Focus At Smith Elementary Is On Rigorous And Joyous Studies
Smith Elementary is one of five elementary schools in the Greater Park Hill neighborhood. At 3590 Jasmine St., it is a traditional neighborhood school that includes a special program, Transitional Native Language Instruction (TNLI), which is designed for native Spanish speakers.
Emily El Moudaffar is beginning her sixth year as the school’s principal. Before that, she worked in
JeffCo public schools as an assistant principal. She has a strong background in early literacy. This year, she will be seeing her first graduating class – kids who started in kindergarten with her as principal.
“I wanted to move to Denver Public Schools to serve a community nearer to where I live,” she said in a recent interview.
El Moudaffar’s love for the school is palpable. Her two sons attend Smith, a testament to her confidence in the school. The older boy has just started first grade, having been at the school since ECE-3 and the younger is now in one of the seven ECE classrooms. “Lots of staff bring their kiddos to the school,” she notes.
By the numbers
Smith serves close to 400 students. Fully 95 percent of the students qualify for Free or Reduced Lunch, an indicator of poverty. Approximately 25 percent of the school’s population is transient, meaning a high turnover each year. Planning, El Moudaffar says, is key.
Approximately 50 percent of Smith’s students attend the TNLI program. TNLI is not an immersion program. It is a specialized track that serves native Spanish speakers with native speaking teachers. English is introduced into the classroom progressively. The goal is that the students graduate with the seal of bi-literacy, an award given by DPS to students proficient in two or more languages.
El Moudaffar is a proficient Spanish speaker herself. She started learning Spanish as a child, playing with native speaking children. Later on, she used her Spanish on mission trips and eventually formalized her language education by taking courses in college. She also speaks Moroccan Arabic at home with her children and husband.
During her first years at Smith El Moudaffar focused on hiring the right type of staff: those who could teach a community affected by poverty and trauma.
“In order to teach in an impacted community, you have to accelerate the students learning,” she says. “So we hire for those kids, so they can learn sometimes two years in the space of one.”
El Moudaffar is also mindful of her students’ mental health needs. The school staffs one full-time and one part-time psychologist. It also houses three special education teachers who are all bilingual. The assistant principal and dean of students focus on preventative supports for kids, making sure to put measures into place that focus on preventing incidents and not simply responding to crises.
Her approach, to be pro-active instead of re-active, has led to a decrease in behavior disruptions throughout the school. Staff-trainings, bringing in tools and techniques to de-escalate children in crisis and identifying triggers have all helped to prevent behaviors and issues that used to impede learning. El Moudaffar speaks of the importance of strong relationships, consistency, predictability and empowering students to make choices.
“In the classrooms, students are engaged in relevant, rigorous and fun activities,” she says. As if speaking to a student, El Moudaffar says, “Who are you and what do you need to actively learn and love being here?” That’s what she wants Smith to be about.
During the 2019-2020 school year, along with Stedman and Hallett, Smith will be implementing a new social-emotional curriculum titled Paths. This model also focuses on preventative measures to support students learning.
A safe and fun place
“We strive for this to be a safe place,” El Moudaffar says as she describes the school. “Adults here don’t yell, don’t shame. They respond to students’ individual needs. If students are hungry, we feed them. If they need clothes, we find them clothes.”
This approach extends to the students learning as well. Small groupings allow for students to receive more individualized instruction. “We want to make classrooms vibrant places of learning,” she says.
Using her early literary knowledge, El Moudaffar systematically implemented techniques to improve how students read at Smith. “Kids that we keep at the school, consistently know how to read,” she says.
El Moudaffar has just hired a full-time music teacher to serve kindergarten through fifth grade students. Smith partners with Swallow Hill Music for the school’s ECE classrooms. Students also take physical education and dance, graphic arts and library.
“We want kids to have fun,” she adds. To that end, El Moudaffar insists Smith holds several celebrations throughout the year: fall and winter festivals, Halloween and Valentine parties, a talent show, and a spring fling.
Joyful, and challenging
Given the challenges, making sure all kids get to school on time, everyday, is on the principal’s list of issues that demand her attention. Before and after-school programs help, she notes.
Now that early literacy is a success at Smith, El Moudaffar also wants the school to accelerate its performance in intermediate literacy and math.
In the last few years, enrollment has generally decreased, as much of the surrounding neighborhood has increasingly gentrified. But Smith has not been too adversely impacted by this – yet – as it sits on the northern side of the neighborhood. “We’ve capitalized on it by having smaller classes,” says El Moudaffar.
El Moudaffar welcomes the Greater Park Hill Community to learn more about the school.
“If you walk our halls and visit our classrooms, you would have no idea of the challenges we overcome on a daily basis,” she says. When I ask why, she answers, “Because it’s joyful, organized, and students are polite, engaged, helpful and fun.”
“You would simply think this is a great place of learning, which is exactly what we want it to be.”
To learn more about Smith Elementary, visit smith.dpsk12.org
Lynn Kalinauskas, the author of this opinion piece, is the education chair for Greater Park Hill Community, Inc.