Less than four years ago, George Jay elementary had all the markings of an urban school at the nucleus of a low-income neighbourhood.
Only 66 per cent of students were meeting provincial grade-level standards, with staff struggling to keep up with a student population where nearly half are English language learners.
Today, more than 90 per cent of George Jay’s 220 students now achieve benchmark grades, behavioural incidents have decreased from 900 to 100 annually and the school has become a community hub that connects students and their families with practical supports.
“Urban elementary schools have a reputation for not being able to provide outstanding academic programs for children,” says principal Leslie Lee, who took the reigns at George Jay in 2009. “So we decided to focus on that and create a new vision.”
Last week, Lee was named one of Canada’s Top 40 public school principals by The Learning Partnership, a charity that promotes academic excellence in public schools through business and industry partnerships.
The award recognizes Lee’s remarkable turnaround of George Jay, which began by embracing the school’s “collision of cultures” and involving parents at every level, she says.
“We’ve built our school vision collectively, which is really unusual. Our vision is learning to care, caring to learn. We’re the only elementary school that has a parent liaison counsellor to work with families to provide support in all areas, whether it be for food, housing or accessing social services,” she says. “We also provide a very supportive learning environment to meet students where they’re at.”
Under Lee’s stewardship, George Jay has introduced an urban agriculture program, become a pioneer of integrated wireless technology and is implementing a French immersion program in September 2014.
SMART boards, iPads and document cameras – the modern version of overhead projectors – are all used here, in addition to the school’s modern computer lab.
“To have exposure to technology that you may not have at home is so important to engage struggling users,” Lee says.
The wholistic social and emotional development of her students has been a team effort, Lee stresses, and is a community success story.
“I have the privilege to work with some of the most talented, educated individuals who understand the needs of each and every child,” she says. “If I don’t have people like that, this would not have been this kind of accomplishment.”