By Jody Steinberg

Curriculum Night made a successful debut at Woodward Elementary last week, heralding a renewed focus on outreach to two communities: the immigrant community of students and their families and the more affluent Brookhaven and Lenox Park neighbors who have little or no connection to the school.

The first target for new principal Reginald Stephens is his school community. To assure good attendance amongst a parent population that is predominantly non-English speaking and unused to school involvement, Stephens relied on his students to do the recruiting — daily announcements promised picture IDs for the kids and interpreters for the parents. And it worked.

“I knew offering them a service would bring them in,” said Stephens. “I had the Department of Public Safety make IDs for the children. That got the parents into the building and teachers were able to deliver the information.”

More than 90 percent of Woodward students come from Hispanic households in the densely populated apartments along Buford Highway. Woodward is a Title I school; the majority of students qualify for free lunch and breakfast. Like their parents, who often work long, hard hours to make ends meet, many students don’t speak English and lack basic literacy skills.

That turned Stephens’ third goal for Curriculum Night – to recruit a PTA board – into a less ambitious objective of enrolling PTA members, which he did with help from Georgia PTA volunteers and a Woodward parent who wants to serve as president, but doesn’t speak English. This language barrier is the catalyst for Stephens’ newest goal: to learn Spanish.

“I can’t function the way I want to as a leader if I can’t communicate with the parents,” he said, only hours after interviewing candidates for the position of interpreter. “It’s imperative that I learn Spanish to be able to talk to the parents and students myself.”

That personal connection is key to Stephens, who visited each grade during Curriculum Night, with a special message for first-grade parents. A nine-year veteran of the first-grade classroom, he knows the challenges teachers face in the transitional year – not the least of which is getting parents to let go.

“The Latino community is very protective of their babies,” he explains, describing parents who unpack their children’s book bags and feed them in the cafeteria. “I told them to let the teachers do their job and give their children a chance to become independent. We want parents to be involved and to assist their children, but not enable them.”

As Stephens makes plans to recruit and train parents to help in the classroom, he is keenly aware that a wealth of resources exists in Woodward’s “other community” – the households of Brookhaven and Lenox Park who are zoned to attend Woodward but send their children to private schools or have no school-aged children.

“I want them to know that I live in their community,” says the principal, who is reaching out to potential school families through a leasing office in Lenox Park and working with Cross Keys to assure that their campuses are well-maintained. “I see the night and day of the two situations. I hear my neighbors talk and I understand their concerns.”

A 2003 Action Plan for Woodward identified a litany of instructional problems, most stemming from poor English proficiency at every grade, including low expectations from instructors, ineffective instructional delivery, minimal differentiation in planning or instruction for different learning styles such as gifted, high achievers or students with learning differences.

Change may come slowly, but Woodward has made adequate yearly progress (AYP) for the past three years and Stephens, an instructional specialist, plans to continue that trend with an emphasis on differentiated instruction.

“I’m not just talking about meeting the needs of students not performing; if gifted kids are not being challenged daily, then they are also at risk.” Stephens requires lesson plans to address students’ learning needs below, at and above grade level and plans to increase enrollment in the Discovery gifted program.

He invites neighbors to bring their concerns directly to him – as well as their talents and energies.

“We are very open to volunteers coming in to read to the students and assist teachers in the classroom.”

Just four weeks into the school year, Stephens lapses into the weary tone of someone who faces new challenges – or obstacles – every day. He admits the job is all consuming and sometimes tiring – but not overwhelming.

“We have a lot of work to do to get to the point where we want to be, but it’s not about me, it’s not about the teachers; it’s about the children.”