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  • Maria Lewis took the reins two years ago at T.L. Whitehead, where nearly all of the students are from poor families and most are English language learners.

  • Principal Maria Lewis, a big believer in positive reinforcement, helps kindergartner Valerie Soto-Galvan with the alphabet at T.L. Whitehead Elementary School.

  • Maria Lewis fills in for an absent kindergarten teacher at T.L. Whitehead, where she's presided over major test score improvements.

Principal put struggling school on new path

Published: Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Wednesday, Mar. 13, 2013 - 6:48 am

This is the third in an occasional series on principals who are turning around local schools.

Maria Lewis spends much of her day on bent knee. The 44-year-old principal bends down to give direction to bigger kids and to soothe the smallest. But mostly she bends down to listen.

It's clear that kids come first on the T.L. Whitehead Elementary campus in Woodland.

"Every child can learn," Lewis said. "They may be lacking some skills. So what? Let's try to build on prior knowledge."

She must be right. The school's Academic Performance Index has grown from 704 to 793 in the two years since she took the reins of the school. On a scale of 200 to 1,000, the statewide benchmark is 800 for each school.

The increase was enough to make Whitehead Elementary the only traditional school in the four-county region to come out of program improvement this year, a designation Title 1 schools receive if state officials don't think they are improving their scores quickly enough.

"We are really proud" of Whitehead Elementary, Debra Calvin, an associate superintendent at Woodland Unified, told The Bee in October. "It's an incredibly difficult thing to do to pull a school out of Program Improvement."

It's particularly difficult if nearly all of the students are from poor families and 68 percent are English language learners.

Whitehead had been failing academically for seven years and federal law required the district to turn the school around. To make matters worse, parents were starting to pull students out of the school.

Woodland Joint Unified officials plucked Lewis from her job as the principal of Freeman Elementary School, which she had already pulled out of Program Improvement. She left Freeman with a 798 API.

Lewis was asked to make big changes at Whitehead, including replacing much of the staff. "It was very difficult," she said.

Some teachers opted to leave on their own; others were moved to other schools, said the principal. Lewis visited district classrooms and handpicked replacement teachers. Most, she said, weren't that excited about being tapped for the low-performing school.

Lewis wanted a staff that believed students could learn no matter their circumstances outside of school. "There are lots of things that are out of our control," she said. "But when we are here we have control."

She started a homework club, added education components to the after-school program and set up after-school tutoring for targeted students. School break now means an invitation to a week of review for struggling students and a writing camp for high achievers.

The new principal then increased staff training and set up meetings so grade-level teams of teachers could analyze data and look at curriculum.

The school began to grow. It gained about 75 students in two years – increasing to 433 students this year.

Not everyone was happy with the changes at first. Some teachers were upset with the added expectations and changes in job assignment, and some parents were unhappy about the increased amount of homework and stricter discipline, Lewis said.

The soft-spoken principal actually prefers positive reinforcement and started an incentive program for students "caught being good." Well-behaved students earn tickets for a drawing for prizes like pencils, erasers or pencil sharpeners.

The principal also offers positive reinforcement throughout the day. She stops to talk to children on the playground while walking across campus, and encourages them to study and behave while overseeing lunches and greeting them every morning at 7:45 a.m.

On a recent Tuesday, Lewis had her hands full with a 9-year-old boy who has trouble sitting still in class.

At the direction of the counselor – who visits the school one day a week – the boy was being sent to the principal's office at 9:45 a.m. and 1:45 p.m. each day. The idea was to give him a place to unwind. This day Lewis watched over the boy as he took a test, redirecting him whenever he slid from his seat to explore her bookshelves or desk.

"What is our goal? We want you to stay in class," she reminds him with a calm level voice, pointing to a board that shows examples of the boy's unfavorable behavior and the repercussions for his actions.

She said that before they started this routine, the fourth-grader would get so agitated in class he would run out of the class.

Between sessions with the child, Lewis dashed out to oversee lunch. She stood in front of the covered lunch area and clapped her hands – calling tables of children to line up to leave the area. Students stopped her for hugs or to hold her hand for a moment.

"She is one of the best principals," said Rebecca Rodriquez, an aide helping with the noon meal. "She's very hands on … She is just awesome."

A group of teachers interviewed in the employee lunchroom seem equally as enamored with their principal, calling her "supportive," "easy to talk to" and a person who builds relationships with families.

Kindergarten teacher Nicole Korpell followed Lewis to Whitehead from Freeman Elementary. Korpell said the principal is accessible and has high expectations – traits she admires.

Korpell said she didn't know much about class management during her first year at Freeman, so Lewis brought in a mentor from Sacramento State to help her. "She usually does what she can to help," Korpell said.

Lewis, who was born in Mexico and raised in Woodland, understands the community she serves. She attended Rhoda Maxwell Elementary School, Douglass Middle School and Woodland High School before enrolling in Sacramento State, where she earned a liberal arts degree and an administration credential.

Her kids attend Beamer Park Elementary in Woodland for its Spanish Immersion Program, Lewis said.

Lewis says having a Spanish-speaking principal has helped many of the parents to feel more comfortable about coming in to talk about their children's education.

But the school still has challenges. Lewis has trouble getting parents to volunteer. Many are interested, but can't afford the $45 fee to get fingerprinted and the additional cost of a tuberculosis test – requirements for school volunteers. In many cases there also is a language barrier.

Then there was the obesity problem at the school. Lewis started a walking program and collaborated with the Woodland Food Bank to set up a Kids Farmers Market every Friday after school.

The students did so well, they discontinued the walking program this school year, she said. But the farmers market continues. Students attending the farmers market are given fake money to shop for fruits and vegetables and plenty of kid-friendly recipes to take home.

Lewis smiles when she talks about little girls who can't wait to taste the vegetables they have just "purchased" at the farmers market. "It's been pretty inspiring," she said.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Diana Lambert

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