When Kim Powell became the principal of Sandston Elementary, the school was only partially accredited because too many kids were falling behind in reading and math. She was determined to keep her finger on the pulse of what could be causing her students to struggle.
She’ll be the first to admit that she didn’t understand much about the circumstances of the students attending her school, where about six out of 10 students are economically disadvantaged.
After a lot of hard work, dedication and insight, the school has been fully accredited since 2017, and Powell has led Sandston Elementary to be one of two schools selected by the Virginia Department of Education as a Distinguished School under the National Association of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Sandston received the award for serving its homeless and economically disadvantaged population.
Powell’s process: educating her teachers on poverty and putting vulnerable children first.
“This did not happen overnight,” she said.
Powell knew the school could — and had to — do better with testing scores.
“It takes somebody chipping away at it, and pulling together a great team of teachers to help you chip away and get that train going,” she said.
More than half of students at the school in eastern Henrico County were considered economically disadvantaged in 2020, meaning these students either qualify for free lunch, receive temporary assistance from the government for food, are eligible for Medicaid, or homeless under the federal McKinney-Vento Act.
Seven percent of the 203 students at the school are homeless, which is above the state percentage of student homelessness at 1.4% of all enrolled students in the state, according to 2015 data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Reading authors like Ruby Payne, an educator on childhood poverty, and training teachers to understand the behaviors of trauma, Powell said the work to educate teachers on poverty and trauma and to do consistent family outreach was not easy and is ongoing.
“It really changed our lenses as we’re looking at people,” she said. “These families are working hard. They’re working three times harder than many of us have to work in order to keep things rolling for their kids. That’s what I wanted my teachers to understand.”
In the 2013-14 school year, only 27% of third-graders at the school passed the mathematics portion of the state-mandated Standards of Learning test. Just 45% of third-graders were reading on grade level that same year, according to the SOL scores listed on VDOE’s website.
In a sharp improvement, starting in 2016, things have been looking up. From 2016 to 2019, state SOL scores at Sandston went from a 74% to 80% pass rate in reading, and from a 71% to 86% pass rate in math, according to data on VDOE’s website.
To remain accredited, 75% of students must pass reading SOLs, and 70% in math. In each of these three years, Sandston not only met the required pass rates in both subjects to remain fully accredited, but also beat Henrico’s average in reading in 2018 and 2019.
Research from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development shows that students who grow up in poverty are more likely to struggle with engagement in school. Teachers who are uninformed about poverty, a report from the nonprofit says, can interpret a lack of effort from students in poverty as them being lazy and uninterested in their schoolwork. Oftentimes, however, students in poverty are showing symptoms from a lack of hope or optimism due to life circumstances.
“In poverty, there are higher instances of child abuse, higher instances of crime,” said Cassandra Willis, a Title 1 coordinator at Henrico County Public Schools, who worked closely with Powell on the improvement plans. “There are a lot of things associated with poverty.”
Among the things Powell is most proud of during the focused time to get scores up and students engaged, Sandston Elementary started a STEM summer camp in hopes of creating an enriching environment for students to focus on science, technology, engineering and math. But one hurdle when it comes to summer camp attendance is transportation, as the transportation staff is usually on summer break during that time.
“They’re living in these hotels or living in these places that aren’t conducive in the summertime,” Powell said. “I put together a STEM summer camp, and I tried to keep it as fun as I could, but we kept math and reading involved. We were able to level that field by getting them transportation.”
To solve the transportation problem, Powell tapped in with the now-retired McKinney-Vento coordinator for HCPS, Betsy Somerville, who was able to help her gather funds to provide transportation, along with free breakfast and lunch while they were at the camp.
Sandston boasts a near 95% attendance rating for the summer camp, and it’s been doing it for the past four years. Through extra Title 1 and McKinney-Vento funding, students at the STEM camp were able to eat breakfast and lunch every day, be sent home with enriching books, and have materials for the STEM activities.
Ultimately, the award, Powell and Willis said, is for the families and teachers at the school.
“Kim led her team to believe in all children,” Willis said. “She raised an expectation. The culture she created allowed her teachers to say what they were not comfortable with.”