I had the privilege of chatting with an extraordinary educator from Eastern Washington this past week and hearing his perspective on what it takes to help kids succeed in school.
Trevor Greene is the 2013 National Principal of the Year for his accomplishments at Toppenish High School, a recognition sponsored by Met Life. The atmosphere he fostered at Toppenish, a district with significant poverty issues and other disadvantages, led to astonishing achievements. He was recently invited to the White House to meet with President Obama.
What impressed me about Greene was his sense of humor and humility. In a culture that often fosters oversized egos, I saw not a bit of the rock star attitude. Greene is now serving a one-year fellowship with the Association of Washington School Principals to help guide and encourage others to innovate and achieve. One couldn’t ask for a better role model.
We met at the offices of the North Central Educational Service District, where Greene was getting acquainted with the educational opportunities in this region.
In four years, Toppenish High School built a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) program that is engaging students in ways previously unimagined. It started with looking at other STEM programs and figuring out what would work in Toppenish.
A single class was created and it was so successful that they invited students to help figure out the next course to offer. Today, Toppenish High offers 11 courses and 30 classes. Greene said the focus on creating relevant experiences for students was a key. “It’s inspiring when kids can make that connection of relevancy to a profession,” he said.
That was accomplished by working out partnerships with local hospitals and the University of Washington, to name a few. Now they’ve got students aiming for careers that they never would have imagined without the STEM classes.
The secret of the STEM approach, said Greene, is that encourages collaboration and meaningful coursework that ties to the real world, That gets kids excited to learn.
All of this was achieved because the Toppenish schools engaged the community, started small and created out-of-the-box opportunities to develop new learning experiences and developed key partnerships.
Developing relationships is crucial, Greene told me. What he keeps in the forefront of his mind is that it’s not how much teachers know, it’s how much they care. And the work at Toppenish High School is a reflection of that.
It’s exciting to have an innovative thinker like Greene who can be a resource for North Central Washington educators. There are creative efforts underway in Manson, Wenatchee, Cascade and other districts in the region that could do for their communities what Greene and his team did in Toppenish.
It’s going to take the whole community to create that kind of learning environment. It can’t be just the job of educators and the school board.