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A School Principal’s Take on Family, Community, and Out-of-School Time Partnerships

Mr. Paul Travers is the principal at Washington Montessori Elementary in Greensboro, North Carolina, and Guilford County Principal of the Year. He talked with Y4Y about the people who inspired him to become an educator — and innovative ways to engage family, community, and out-of-school time partners. His stories and examples will make you want to try some of his ideas in your own program!

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Transcript

Y4Y: Paul, do you want to introduce yourself?

PT: Thank you, Cappella. Paul Travers, principal here at Washington Montessori Elementary School. And yes, I'm honored to carry the title of Principal of the Year for Guilford County Schools. This is where I spend all my time in education. It’s definitely a great honor to be able to represent the great work that happens here in the building at Washington and also be able to represent the many great principals that we have in Guilford County.

Y4Y: Thank you for being here — looking forward to having a great conversation with you. First off, just tell us why you got into education. What was your drive? What was the appeal?

PT: First, thanks for having me. And so the drive and appeal, if I’m being fair and honest, when I was young, I had the hardest time in school. In Maryland, you had to be five by January 1 to start school. I started kindergarten at the tender age of four. I’m the second of six kids. My parents had to get us in school, had to get us out the house essentially. There was a lot going on. And so I started kindergarten at four. I was very young, and I had the hardest time learning to read. And so education and schooling wasn’t necessarily something that I had this passion for. I hear many of my teachers say, “You know what? I remember playing house, and I remember playing teacher, and I kind of knew ever since then.” That wasn't me. My journey was a little bit different.

As I got a little bit more confident, I found out that I was athletic. I had some coaches that were really inspirational. I had a middle school PE teacher, Mr. Betts, who was really inspirational in getting me excited about learning. And then as I got to high school — this is kind of how I knew I wanted to go into education. So I was at a basketball camp in Patuxent High School in southern Maryland. And it was the summer, and I was a part of the basketball team, the high school basketball team. And we were to facilitate as camp counselors with younger children to get them to love basketball, teaching the game of basketball. My basketball coach happened to be our assistant principal, and I remember thinking, man, he has really got a pretty sweet gig. He gets to play with kids all day, and then he gets to be at school, helping and inspiring students, and he gets to coach. And so I thought from then on: Hey, you know what? I’d love to if I could one day go into schools, work with children (because I loved working with kids), and be able to have a big impact on the school. So that’s really where it began — the nugget of “Hey, I think school is where I want to go.” Education is the area [where] I feel like I have a good skill set to be called on and have impact on. That’s how it began.

Y4Y: It’s actually really interesting that it was a coach who kind of got your gears turning about that. That really just goes to show that anybody in the education system can have such a huge impact.

PT: Yes.

Y4Y: I loved hearing about that. Thank you.

PT: Absolutely. So kind of piggybacking that, my mom was an educator. And when I was going through difficulty reading, she went back to school to learn how to support students. And so she’s got her Ph.D. in education. She’s had a big influence. It was just kind of those nuggets of different folks in my life — and the education in my school — that made me think, “Hey, this is a good place to make impact.” And Coach Hodge, I’ll never forget looking at him in the gym and thinking, “Hey, that’s a good gig that he’s got.”

Y4Y: Have you reached out to him since then? I'm curious.

PT: The funny thing is, I’ve talked to Coach Hodge via Facebook, just messaging back and forth. I never told him that particular piece of it. Now that you say that, I’ll probably shoot him a message saying, “Hey, you know what? That summer camp that I was at when I was in 11th grade? That’s kind of the reason why I’m sitting in this seat today.”

Y4Y: Well, that’s awesome that you still keep in touch, and I’m sure he’d love to hear that. So tell me how you got into your current position. Can you talk a little bit about your work history?

PT: Yes. So I came down to North Carolina for college. I studied elementary education and graduated from Greensboro College, and I knew then I just wanted to start off teaching in elementary school. So I got a job as a kindergarten teacher, and I got to tell you, I learned the most about teaching as a kindergarten teacher in my first year about how to manage the classroom and how to multitask — how to run stations and things like that.

Y4Y: Oh, I'm sure.

PT: No one works harder than the kindergarten teacher. I got to tell you, they’re there all the time. So from there, after that first year, I actually got hired to teach fourth grade. The school lost a position in fourth grade. So I got moved to teaching kindergarten. And then the year after that, I transferred to a different school that was more highly impacted. When I mean highly impacted, I’m thinking about schools where there’s a high poverty rate and a lot of minority students there. So the school I went to was about 50% Hispanic, 49% African American, and everything else was “Other.” I think we were at about a 60% to 70% poverty rate for those students at Foust Elementary school. There, I taught fourth and fifth grade. And then I taught one year at Shadybrook Elementary School in High Point, North Carolina, which is still in Guilford County. I taught fifth grade there. And then that’s when I began my schooling at North Carolina A&T. I started my schooling for administration, kind of knowing that I feel comfortable with the instruction that I’m providing in the classroom [and] I want to have an impact on the bigger lens. And so from there I was hired— It is kind of crazy. In Guilford County, there was a hiring fair for assistant principals because there was a large number of assistant principals that our county was hiring. And so really it felt like a dating game, [with people] being interviewed on the spot for assistant principal positions. And I was hopeful when I went there. I really targeted elementary school because that was my area that I felt comfortable with. But I ended up getting a job offer as an assistant principal in high school. Now I got to tell you this was, I had not finished my master’s work in school administration just yet. I was still in the program, and then I was hired on with essentially an emergency license to be an assistant principal at Dudley High School here in Greensboro, North Carolina. It’s funny — it’s actually less than a mile and a half away from me here at Washington. After serving 10 months there as assistant principal, I was able to take part in a leadership [development opportunity]. It was a new leaders cohort that our county provided for aspiring principals. And so I was able to get into that cohort and do some really intentional work around data and data-driven instruction, particularly in the department of the school that I oversaw, which was the math department. And then from there I was able to get a position here. I interviewed for a number of positions at elementary schools, and I got a position here at Washington Montessori Elementary School. And so that was five years ago. So this is my fifth year as a principal here at Washington Montessori.

Y4Y: Wow. It sounds like everything kind of just fell into place, and am I correct in saying that you weren't exactly looking for high school — it just kind of happened?

PT: Right. So no, I had zero experience in high school. I remember loving middle school, as a student. I loved middle school, but all my experience was in elementary school. So being placed in the position of high school really helped me see a broader view, helped me see the full spectrum, so to speak, of where students [come from], knowing where they start and what that looks like. It was funny because some of my students that I taught in fourth or fifth grade were actually at Dudley High School as sophomores when I was there at Dudley. So that was really cool to make those connections. It was cool to see them, but also that’s hard. Because a lot of the nurturing work that I knew I tried to do in elementary school, and knowing where they were in elementary school — some of it was encouraging because I would see some of them still doing well. But some of it was very discouraging, knowing that we had students that were really doing really well in elementary school, and there was a lot of development with their family, a lot of communication with the family and relationship building, and not seeing them still performing so well in high school was very difficult. I was only in high school for about 10 months before I became an elementary school principal. So I think it helped me, that transition, because I remember stepping in the position here as the principal, I was only 10 months removed from planning fifth-grade lessons in science and math and ELA. So it wasn’t too far from the work that happens at the ground level.

Y4Y: And now being at an elementary school, can you talk about what you experienced in high school and how that maybe shifted your view in elementary? Did it shift your ways of teaching or your approach to handling situations now, having experienced that at the high school level?

PT: That’s a very good question. I think having that view of preparing students for life, preparing them to go into the workforce, to go into college, to get a trade, and the skill set and the thinking that they needed to have — for me in my approach, that really changed the way I looked at things here as an elementary school principal. We’ve got to make sure students are not only experiencing trades and opportunities and these skills and certifications in high school, but we need to make sure that students have those opportunities here in elementary school. And so one of the things that we really believe here at Washington is the importance of health and wellness. We know for our families, specifically here at Washington, 85% of my students are living in poverty, 85% of my students are African American, and 95% of my students are students of color. During the pandemic, families were very reserved in sending their students back to school once we opened up. A lot of them opted to wait and see and to stay at home because cardiovascular disease is one of the leading causes of death in the Black community, especially in the poor communities. And so one of the things that we thought through as well [was], we got to have this mindset for health and wellness to prepare students for life and prepare them for trades or prepare them with skills that will help them.

And so you ask, how has that work in high school impacted the work that we have in elementary school? Those students in elementary school might not be of age to get certifications. We have things like a gardening club. That’s a skill that happens during the day that provides enrichment to students. We take them out of the class, and they get out and they garden and they learn how to till the ground. They learn how to care for the ground. They learn how to plant and harvest fruits and vegetables, and which seasons work out best with which fruits and vegetables. We have people, community partners, that come in, and they have partnered with us with that. Once [students] learn the skill set of gardening, you’re not going to be able to take that away from them. We have a carpentry group. If you come here on some Tuesdays, you’ll see students working with saws and hammers and nails and screwdrivers, and they are working with figuring out how we can use these carpentry skills to make and build. You can’t take that skill away from them.

We’ve got a running club that happens in the very early morning. So Tuesday and Thursday morning, get this: Bell rings, students enter the building. Five minutes after that, we’ve got a group of 20 students that I’m out there running with in the morning before the day starts, before the late bell starts. We’re putting in miles, and we’re teaching them to care for the body. We’ve got a nutrition group, and students learning to cook. So being in high school helped me have a better understanding of where students need to get. They need to have skill sets, they need to have something that they can really cling onto that will help them as they move forward in their lives and their educational experience. So that might be something that they learn in elementary school that they can plug right into when they get to high school that keeps them passionate and motivated, or to be able to provide and support a family, support themselves, and be able to contribute to our world.

Y4Y: Absolutely! The skills that you were talking about — I don’t think any of those will ever not be useful. And you’re giving them the power to make that choice: “What am I interested in? We talked about gardening, we did gardening, and we participated in woodworking. I’m really interested in that. Let me see if I can build off of it.” They can sit in a classroom and learn about how the different seasons affect how seeds work, but actually getting them in the field (literally and metaphorically) to try out these skills is super powerful. That's awesome.

Y4Y: We love it. And looking at it through a health and wellness [lens], with different components of wellness, really helps us look at the whole child and get a bigger picture of the child and where they’re going to go — and how that child can better contribute to not only their immediate family, but their community as well.

PT: Absolutely.

Y4Y: So building off of health and wellness and giving them those tools, can you tell us about any afterschool programming that you offer for your students?

PT: I love that question. That really gets me excited. It was right before the pandemic that I began to talk with the afterschool program. This is with a group of people called Communities In Schools, or CIS. And so I have a CIS coordinator here at Washington that really facilitates afterschool programming and clubs for us. They’re funded through nonprofit organizations. It’s a nonprofit organization that receives funding through people like United Way and different organizations in the community that pour into supporting these people in the building. Well, with this, we closely aligned the clubs that happen after school with this idea of health and wellness. We’ve got a sign language club, and we have a yoga club that works after school. One of my favorite things that I’ve experienced here at Washington was a flag football team that I got to coach. So to me it’s important not only to help facilitate it but also, I got to have my hands in the weeds, have my hands in the work. So I brought my son, who was part of our Washington football team. He’s at school. We came over here, and we just want to be in the community in our school. And we had a team of — I don't know how old, I think six- and seven-year-old — flag football students. And this was a club after school also. So we met as a club after school as a part of CIS. We taught them about the game of flag football. Then we competed with another community partner who gave us some support, the YMCA, and in the YMCA’s local flag football team. And so what we just try to do is make sure we are committed to not only having those clubs here in the building, but make sure that there’s community partners that can come in and support those different things. We have a nutrition club and also a cooking club after school. [With] so many of the clubs that happen during the day, [students] also get additional experiences with those clubs after school. And then we pull in additional students who also can be able to take part in those clubs.

Y4Y: Wow, that's awesome. Growing up, we had out-of-school time programs, but it was more like, “Oh, our parents, they kind of work a little bit later.” So we’d go to the gym, do our homework together, and maybe play and watch a movie while we were waiting for our parents to pick us up. I would've loved to play flag football after school, and especially having the principal coaching flag football. How cool would that have been? We were always scared of our principal whenever she walked by. We’d (nervously) be like, “Oh hi, how are you?" It would’ve been such a cool experience to have your principal teaching you about flag football.

PT: Yeah, it’s a good experience — and then being able to connect that with the afterschool piece so we not only have that component during the school day. At the end of the day, that allows different community partners to come in and provide some support and a different perspective for those students. So I just love that there’s a lot of continuity between the in-school clubs and the afterschool clubs.

Y4Y: Yeah, and especially getting those community partners involved. I’m sure that teaches kids about community outreach, assessing who your resources are in the community, and reaching out to them. That’s super important, and that’s a great and valuable life skill for them to have as well.

PT: Absolutely.

Y4Y: Can you tell us a little more about the external partnerships you’ve established to bolster the student experience?

PT: Well, every Wednesday, I go to a different location, “live,” around Guilford County. You might be thinking, well, what do you mean a different location? Well, these are livestream morning announcements. So every Wednesday morning at 7:50, I have a selfie stick. I’ve got my phone. I’ve got a microphone. I’m connected to a different location in Guilford County. And in Guilford County here in Greensboro, you can get everywhere in about 20 minutes. In 20 minutes you can get to pretty much anywhere in the county. And so what happens here? So I might go to a place like a local science center or the Nido and Mariana Qubein Children’s Museum in High Point. Or I might go zip line at a country park, or I might go to a museum, or I might go to the Charlotte Hawkins Brown House. I might go to the Magnolia House, which is in the Green Book of safe places for African Americans to travel. And so in all these different locations, what we try to do is, one, we try to provide some very rich local vocabulary. We provide some rich history and accessible opportunities to different community partners. And then what we also like to make sure that we’re providing is some association with some of the learning that we're having and the community partners.

For example, I went to a location called The Forge, which is an adult makerspace. And I did that for one of our morning announcements. So I’m there, I’m talking to the students about 3D printing and a carpentry section they have in the back. All these scenes are accessible. Well, as I'm wrapping up there, I talked to one of representatives at The Forge to say, "Hey, we have a carpentry STEM group club in the building. We would love to make sure that we connect.” Well guess what? Coming up in two weeks, that carpentry STEM group is taking a field trip to The Forge to get involved with 3D printing and carpentry directly at that location. So there’s these different locations. Every time we go to a different location, I’m thinking, “How can we create a partnership with something that’s already happening in the building?” So we’re just really excited about being able to make sure that we have these different connections.

With a local restaurant that we visited during the morning announcements, they have a culinary arts class that they provide. We’re currently working to get our nutrition group to get over to their location to take a cooking class with them. So when we get to these different locations on the morning announcements, we provide some really rich background, some really rich vocabulary, and make sure it’s accessible to our students — it’s close in proximity to where they live. But also we’re able to draw those different community members in so that they can then now provide some learning to some of our health and wellness groups that we have in the building.

Y4Y: And I feel like most people, I guess either frontline staff or out-of-school time directors, or even people in the school-day education system, might not realize that people are willing to help you and partner with you. All you have to do is reach out. And more often than not, they’d love to have outsiders, especially children, in their community. So that’s awesome that you have so many organizations and local businesses and people to help you out.

PT: Yeah, it's like a snowball effect because, from the locations that I go, we create a little video and we essentially use that as, “Hey, this is what we’re doing.” We send them to the video, and everybody's like, “Oh man, we’d love to be a part of that.” And so they’re like, “Yeah, come on over, come on over, come on over.” The Triad Aviation Academy wants to fly me over the top of the school building for one of our live morning announcements coming up in the spring. And yeah, that’s the pinnacle of awesomeness that we can do. You’re right: Once you get this information out there, people want to be a part of it. Organizations and companies always want to try to make an impact.

Y4Y: They do. And especially if it’s a local organization or business. I’m sure your kids are learning about community outreach, as well, through that.

PT: Yes, absolutely. Our motto here at Washington is, “Honor community, show excellence, and think critically.” Last year we had a community partner, IntegraServ. They gave us $3,000 specifically for service-learning projects for students who were performing above grade level. Because one of the things that we noticed when we took a look at NWEA and math assessment data was that fewer of our students, as they went from kindergarten to fifth grade, were performing in that higher percentile. And we didn't want that to happen. And so I talked to this representative, Margaret Moss, at IntegraServ. She said, “Hey Paul, I’d love to be able to support service-learning projects.” So we were able to get $500 per grade. So it worked out that $3,000 was $500 per grade level, so that a group of kindergartners could determine how they wanted to serve their community.

We had a group of students that learned about art therapy, and they were able to use their $500 to create a packet of supplies to give to a local nursing home so that those people can engage in art therapy. One of the groups learned about makerspaces. They used their $500 to create a makerspace in our building. We had another group that jumped into chess, and they bought these life-size chess pieces, and they did this virtual thing and were able to play chess against another school. We had a carpentry group also last year, and those students created a gaga ball pit. And if you know anything about gaga ball, it is all the craze in young kids. And admittedly, I like getting in there with the gaga ball pit, but they created and made a gaga ball pit to serve the community, our school community. So it was just being able to make those connections and know that community partners were there, and being able to see how our students don’t have to be on the receiving end all the time: They also can use what they know, their skills and gifts, to serve our community. It’s just huge.

Y4Y: And giving them the power to choose. It’s not giving them a rubric and telling them, "All right, this is what you’re going to do, and these are the steps you’re going to take to get there.” Giving them the power is powerful, I think, in getting them involved not only in something that they care about, but in something that they feel could impact the community as well. Now that you have all these community partners and you're exposing your children to community partnerships as well, within the school day and within out-of-school time, are there any ways that you get family engagement on the table?

PT: Literally right before I got on here to talk to you, I just sent out a tweet that just says, for this past Sunday, I sent out a blast: “Hey, we had some mulch still left to spread. Could we get a few parents?” I had a parent come out yesterday and help us right after school. He picked up his daughters, dropped his daughters off at school, and he helped us spread some mulch here in the background in one of our outdoor areas. We’d like to highlight some of our families and draw in not only those community partners but our families. It’s the same thing as the snowball effect. Once they see the different things that are happening within the building — once they see, “Oh man, this community partner came in and they provided support, and we want to be a part of that” — we see more and more involvement.

Just this past fall, we had United Healthcare come and say, “Hey, we’d love to do a movie night.” So they brought out a big giant movie screen, and they played “Minions: The Rise of Gru.” And I got to tell you, we had over 100 people come out. So we’re in a school with 300 students, and over 100 people came out — enjoying popcorn, watching the movie. Just very rich community, family time with our families. So that’s just a good example of how community partners have an impact on drawing families into the building, and the great things are happening.

Y4Y: That’s great. I commend you and the community. You obviously have great people that you work with. I commend you all for the work you’re doing, and I’m sure that it’s going to resonate within the lives of the students and families you’re serving.

PT: I appreciate that. Thank you so much.

Y4Y: Thank you for your time and the great conversation, stories, and personal anecdotes.

PT: Absolutely. Thank you for having me on, and I appreciate it. Like you said, there are a lot of great people that I get a chance to work with who are in there every single day, trying to make a positive impact on student lives and help them see how they can contribute their skills and gifts to this world. We want to communicate that hope, and we want our students to be hopeful about what this world will look like.