Principal to kids: 'You are welcome here'
The sun is barely up and the wind is whipping the American flag at Wellington Elementary School when three school buses arrive. It's time for Principal Kelly Martinez to begin her daily ritual. She stands outside the school's front door and greets the students as they file in.
"It's important for them to realize that when they get on our property, they're welcome," she explains. That's the unifying theme of her career in education. According to Ms. Martinez, children learn better when they are confident and comfortable in their surroundings. She stresses that it takes some students more time than others to feel a sense of trust in their teachers, but the time teachers take to develop those bonds is time well spent. She speaks from experience.
Since 1988, when she got her teaching degree from Utah State University and landed her first job at the old Notre Dame School in Price, she has taught at two schools in Las Vegas, Castle Heights Elementary, Pinnacle Canyon Academy, the Lighthouse Alternative School, Helper Junior High and Peterson Elementary. She became Principal at Wellington in 2007.
She was among the first teachers hired at Pinnacle in 1999 and recalls the thrill of establishing a new venture. The charter school had a real problem finding a home before classes began because few buildings in the area met state codes for school safety. Finally, the school settled into a wing of the Greenwell Motel in Price. Parents and teachers worked four or five days gutting and remodeling the rooms, and classes began.
Although she completely enjoyed classroom teaching, she says she has found that administration has its share of rewards. "I look at myself as an advocate and a resource for teachers and for students," she states. That's no small challenge, given the ongoing changes in federal and state education policies, as well as the pressures that economic hard times are putting on parents and students. Adults are putting in longer hours to make ends meet, sometimes commuting long distances to and from work.
This is why the "safe, structured, nurturing" environment at school is crucial for youngsters, Ms. Martinez says.
Among the changes she has seen over her 22-year career, she considers the emphasis on accountability mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act to be the most far-reaching. "Teachers have always given tests," she explains, but the results were mainly kept to individual classrooms or schools. A teacher might be satisfied with the results, or might see indications that he or she needed to do a better job on some unit. Now, standards are set statewide or nationally and schools as well as students now get report cards on progress.
The standardization has produced some positive changes in teaching methods, most notably the Reading First program. Teachers at Wellington took seven college-level classes to learn the new techniques and get their endorsement. It took work - and some re-learning - but Ms. Martinez says, "It's not about what's easy for teachers, it's about what is best for the kids."
"The whole meaning of literacy is changing, too," she adds. Kids have to learn how to use the Internet, as well as navigate their way through the maze of computer programs. Given the pace of technological development in our culture, "It means that our schools have to be able to prepare students for jobs that don't even exist yet."