Sovanna Mireles has been in 5th grade for less than a month, but she already feels accomplished. His name is on the reading tree in the hallway of Mountain View Elementary School.
“It feels good,” said the 10-year-old. “I’m really proud of myself this year.
To get her name inscribed on the tree, Mireles had to read 10 times 25 minutes at home. As a reward, she received a brand new set of books from Barnes and Noble. It’s part of a new program at school to encourage children to read.
Mountain View Elementary School is one of the most diverse schools in the Anchorage School District. Over 90% of students identify as non-white, according to district data.
It is also one of the worst performers. In the statewide PEAKS tests for the 2020-2021 school year, nearly 70% third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade students in Mountain View were tested well below their English and language arts skills. This compares to 31% in the district as a whole.
Principal Clare Hill wants to change that.
Hill was the principal of Chugach Optional Elementary for six years. At Chugach Optional, only 5% of students were tested well below their English and language arts skills.
“I come from a pretty good school and I want the same for Mountain View,” she said.
In 2020, Hill earned her doctorate in education. For her dissertation, she spoke with black and Alaskan Native parents about the academic achievement gap between white students and students of color. Many of those parents were from Mountain View, and Hill said many of them were unaware of the school’s below-average reading scores.
“That’s an element that I realized needed to be focused on – that partnership element for parents and making sure there’s transparency in how many languages we need to deliver it” , she said.
When the main job opened up in Mountain View, she jumped at the chance. Now, in her first year on the job, she’s putting her research into action.
“They wanted culturally appropriate teaching, they wanted to have that communication, and one of my goals here is to create a space where the community feels welcome,” Hill said.
Some of that work started this summer. She had the lawn mowed and dead trees removed.
“There were signs that said, ‘Watch your dog.’ I had them removed. It looked like a strange sign,” Hill said. “We love our police officers and our SROs, but there are better words you could say.”
Other changes occurred inside the building. Along the hallway are the letters of the alphabet with pictures – a cat next to C, a dog next to D. The idea is to give students, especially English language learners, a reminder visual of these letters and sounds.
To give students more creative time—and help with morning childcare—the school began holding “Mustang Morning Gatherings.” One hour before school starts, students can come and listen to music, work on art projects and have lunch together.
Third, fourth and fifth graders can now join after-school basketball teams. A morning choir program is also in the works. The school recently received a $20,000 grant to fund a new computer lab, where students will work on STEM projects before and after school.
Some changes are specifically aimed at Muslim students, many of whom came to Anchorage as refugees from Afghanistan last year. The girls’ bathroom sign shows a girl wearing a hijab. A space in the front office is now a prayer room.
“When we’re trying to create this partnership, it’s not one size fits all,” Hill said. “How can we create these meaningful partnerships? What is safety and what does our school look like and what do many of our different community members look like? »
Hill grew up in Kodiak and she said her school played a huge role in supporting children and families. Now, as a parent herself, she wants Mountain View Elementary to do the same.
“I definitely see through the lens differently than having a kid myself,” Hill said. “And she’s half black, so it’s helpful for me to see some of these system issues that I know kids of color deal with more than their white peers. I don’t want her to have those barriers.
The next project on her list is a family resource center, with the help of a $17,500 grant from the office of Mayor Dave Bronson. Donated backpacks, jackets and shoes are currently stored in an additional classroom. Hill wants this room to become a place where families can meet school staff and connect to resources like food pantries or affordable housing.
“A lot of times when families are refugee families, or they’re new to the country, or they’re in crisis, school is a place they know, but they might not know a pantry,” she said.
These are the first steps in a process that could take years. But Hill hopes stronger relationships with parents will lead to better student outcomes.
In the meantime, the reading tree will continue to fill, with each leaf representing another Mustang Mountain View.