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Xavier Magazine | March 24, 2017

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Parent Approved: Saving a School

By France Griggs Sloat

When Janeece Docal was handpicked to be the new principal of Powell Elementary School, she had to wonder if the superintendent and school board didn’t like her.

Along with the keys to the office, she was handed a failing building with declining enrollment, chronically abysmal test scores and a host of angry, if disengaged, parents. It was enough to make anyone wonder, What did I do to deserve this?

But Docal persevered, and four years later enrollment has doubled, parent involvement has exploded and achievement ratings have gone up. Docal, though, isn’t satisfied. And she won’t be until every child in her Washington, D.C., public school is testing at proficient or higher levels. Her goal is to increase the life chances of the children in her school by instilling in them the self-motivation they need to succeed.

 Her philosophy of leadership is simple: “Remove all barriers. No excuses. Make it happen.”

 What that means is she and her staff do whatever it takes to guarantee each child succeeds: keeping the building open every day until 6:00 p.m. for tutoring and homework sessions plus extras like art, theater, gardening and soccer; providing breakfast, lunch, snack AND dinner for those who stay after school; visiting the students’ homes so that every child and parent meets their teacher face-to-face.

It also means providing services that families—especially from lower-income Hispanic communities like those attending Powell—might need, including a social worker, psychologist and school nurse. They are there when Docal invites parents in for weekly coffee and conversation. She believes that by providing such services, and including the parents, the school becomes a center for the community, a place where all possible barriers to educational success can be removed.

Docal began developing her philosophy when, as a student at Xavier, she worked with immigrant students in a summer service program and also with orphans in Nicaragua during a Service Learning Semester. “This is what started to inspire my mission of education,” she says. “It led me to believe that education is my calling.”

After teaching English at a high school for 10 years, she was named Powell’s principal in 2009. She started by hauling away three UHaul truckloads of stuff. Fresh paint, a dual-language program and a new curriculum model boosted the school’s image.

Since then, test scores have risen and enrollment has doubled to 425 students this year. And though this year’s scores of 48 percent in reading and 67 percent in math are far better than those that put the school in the bottom of the district’s six-tiered ranking system in 2009, they’re still not at 80 percent proficiency. But Docal believes it won’t be long before the school, now ranked second from the top, achieves the top ranking.

While the school has garnered numerous awards and recognition for its improvement, more important is that 98 percent of parents are satisfied, compared to 50 percent when she arrived. There’s now a waiting list, and parents flock to the school to help, to learn or just to be where their children are experiencing so much good.

“It tells me the community has renewed confidence in this school,” Docal says. And, obviously, in her leadership.

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