Every classroom has its rules. The 19 kids attending primary at Churchill Elementary School on the outskirts of Sydney, N.S., must abide by a special one: don’t bug Mrs. MacDonald when she’s wearing her baseball hat. The hat is a signal for everybody to pay attention to their activities so that she
can focus on a special group-reading lesson. But the hat is just one of the tools of Susan MacDonald’s trade. Some days she wears wild hand-painted sweatshirts. Occasionally, the veteran of 30 years in the public-school trenches has to resort to her lion-and-mouse slippers. The goal: to ensure that kids leave the classroom feeling successful. “Skills like good reading start at the very beginning,” she says. “But so does a child’s self-esteem.” Welcome to Churchill Elementary, which faces an uncertain future as the Nova Scotia government considers another round of school closures. Located in a blue-collar section of Sydney, the 41-year-old school badly needs
an exterior paint job. Churchill, moreover, lacks a gymnasium, a cafeteria and a breakfast program and runs no extracurricular activities. It’s the antithesis of a big, sleek public school. And that may be precisely why it works. “This school doesn’t have all the bells and whistles,” says Kim Sadler, whose son Nathan, 10, is enrolled in Grade 5. “It just sticks to the basics.”
It helps that the school has only 104 students—and that each teacher has an average of 20 students. But sticking to the basics also means early literacy is a consuming priority for a five-member teaching staff, who share the same innovative approach to teaching Dick and Jane their ABCs. “We have a fortunate meeting of the minds,” says principal Barb Maclnnis, who also teaches Grade 1. Like all schools in Nova Scotia, Churchill meets the requirements set out by the provincial government and the local school board: two hours daily of reading and writing; a program that teaches students at a pace and using materials that fit their individual literacy level. But the teachers at Churchill also implement some of the early-reading strategies that Maclnnis learned while training as a Reading Recovery expert to help problem readers. And, despite dwindling funding, the staff have been willing to scrimp to acquire new books for students in the lower grades.
The goal is not just to teach children to read and write. At Churchill, success in the classroom is also a way of building confidence—a critical asset for children growing up in an economically depressed city. That explains the mantra that MacDonald’s primary students repeat at the start of every day: “I am great/I am smart/I will try my best/I will be kind to my friends/I will use good manners.” At this school, sticking to the basics is meant to inspire the soul as well as the brain.
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