Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Wasatch School

Another phase of my sometime journalistic career included articles on a pair of elementary schools; here’s one I wrote for the Interfaith Peacemaking Resource Center of Utah’s newsletter.

Good things are happening in the Salt Lake City schools! This month’s feature is Wasatch Elementary.

Wasatch School
With their faces in the sunshine, students at Wasatch Elementary School in Salt Lake’s Avenues neighborhood are planting theme gardens. About half of the classes are involved in this year’s Outdoor Project! It’s an extension of their regular curriculum, as well as an activity in which they claim ownership and learn caretaking, sensitivity and environmental awareness. The gardens will become part of the neighborhood, and the project’s navy blue t-shirts will carry the endeavor even beyond the school and Avenues boundaries, as a reminder that Wasatch is preparing citizens to interface with the world around them and the world beyond them!

gardens unlimitedClose to downtown, close to the University of Utah, Wasatch is the school of choice for many parents seeking the very best, with students attending from all over the Salt Lake Valley. Abundant diversity included a 50/50 poverty/affluence ratio, many different races and ethnicities, single parent families, children of university professors, children of university students, kids from House Of Hope and from Ronald McDonald House...a vast range of students in every sense of the word.

"Kids Zone — Future Leaders being built — Enter with care & love" reads the poster greeting front door arrivals. Amy Wadsworth, Wasatch’s principal, speaks of the “global development” of the child. Advancement in academic and social skills is generally assumed in any learning environment, but this school goes much further and also pays careful attention to physical and emotional development, to awareness and growth in the fine and performing arts. The school is not traditional in the conventional sense of the word—the total approach is far more interactive, giving each one an opportunity to function at his or her optimal level.

How does a grade school administrator who never has taught on that level feel about her credibility as a principal?

Amy Wadsworth believes interest and expertise in teaching and education are easily interchangeable among the various levels. In her third year [1995] at Wasatch, her earlier experience included teaching English and French at Highland High School and serving as Assistant Principal at Clayton Intermediate School. Ms. Wadsworth impressed me as being readily available to the students, but also as someone who doesn’t fill or overwhelm the space that’s rightfully theirs. This is a students’ school!

Additional staff at the K-6 school total about 40. including teachers, aides, art and physical education specialists. There are “lots of good volunteers” (mainly parents), and an active corporate sponsor. Class size averages in the 20s. with three classes for each grade. There’s also a library, a playground, and a gymnasium. Although Wasatch was one of the very first schools in Salt Lake City to have computers, its computers now are among the oldest!

A sense of contentment fills the air at the residential R Street and South Temple location; the school actually feels calm and well organized. This "whole child" approach works well. With serious and usually successful attempts by the teachers and other staff to reach every area in each student’s life, they don’t often need to act out in frustration and violence in attempts to be heard and attended to. Because of this, the students get along well with each other and with the adults in their lives.

Ms. Wadsworth observes that blending students from more troubles areas into the lower-risk population helps a great deal to offset at-riskedness. Accepting of each other, the kids generally don’t isolate themselves into demographically defined groups. Once again, their needs are being met well enough there’s little need for a particular student or group to seek special attention.

Usually the kids are polite, respectful, and considerate of others. But despite the all-round success the Wasatch students and their principal are enjoying, sometimes there’s dissension. Classroom teachers try to process conflict in a problem-solving modality, and if the discord actually reaches the principal, she applies similar procedures.

Ms. Wadsworth feels that in the future these techniques will need to be taught more formally. She says the goal is for peaceable conflict resolution to become a day-to-day practice and not just something occasionally imposed from without.

As these students find peaceful solutions becoming natural to them, they’ll easily take the skills they’ve learned at school into their family setting and into the larger Salt Lake City and world communities. This will be a great and ongoing advantage to all of us!

"Keeping high expectations" in every area helps make sure outstanding results happen. Future leaders are being built at Wasatch Elementary, and they are being treated with care and respect. And as Amy Wadsworth says, they're "such a delight!"

Faces in the sun, Wasatch School students are busy planting gardens to enhance their own lives and as a gift to their community...

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