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McNair Builds Diverse Community

Elementary school trying new tactics to improve learning and unite community.

McNair Elementary School is taking a new approach this year to its teaching tactics as well as its diverse community.

"We have 64 different countries and 47 different languages represented here," said Susan Benezra, McNair principal.

At the end of summer, Benezra and staff were notified that they were one of 47 schools in the Fairfax County Public School district that did not meet all the requirements under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Of those 47 schools, they were one of two that had to offer student transfers, if requested, because they receive federal funding as a Title One school.

"We did well on our SOLs [Standards of Learning] — we passed as a whole," said Benezra, explaining there are 35 categories that break down learning even further with No Child Left Behind. "We met 34 out of the 35 [categories], but for the economic disadvantaged English [category] we were six children away from our goal."

As a result, 92 students transferred to other schools, leaving McNair's population at 940 students, of which 43-percent are English as a second language students, said Benezra.

Because of there are so many languages represented, faculty and staff constantly try different teaching techniques.

"WE MAKE SURE our essential knowledge requirements are being focused on," said Benezra of the core subjects they are required to teach. "Because of our diversity we use a lot of visuals, a lot of hands-on activities and a lot of small groups."

Second grade teacher Alissa Castellano uses a system in her classroom where students are grouped at five learning center stations covering the core subjects like math and social studies, while she meets with students individually to assess their reading progress.

"The stations are all literary based and the children do one center each day," said Castellano, who has taught second grade at McNair for two years. "I love that age — seven- and eight-years old — they're not babies anymore, they're getting to be more independent."

Castellano said when the teachers learned the school did not meet the federal requirements, all grade levels pulled together to change some of the teaching methods.

"We're a very cohesive team," she said about the school. "We set goals even before school started and we looked at the [learning] essentials ... and have tweaked [the curriculum] to make it better than it was before."

AS A GROUP, the seven second grade teachers meet and assess their students' progress, looking at data and trying to work individually with the students falling behind, said Castellano.

"Some challenges we face are with English," said Castellano. "But we use our resources in the building to help and we have ESOL [English as a second language] teachers, special education teachers and picture prompts — we take it one year at a time depending on the mix of children we have."

She said they also group the children based on their learning levels, to make sure a child who is struggling in one subject is not placed with a child that is excelling in that subject.

She added they have open communication between the third grade teachers to make sure students are properly prepared.

They also try to incorporate the classroom diversity into one culture so children see a school community — not differences.

"We try to make a consorted effort that we're all a community," said Benezra of the school as a whole. "When we celebrate, we celebrate that we're in America and we're in a land that is free."

Benezra said because they want parents to be a part of this community they have planned potlucks for each grade.

"It's important they see what the curriculum is," said Benezra at the first dinner potluck last week for second graders and their families. "It's important they are aware what [students] are learning and help participate in their child's learning."

"I'M FROM PERU and this is similar to my country," said Susy Azero, second grade parent, about the potluck. "It's very important because you know children and you make friends [with their parents]. It's very important to the community to know [each other]."

Benezra said the potlucks offer a more intimate setting than previous year's community building events.

"In the past years we have done curriculum nights, but because the school is so big now that's too many people in one place," she said. "This is a new way to get parents from one grade together so they can meet each other and know when their child says 'I'm going to Johnny's or Jose's house' ... who their parents are."

The first potluck, with the 143 second graders and their families, drew around 250 to 300 people and an array of dishes from various countries.

"I'm surprised at the turnout, there's a lot of people here," said Lisa Whitehurst, whose daughter is a second grader. "It's nice to be able to put a face to the names of the kids she always talks about."

The feedback so far on the potluck has been positive, said Benezra, adding this year they are also offering morning meetings for parents to learn about the school as well as nightly meetings through the PTA once a month to answer questions.

Benezra said they also started after-school programs this year that offer extra assistance as well as focus on the core essential knowledge subjects to help those whose parents may not understand the curriculum.

"We've worked on our educational strategies, we've offered different programs," said Benezra, adding they have county specialists evaluating classes to offer curriculum advice. "We're getting help from all avenues to do better."