A New Haven charter school guided since its founding by principal and Western Connecticut State University doctoral recipient Dr. Laura Main has earned the coveted designation as a “School of Distinction” in the latest Connecticut State Department of Education survey of public schools released in February.
Booker T. Washington Academy (BTWA) was cited among the state’s “highest performing elementary schools” and “greatest improvers” in the State Department of Education’s Next Generation Accountability System evaluation of performance by all public schools in Connecticut during the 2016-17 academic year. The New Haven charter school, chosen as one of 124 Schools of Distinction in the new survey, currently enrolls students from kindergarten through grade 4 and will complete its development into a comprehensive K-5 institution in fall 2018.
Main, who joined the founding administrative team at BTWA in fall 2014 after completing her Ed.D. in Instructional Leadership at WCSU, said that three factors have been critical in promoting superior academic performance among Academy students at all grade levels, whom she refers to as “our scholars.” These factors include “a curriculum built with consistency, coherence and rigor; a relentless focus on continuous improvement and taking action based on data; and a low teacher/student ratio,” currently at one faculty member to every 11 students, she said.
“From the very beginning, our curriculum was built carefully to make sure all scholars received the same instruction, no matter what classroom they were assigned,” she remarked. “Additionally, the curriculum is carefully crafted so that there is coherence both within each grade and between the grades. In this way, the concepts introduced are built upon each other in a manner that is both developmentally appropriate and provides each scholar with access to high-level content.”
Dr. Marcy Delcourt, coordinator of the WCSU education doctoral program, described Main as “an extremely creative educator who has the vision, ideas and enthusiasm to initiate school-wide reforms. She truly exemplifies a graduate of WCSU’s Ed.D. in Instructional Leadership program by using her skills and talents to design an environment that improves the quality of education for all students.”
The Academy’s dynamic and multi-faceted instructional plan over an eight-hour school day focuses on providing rigorous education in core content areas including reading, writing and mathematics, as well as regular enrichment in science, music, dance, art, world languages and physical education. By providing each class with a team of one lead teacher and one academic assistant, Main observed, BTWA is able to structure the school day as a series of workshops that feature both group lessons and individualized one-on-one or small-group instruction. Teachers for each grade level meet weekly to review instructional data and use these findings to design and adapt action plans for immediate implementation in the classroom, she noted.
The New Haven charter school’s mathematics curriculum has been recognized as one of the top-performing elementary school math programs statewide, and its reading program has been cited among the top 20 percent statewide by the Department of Education. Main observed that problem-solving provides the basis for learning math skills at BTWA, while language arts education includes a strong emphasis on writing narrative, informative and persuasive texts. “Beginning in kindergarten, our scholars solve real-life problems using pictures, numbers and words to explain their thinking,” she said.
With comprehensive school sessions that feature five hours’ instruction in core content as well as additional time to teach two special subject areas each day, BTWA lesson plans regularly break down disciplinary boundaries to approach related topics in new ways, Main said. “For example, the scholars may be learning about the rainforest through a read-aloud exercise, and then may create a group mural of the rainforest in art class,” she said. “Similarly, scholars may learn about three-dimensional shapes in math, and then in the science lab they may learn to create those shapes using clay and toothpicks. As our scholars learn about fractions in math, they also learn about musical notation in music class.” A lesson about the fragility of the environment, she added, may inspire an assignment to “write a persuasive piece about the importance of taking care of the earth.”
The BTWA administration, faculty and staff seek to reinforce the educational mission of the school by creating what Main described as “a warm, welcoming environment for all,” from greeting arriving students with high fives and escorting them into school every morning to providing homework support and enrichment activities in an active after-school program serving one-third of all school families. “Staff members help to make sure that each and every scholar is ready to start the day with a positive attitude,” she said. “If a scholar needs social or emotional support, a member of our team will offer that assistance in the moment.
“Our parents are extremely supportive of our school and consider it an extension of their family, as it should be,” Main added. “They often comment about how far our staff will go to make sure each and every scholar is successful. If there is a need or concern, we work diligently to make sure it is addressed as soon as possible.”
“Laura has made a tremendous change in the lives of the students who attend BTWA and has impacted the families of these children by building trust in the educational system and giving them hope for the future,” Delcourt observed.
Main credited her academic training in the Ed.D. in Instructional Leadership program in the WCSU Department of Education and Educational Psychology as sound preparation for tackling the challenges she has faced at BTWA after previous administrative experience in the Naugatuck school system. “It has been the most difficult work I have ever done, but also the most rewarding,” she said. “I believe that I learned to persevere with the intensity I have needed to accomplish this work because I had gone through the doctoral program at WCSU, in particular the dissertation process.”
Her doctoral work at WCSU enabled her “to be a careful decision-maker, always using research to ground my decisions,” she said. “The process I went through gave me the skills I needed to build a comprehensive program that has a solid research backing. It also allowed me to grow my abilities in presentation, which has been an extremely important skill set in this work.”
Main benefited from her studies and doctoral work with faculty mentors at WCSU who have strongly influenced her development as an academic administrator. She cited Delcourt for being “incredibly supportive” while “pushing me to think deeply and critically.” She noted that Professor Emeritus of Education Dr. Karen Burke “taught me so much about learning styles, which I use in my work with teachers and teams,” while former faculty member Dr. Jane Gangi provided insights into developing teaching plans for accelerated math learners. “It was through their mentorship and support that I was able to clarify my educational philosophies and hone my skills as an instructional leader,” Main said.
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