“We are Birch first. We are family.”

by Joycelyne Fadojutimi

            Birch Elementary School Principal Derrick Conley is a great example for his calling, and visitors are quick to note this. As soon as they arrive, he greets them like family. He strives to make relationships a priority in all aspects of his direction of his school. He sees this as the best way to ensure effective team cooperation in setting and accomplishing goals. He stresses progress over the impossible-to-attain goal of perfection. He administers through relationships, hard work and resultant growth. His efforts have seen a drastic reduction in absenteeism, and in parents becoming involved in the school’s reading program, even accompanying their children to book fairs.

            Healthy interaction also helps by fostering warm relationships between students and teachers. This emphasis also made it easier to convince parents to become involved in the critically vital subject of reading. Librarian Vanessa Reneau, Teachers Kelly Fisher, Nicole Espinoza and Reading Coach Rachael Benton came up with creative, imaginative ways to inspire students to read.

            Fisher and Espinoza moved from teaching second grade to third grade. Benton has been in the Pine Tree Independent School District since 1985, and now serves as reading coach. She is so expert at what she does that her colleagues say she can “teach a rock to read.” Struggling students who enter her class soon read as fluently as her and love it. But that is not all.

            Birch Elementary hosts reading competitions. Winning classes only get to keep the trophy as long as they remain the winning classes. If another class passes them, the trophy goes to the new champs. This means that all participating classes must keep improving. The emphasis on literacy does not end here, either.

            The school has a treasure chest. Young scholars who correctly answer Word of the Week are permitted to open the chest and select a prize. In addition, classes winning the most reading points are treated to a party. These incentives impress on students the rewards that come from hard work. The joys of reading quickly take root.

            Students are seen reading while waiting in lines and at most other opportunities both in school and at home. Conley sees this as progress and growth. A whopping 80% to 90% of his pupils are voluntarily reading books, keeping the librarian very busy.

            Fisher says the lovely relationships, rewards and events are reasons students love Birch Elementary. Rewards/celebrations resulting even from small accomplishments boost progress toward Conley’s signature objective–growth. Growth, in all amounts, builds confidence. Conley believes elementary students are still too young to appreciate the importance of reading as being essential for successful futures and leading them to see this is key.

            “If we build a relationship with staff and students, we can have them doing all kinds of positive things,” he said.

            This emphasis on relationships has infected every grade at Birch Elementary, leading to pupils cheering each other on in their academic quests. The school’s slogan is, “We are Birch first. We are family.”

            When Conley selects a Word of the Day, he has to make sure his students understand it. This leads to their learning a new word daily. Students are eager to tell him the Word of the Day. Recent words of the day were “denominator” and “imagery.” Thanks to their principal Birch students are among the few elementary age children to understand (much less use) such advanced terms. Still, the emphasis is not just on reading.

            A bell is rung in the cafeteria to honor students who have excelled in their studies. There is also the Story Book Parade in which the faculty recognize children who have shown growth in reading. In keeping with the emphasis on relationships, parents are invited and participate in the Book Parade.

            Conley is excited and enthusiastic about how his direction has led to students being eager to come to school and get down to learning, working and growing because he and his staff make them feel loved.

            “Our students love the teachers and Mr. Conley,” said Librarian Reneau. “They cannot wait to tell him how they love him, and he cannot wait to tell them how he loves them, too. We have great kids. All they needed was a little love.”

            Texas schools are famous (or infamous) for testing. For pupils at Birch Elementary testing is just another day in class. The work ethic they have learned means they do not have test anxiety. They even celebrate with a party on days preceding tests.

            “It is an opportunity to show what we have learned,” said Conley. “We celebrate growth before the test. For me and my staff, growth is a process, and we will close the gap with what we have put in place–love, relationship, respect, hard work, and then growth.”