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Sunday, May 26, 2024

Learning to Lead

One year ago, Sean (not his real name) was struggling in school. The Glenwood Leadership Academy student, who has special needs and a behavior disorder, had trouble focusing in class and often became frustrated or angry. Sometimes he would storm out of class and stand in the school’s foyer, refusing to speak or move.

Sean’s academic performance and behavior were troubling, but his teachers didn’t give up. They worked one-on-one with him every day, praising his every success and informing his family of his progress. At first, Sean’s accomplishments were as small as completing a homework assignment. Soon, he was correctly answering math problems and excelling on tests and quizzes. Finally, he passed the statewide ISTEP test — an achievement that once seemed impossible — and the experience boosted his confidence.

“You can see a total change in his character this year,” says Tamara Skinner, principal of Glenwood Leadership Academy, a K-8 school on Evansville’s South Side. “He knows he accomplished something that was outside the realm of what people may have thought he could do. When he came to school this year, it was like, ‘I’m ready to learn, I know what to do, and I know how to do it.’”

Sean’s transformation is just one example of the powerful impact GLA makes on its students’ lives, Skinner says. Stories like Sean’s are what inspired the Vanderburgh Community Foundation to recognize GLA at its annual Spirit of Giving celebration, an event that spotlights nonprofit organizations making a difference in the community.

Spirit of Giving started seven years ago as a gala to celebrate the VCF’s 15th anniversary, says Scott Wylie, VCF executive director. After that year, the organization no longer needed operating funds, so leaders decided to hold a free, donation-only event with all proceeds benefiting the host organization and the VCF’s discretionary grant making funds. Each year, Spirit of Giving takes place at a local nonprofit that matches the focus of a VCF fund, such as arts, education, or human and social services. Past locations include Potter’s Wheel, the Dream Center, and the Alhambra Theater.

At this year’s celebration on Sept. 25, around 200 business and community leaders will eat lunch in the GLA cafeteria, meet students, and learn about the impact the school and its community partners are making on students’ lives and in the neighborhood. “We want people to see what their help can do,” says Wylie.

Help from the community, Skinner says, is vital for the success of GLA’s students, 97 percent of whom live in poverty. “We know the potential of our children here, and we know how possible it is for them to thrive,” says the Evansville native, who became GLA’s principal in 2012. “But they need support to help them do that. It’s amazing how the community comes around this school to support our children.”

The Spirit of Giving celebration will honor an individual and an organization for their work in the Glenwood neighborhood: Sr. Jane Michele McClure, major gifts officer of Habitat for Humanity of Evansville (which builds affordable housing in the area), and Community One, an outreach program of Crossroads Christian Church that rehabilitates existing Glenwood homes. “Our kids spend a lot of time in the neighborhood,” says Skinner. “It’s important that it feel safe, look safe, and be safe.”

Within the walls of GLA, similarly transformational work is taking place. The school places a strong emphasis on teamwork and leadership skills, and encourages students to take personal responsibility for their behavior and learning. A sign on Skinner’s office window reads, “What have you done today to achieve your learning goal?” and every morning, after the Pledge of Allegiance, students recite the GLA pledge: “I pledge to learn, serve, and lead … I will reach my potential.”

Skinner credits this empowering atmosphere and the unrelenting commitment of GLA staff for helping struggling students, such as Sean, flourish. While the school has a history of low test scores, Skinner and her staff are fighting to reverse the trend, and she points to recent signs of improvement: 75 percent of third graders passed the statewide IREAD test this year, versus 50 percent in 2012, and ISTEP pass rates for fifth, sixth, and seventh grades all improved from 2013 to 2014.

Skinner hopes that the Spirit of Giving celebration shines light on the successes of GLA students, and that attendees “see the connections, feel the energy here, and have the desire to help children who live in this community.” She also hopes that business and community leaders come away with new perceptions of the school and neighborhood.

“People say to me, ‘That’s a big job’ or ‘Wow, that’s a tough place to work,’” says Skinner. “While we do work through some unique challenges here, it’s an amazing place to work. This is the most powerful change you can affect.”

“I have not seen a harder working group of teachers and staff,” adds Wylie. “Anyone who sees what they’re doing will be moved and want to help.”

For more information about the Glenwood Leadership Academy, call 812-435-8242 or visit evscschools.com.

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