectations so that they can one day break out of the cycle of poverty that they are living through. Sammy knows that college is now an option, that having a successful career is now an option. Most importantly, Sammy knows that having a happy and fulfilling life is now an option.
Lowering expectations tells a child that they are not capable of achieving greatness. It reaffirms what many already believe that the circumstances of their lives have won. High expectations remind all of us that there is more work to be done.
At our school, those expectations cover academics and behavior.
Recently, I was called to the cafeteria where a fight had occurred between two fifth graders. This was an unusual occurrence. Despite challenging circumstances at home, we have almost no student altercations throughout the year.
Once both boys were in my office, I knew that the easiest course of action – an immediate suspension – was not going to address what was really going on. Letting both students speak, I learned that one student’s brother was shot and killed the day before. The other was living at his uncle’s house because his mom was recently incarcerated.
Both boys left my office knowing that their behavior fell woefully short of the expectations of a Wayman student. But, they also left with an invitation to come back to my office to share their worries and hopes with me, knowing that I won’t be satisfied until I see them walking across the stage on graduation day and opening up their college acceptance letters.
To ensure the child is at the center of our education system, we must drop the excuses for underperformance. I’ve seen firsthand that poverty can be a tremendous challenge, but it is moveable.
At Wayman, we believe that every student deserves the opportunity to make mistakes, because that is how we move closer to success. I expect my students to set their goals as high as they can dream and then work as hard as possible to achieve them.
So far, they have lived up to my expectations!
About the author: Simaran Bakshi is the principal of Wayman Academy for the Arts, a high-performing Title I public charter school in Jacksonville, Florida.
Under Principal Bakshi’s leadership, the school has improved significantly and recently earned an A grade for the 2018-19 school year. The school has also recently been added to the High Performing Schools’ list by the Florida Department of Education.