Inside a caring school

At Harvard Park Elementary, a "commendable" rating is huge

click to enlarge Inside a caring school
Photo by David Blanchette
Jena Dold with students in her classroom. At Harvard Park, it's a team effort involving teachers, the administration and students.

It was a chaotic scene recently in the principal's office.

A young student was obviously in distress, kicking, flailing and screaming, as staff calmly spoke while trying to keep him from injuring himself or others. The student gradually calmed down enough that he willingly followed a staff member to a private room, and within half an hour he was all smiles as he re-entered the classroom.

It was just another Monday morning at Harvard Park Elementary School in Springfield.

"He's a kid we've had since kindergarten and we know he has rough Monday mornings," said Harvard Park Principal James Hayes. "At a normal school, that incident would have shaken everyone up and the kid would be sent home for two or three days. Here we calm him down, he's soon back in class learning and happy, and now that kid can go on and have a successful day."

click to enlarge Inside a caring school
Photo by David Blanchette
Harvard Park Principal James Hayes: “Our kids are craving to come to school.”

Those successful days are hard-earned by Harvard Park students and teachers, where most of the 500 students qualify for free or reduced fee lunches. The school's education team must address the social and emotional baggage that many of the students carry with them to class each day, while still teaching them the required subjects.

"The staff is just one hundred percent crazy. They do things that are not in their job descriptions, not in their job duties, not normal things that teachers are required to do," Hayes said. "It's those little things that they are doing, day in and day out, that have really made the community of Harvard Park what it is today."

That part educator, part social worker ethos was evident nearly four years ago when Illinois Times first took an in-depth look at Harvard Park. (See "Inside a struggling school: What the state report card doesn't tell you about Harvard Park," by David Blanchette, Jan. 10, 2019.) At the time, the school was listed by the Illinois State Board of Education as among the lowest-performing five percent of schools in the state. Harvard Park was then optimistic that the "secret sauce" of dealing with its extraordinary student population's needs would result in better rankings in the future.

Now, four years later, Harvard Park is listed as "commendable" by the State Board. The designation means that although it's not in the top 10 percent of elementary schools in the state, Harvard Park has no under-performing student groups and has risen considerably from its lowest designation in 2018-2019. The State Board's new rankings are due to be announced at the end of October, and Hayes is optimistic that Harvard Park may edge closer to the state's top ranking of "exemplary."

"Things are looking really good, not just academically, but behaviorally," Hayes said. "Our referrals are down tremendously and our attendance is up. Our kids are craving to come to school."

"I finally got my dream job."

The students aren't the only people craving to come to Harvard Park. There is a waiting list of teachers who want to be part of the school's unusual community.

Mikaila House job-shadowed at Harvard Park while she was in high school and also when she was fulfilling her college student teaching requirements. While applying for teaching jobs after graduation, House heard that a position at Harvard Park may open soon.

"I had job offers from other schools and they kept contacting me saying they needed my answer soon," House said. "I told them I really appreciated the opportunity but was waiting for another school. And I kept reaching out to Mr. Hayes at Harvard Park. I refused to let him forget me."

House is now in her first year of teaching at Harvard Park.

"The school carries the behavioral and home life situations of the students with such grace. It is never considered a problem. It is always, 'We've got this and will figure this out,'" House said. "I'm doing exactly what I was meant to do. I want to be the person who shows up for those kids every day. They see that I am not giving up, and those connections are being formed."

Jenny Dennison's parents and grandparents attended Harvard Park. She got a taste of the school when she taught during the summer program there. Dennison had worked at other schools in the Springfield and Decatur areas, but always had her heart set on working full time at Harvard Park.

click to enlarge Inside a caring school
Photo by David Blanchette
Jena Dold with students in her classroom. At Harvard Park, it's a team effort involving teachers, the administration and students.

"I found out about a second-grade teacher opening at Harvard Park. I applied immediately and I got the job," Dennison said. "I remember calling my mom and saying, 'I finally got my dream job.'"

"These kids may come from homes that aren't the best, so we want to create a safe space where they can get a hug from us and help turn a bad day around for them," said Dennison, who is in her first year of teaching at Harvard Park. "When I celebrate a student, everyone here celebrates that student with me. We care about students as people. I feel like I am really flourishing here."

Principal Hayes acknowledged that prospective Harvard Park teachers can be very persistent when there is a job opening at the school, and often call him on evenings and weekends just to make sure he won't forget about them.

"I had another principal say to me, 'What are you doing to those teachers over there, Hayes? I offered this young lady a teaching position and she said she was holding out waiting to hear from you,'" Hayes said. "It's amazing to me that we have this draw on people who have seen other schools."

Hayes is quick to credit the teachers for Harvard Park's success.

"You don't teach at Harvard Park because you want to be a teacher. You do it because you want to be a champion. You want to make a difference in somebody's life," Hayes said. "We can't have ponies here at Harvard Park, we have to have thoroughbreds. This work is challenging work. This is almost mission-worthy work."

Hayes said that Harvard Park just received a new math curriculum from Springfield School District 186, and his teachers are meeting an extra hour a week on their own to figure out how to best teach the new math curriculum to the students.

"Everybody feels like they are a part of something bigger and better than themselves. You create that environment where everybody is a rock star," Hayes said. "People come to work every day and look for ways to improve themselves and their kids."

"It's not just one thing, it's a recipe."

The teachers at Harvard Park work closely with the school administration to craft new ways of mining each student's potential, while addressing the issues the children may bring with them from outside of school.

click to enlarge Inside a caring school
Photo by David Blanchette
Teacher Mikaila House: “I'm doing exactly what I was meant to do."

When the school's hallways got too noisy, several teachers tried "silent passage," where there is no talking in the hall. Now the hallways are eerily silent as the students move in a single file through the school.

Fourth-grade and fifth-grade students have been set up as peer mentors for first-graders who may be having a hard time. If a first-grader is having a tough day, that student's older mentor may be pulled from class to sit and talk with them, often with positive results for both students.

All Harvard Park students have written down their preferred method for coping with frustrations in class. So, when a student raises his or her hand with crossed fingers, each teacher knows what that child needs to cool down, deal with the frustration, and return to learning.

It's all a team effort involving the teachers, the administration and the students.

"We know a certain kid has a meltdown every day at 11:45. Let's talk about what we can do to avoid that, maybe at 11:30 we will take him for a walk, give him a brain break," Principal Hayes said. "The kids here are different because the things we have taught them here have started to stick. How to be good citizens, how to be good people, how to cope with whatever you are dealing with.

"Students may sometimes feel alone at home or outside of school, but when you come to school we've got you and we're going to take care of you," Hayes said. "Part of being a kid is learning great things, because when you're not being defensive, and you're not worried about what you are going to eat, your brain can do other things."

Harvard Park is a designated food pantry site through the Central Illinois Food Bank, which helps many students' home situations. During afternoon pickup times after school, carts with food items that parents can take with them are placed near the school entrance. Every Friday, students are sent home with bags of food so they will have enough to eat over the weekend.

Students, parents and teachers can also earn "gotchas," tickets they receive for helping with the school or its mission or being involved in the kids' lives. These "gotchas" can be redeemed for needed household items or toys that have been donated by the community.

It's all part of the holistic approach that defines Harvard Park Elementary School.

"It's not just one thing, it's a recipe. If you have all the right ingredients for cookies, those will be amazing cookies," Hayes said. "But if you leave out an ingredient you will miss out on a great cookie."

School District 186 Superintendent Jennifer Gill, who once worked as an assistant principal at Harvard Park, is one of the district's many fans of the school.

click to enlarge Inside a caring school
Photo by David Blanchette.
Second-grade teacher Jenny Dennison: “I finally got my dream job.”

"I'm always proud of Mr. Hayes and the staff at Harvard Park for the work that they do, not only to serve students day to day, but the way they think ahead and plan, analyze their data, come up with strategies that will allow students to improve," Gill said. "They address the needs of the whole child at Harvard Park and work closely with families to make sure that every student has success."

Gill said that Harvard Park will soon receive capital improvements that have been ongoing at other district schools, including more classroom space, an elevator and a secure entrance.

"She is enriched by her schoolwork here."

Harvard Park Elementary's fans go beyond those employed or being educated there. One recent afternoon as they were waiting to pick up their children, parents of Harvard Park students talked about what they thought of the school.

"She loves the school, it's such a rich blend of people, she is enriched by her schoolwork here," said Thurman Warren, whose daughter attends Harvard Park. "She smiles every day she comes here. She gives hugs after class, gets hugs in the morning, she loves her classmates and there seems to be a pretty friendly vibe to the whole area. Harvard Park is definitely a model school; they know the tricks."

Bobbi Weakley's daughter is a Harvard Park student.

"I like it, it seems family-oriented and they are very friendly," Weakley said. "She's always excited to tell me what she had for lunch, what kind of work she did. She looks forward to coming to school bright and early every morning. She especially likes to come for breakfast."

Mark Smith has one son who attends Harvard Park and another who graduated from the school.

"They do really good with the kids, and the teachers are really nice. My boy likes it, and the teachers like him. He gets along with everybody," Smith said. "When they need special attention, they work with them. I have a nephew who went to another school last year and came back here this year because they liked it better here."

Luecresha Jackson's son is a student at the school.

"They help the parents with information on anything you may need. Other schools should copy the parent education that they have here," Jackson said. "It's surprising but my son actually looks forward to going to school now."

Kerrigan Bergen's daughter goes to Harvard Park.

"My daughter loves the teachers here and she's actually able to get her IEP learning with the teachers helping her out," Bergen said. "She had a lot of problems at the last school, and now that she is here, she has no problems going to school."

Harvard Park alumni also came by the school that afternoon to wait on siblings and friends.

"I loved it here. All of the teachers really care about the kids, and the principal makes sure that everybody is on top of what they are doing," said 13-year-old Ashlyn McGlothlin. "It's just a good place to get your education. The teachers don't just care about the money; they care about the students."

Fourteen-year-old Nakira Karrick is also a former Harvard Park student.

"It was fun, I liked it. I had some favorite teachers, and they had an after-school program that I liked," Karrick said. "They'll sit down with you and really talk to you about a problem and they really help you to solve it, to figure it out."

Principal James Hayes isn't surprised that parents, students, teachers and staff say good things about Harvard Park, because the school atmosphere mixes dedication and hard work with fun.

"The common language that we hear from the mentor teachers and volunteers throughout the district is that Harvard Park is just different – the culture, the climate," said Hayes, who is in his 11th year as principal there. "When you walk into the building, things are just different. We do things for the kids here."

David Blanchette

David Blanchette has been involved in journalism since 1979, first as an award-winning broadcaster, then a state government spokesperson, and now as a freelance writer and photographer. He was involved in the development of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and more recently the Jacksonville...

Illinois Times has provided readers with independent journalism for almost 50 years, from news and politics to arts and culture.

Your support will help cover the costs of editorial content published each week. Without local news organizations, we would be less informed about the issues that affect our community..

Click here to show your support for community journalism.

Got something to say?

Send a letter to the editor and we'll publish your feedback in print!

Comments (0)
Add a Comment