Smiles. It’s all you see, even through the protective masks they wear. Beaming from ear to ear, these young learners have returned to campus after more than a year. For some, like the Transitional Kinder (TK) and Kindergarten students, it is their first time stepping foot on campus.
The attending student body is at fifty percent capacity to accommodate safe social distancing in the classroom, but the joy in the air is palpable even in this reduced population. Amid the mildly trepidatious expressions on their parents’ faces, students push through to see their teachers and friends, most of whom they’ve interacted with solely through computer screens for the past twelve months.
And the crying that usually accompanies these young children on their first venture to school? It is replaced by laughter because they’ve already gotten to know their teachers on Zoom in the previous months. Welcome to the Baby Zoomer generation.
Life is almost back to normal. Or better said, life has arrived at a new normal.
Sidra Dudley, principal of 156th Street Elementary School in Gardena, California, has dedicated her work to make school a second home for students. And she’s not alone. Her success is a testament to the tireless effort she has invested to build a strong community of teachers, students, and parents, where all have a voice and all are willing to lend a helping hand.
Growing up in a single-parent household with her sister, Sidra learned the importance of family relationships and the critical value of a reliable support system. When her mom wasn’t volunteering at the small Catholic school where Sidra attended, her maternal grandparents filled the void. They lived around the block, after all. A small school and a tight-knit community are what Sidra was accustomed to since her earliest days. Teachers played a critical role, of course, but volunteer parents were regularly in attendance, eager to support where needed.
As evidenced by Sidra’s upbringing, a school requires three pillars for a solid foundation; the student body, the faculty and administration, and parents/community members.
Sidra was the first in her family to finish college. She earned her degree in psychology and hoped to seek a career in social work. Before graduation, a friend encouraged her to take the CBEST, the California Basic Educational Skills Test required to become a teacher. The exam was an afterthought, a fallback, a “just in case I don’t like what I’m getting myself into” maneuver.
Working at group homes in the evenings, Sidra would substitute teach during the day, stepping in at various school sites within the Los Angeles Unified School District. Exposed to students of all ages, cultural backgrounds, and many with learning challenges, Sidra soon realized that teaching was where her passion lay and decided to pursue the profession on a more permanent basis.
After earning a full-time teaching position at one of the schools where she worked as a substitute, Sidra spent the next few years in the classroom. Not one to shy away from an opportunity and eager to experience more of the complex nature of the school, Sidra also spent time as a union chair, as a literacy coach, and took on numerous volunteer positions throughout her teaching tenure.
Her work as a literacy coach brought her to various sites throughout the Los Angeles region as she supported countless teachers across the district. She enjoyed working with adults and understood the value she brought to their students, even indirectly.
“I felt that working with teachers was my niche, that I could have a greater impact than just teaching in the classroom,” Sidra recalled.
As a result, Sidra redirected her efforts toward school administration. After taking the required exams, she was selected for a position as assistant principal (AP) in LAUSD. With the district’s configuration at the time, this position required her to take on more than one campus. She would be at a school on the west side on Monday and Tuesday, then travel to the south side Wednesday through Friday. She could be with a school in an upper-middle-class neighborhood one day and with a school struggling for basic resources on another. She witnessed the disparity between different areas of Los Angeles, the unique strengths and challenges present at each campus.
“In each little place I went, I looked for ideas,” she evoked.
How is this school able to raise funds while confronted with the financial limitations in the community? What strategies did that school deploy to earn the trust of local vendors to provide much-needed materials?
During this period, Sidra worked at a school with one of the largest populations of special needs students, from the deaf and hard of hearing, to autism, to children with multiple disabilities. Eleven classes on this campus were labeled as Special Education.
“While I had no experience in Special Education, the principal trusted me to do my job well.”
As an AP, Sidra spent time in seven different schools over the next four years. While the work was engaging and an invaluable learning experience, the frequent travel between sites made it difficult to build rapport and develop lasting relationships. She yearned for the opportunity to return to a single campus, a single community. A principalship was her next logical move.
Her inaugural principal position came in 2011 at 156th Street Elementary School, home to about 400 students from a multi-ethnic community representing over 14 different home languages. The small school atmosphere drew Sidra in immediately.
Students at 156th performed relatively well on local and state-level exams. Teachers were hard-working, dedicated, and well trained.
But something was missing.
Young learners spend at least half of their waking hours in school, and thus their environment should feel like home; nurturing, supportive, familial. And while it was clear these children received all forms of support from their teachers, the third pillar, parents and community members, didn’t feel as present.
While the existing PTA at the school consisted of about thirty devoted parent volunteers, Ms. Dudley recalls, “There wasn’t an invitation for all parents to have this same opportunity.”
She was confident that additional voices at the table would lead to an increase in ideas and opportunities for improvement.
The first step in building a more cohesive community was to increase the volunteer force, so Ms. Dudley developed a strategy to open the doors to additional parents and community members.
“I hired two parent community reps to promote my inclusive message. Together, we brainstormed ideas and designed various programs and activities that would allow all parents to be involved, from parking valet, cutting and stapling classroom assignments, one-to-one reading with students, and running after-school clubs, like Lego League.”
Her attitude and approach? “We are like a buffet; we have something for everyone!”
The existing Parent Center, used mainly as a restroom stop, was transitioned to a larger room, open to more volunteers. It quickly became a hub of activity. While the school provided small snacks to welcome new parents (who doesn’t love food?), these were soon replaced by banana pudding, homemade gumbo, and more delectable delights provided by the parents. It wasn’t long before faculty joined in, often visiting during the few open breaks in the schedule.
With newfound energy, Ms. Dudley, the parent reps, and the PTA developed plans to increase technology access in the school, run yoga classes, and start a Peace Club for students. They organized fundraisers like Movie Night at the local theatre, fun runs, and the Falcon Family Dine Out Nights. Each spring, the school hosted the Spring Fest with games, music, food, and prizes facilitated by faculty, parents, and local community volunteers. “All are welcome. Bring your wallet!”
A key characteristic of Ms. Dudley’s approach to community building was to be open to new ideas, regardless of initial feasibility, and taking the word “no” as an opportunity to find another route.
“I am a problem-solver by my nature. You tell me about something that isn’t working, and I look for solutions.”
When one parent donated enough second-hand computers to outfit a lab, another stepped up to find additional computers for the classroom. For those devices that needed a little extra TLC, Ms. Dudley sought a fix through the help of a handy parent or by sidling up to district technical support. While many might see second-hand computers as more hassle than helpful, Ms. Dudley saw the bigger picture, how these initial gifts could lead to and encourage future growth.
One critical aspect of good leadership is the ability of a leader to let go, to empower the people under their wing to take ownership of the work they do and the time they commit. To that end, the parents initiated a system to support the school with more regularity.
Project Fridays were created for parent volunteers to gather in support of what happens in the classroom and around campus. Each week, a large group shows up to assist in preparing curricular materials, running workshops, or planning out the next fundraising activity. Project Fridays are a time for fellowship, friendship building, and collaboration. They have also become a cornerstone in the functional machinery upon which the school runs.
An essential part of giving her campus the “warm and fuzzies” was to transform the look and feel of the buildings and playground. As Ms. Dudley relates, “Parents want to leave their kids in a place where it feels good from the very beginning.” As part of this campus beautification project, the PTA raised funds to pay for an artist to design and paint murals throughout campus that reflected the community, its values, and its spirit.
In the Reading Garden, shown above, the mural reflects the books the students read, the themes they study, the worlds they visit in their imagination. The colors are vibrant, the characters friendly, the scenery inviting children to join in with their latest read.
Ms. Dudley proudly wears the badge of the squeaky wheel. When interacting with her local district project manager on facilities issues, she is sure to strike up a friendly conversation while inquiring about the status of that leaking sink or the misbehaving air conditioner. “It’s all about rapport. The things I ask for are not for me; they are for our students.” And what happens when she greets everyone with a smile and extends goodwill wherever she goes? “If I didn’t talk with these people, they wouldn’t think of me when some opportunity pops up,” she says.
Before the pandemic, LAUSD opened a pilot program for campus renovation. It was designed to showcase possible remodeling options for schools throughout the district. The squeaky wheel made the cut, and 156th Street Elementary School was one of just eight schools across Los Angeles to partake in this project.
In addition to new buildings, the school resurfaced its playground area, installed a soccer field with natural grass (a first on this campus), and erected two new play structures.
The village that Ms. Dudley built carried 156th Street Elementary School, its students, and its families through the pandemic. Parents put their trust in capable teachers and staff. The school was prepared to handle the technological capacity to accommodate the remote connections. The students were nurtured through not just the academic demands but their social and emotional wellness.
The PTA at 156th Street Elementary School has grown from 30 members to over 130, representing about a third of the student population, which now spans from TK to 6th grade. There are three paid parent community reps on campus.
Building community was never the end goal but rather a means to an end. This cohesive, collaborative community has improved the learning environment for the children, increased student attendance, and helped make the campus warm and inviting.
As Ms. Dudley says, “Always bring it back to the purpose; it’s about the kids.”
With a community built on strong relationships and trust, they can begin to address the harder topics together. Current issues of police brutality, hate crime, and political divisions dominate the news cycle in the U.S. today. The media coverage is unending. The very fact that these terms made their way into this article about heroes is ample proof of their ubiquity. Ms. Dudley is acutely aware that these issues affect her children, their families, and the teachers who care for them.
And here is where LumenSparQ will play a supportive role. Our organization will provide resources in the areas of anti-racism education, equity, and inclusion. This support may come in the form of teaching materials, books, or a guest speaker and forum. As details are yet to be determined, we will post a follow-up in the coming weeks.
To learn more about all that is happening at 156th Street Elementary School, be sure to visit the school’s website.
To support the work of future Lumenaries and SparQs, you can donate directly to our organization below.
Author: John Umekubo • Editor: Isabel Umekubo • Photo credits: John Umekubo