School-year 2019-20. Victoria is a fourth-grader. Her mother Christina sat down with administrator Deb Cottin over coffee (pre-coronavirus) to explain how far Victoria (Tori) has come at North Side Community School.
Fourth-grade teacher Mr. Neal doesn’t hesitate when asked to describe his student, Victoria. “She is a rock star in my class.” This is his description of a child whose mother was told she needed to repeat kindergarten. How far Tori has come. And she’s worked hard every step of the way.
Tori’s mom Christina recalls that even as a toddler, Victoria was sensitive and introspective, gentle and mindful of any perceived shortcomings in herself. Christina noticed that Victoria wasn’t hitting certain milestones, so she expressed her concerns to her pediatrician who referred her to Parents as Teachers (PAT), a nonprofit specializing in helping parents meet the developmental potential of their young children.
The PAT educator agreed with Christina that Victoria was developmentally behind, but chalked it up to being physically weak for her age, not because of any intellectual deficit. Victoria began kindergarten at her local public school on schedule. At the first parent-teacher conference, Christina again expressed concerns, but the teacher said, “I think she will be fine.” However, as kindergarten progressed, Christina felt like Victoria wasn’t learning, and she was right.
Christina and her husband Tyrone–who grew up in the City of St. Louis not far from where Christina had grown up–bought a house in the city while Victoria was in kindergarten.
“I grew up in North City and I love North City,” said Christina. “Yes, there are some reckless people, but there are way more of us working hard, raising our kids…you just don’t hear about us because we don’t make the news for being good people.”
Christina received a flier in the mail about North Side and decided to check out the school. After meeting Principal Stella Erondu, Christina felt like North Side was the right place for her children. Victoria was her middle child. However, after Victoria took the evaluation given to all new students, Christina received some hard news.
“Principal Erondu wanted Victoria to re-do kindergarten. Victoria would have been so embarrassed, she was so self-aware, she wouldn’t just “not notice” she had been held back, plus she is tall for her age, which would have made it even worse,” said Christina. “I said to Ms. Erondu, ‘Please don’t hold her back, I’ll help her catch up.'”
“Ms. Erondu said “Okay, mom. We will try it your way’ and we went from there. It felt good to be heard, I was so relieved.”
Going into first grade, Victoria could count to 20, but she could only visually recognize the numbers one to ten. She couldn’t recognize simple words like CAT, another thing she should have mastered in kindergarten. “I talked almost every day with her first-grade teacher Ms. Vice on ways to help Tori overcome her sense of defeat and believe in her ability to learn.”
Victoria was really hard on herself, and wanted to learn, but she felt like she couldn’t. Her first-grade teacher Ms. Vice had noticed right away. Ms. Vice quickly learned Victoria’s cues for being frustrated and lost. She would blink really fast and start scratching herself. “So she and I worked together on helping Tori calm herself and build her confidence,” said Christina. “I did breathing exercises with her at home and Ms. Vice knew to remind Victoria to do her breathing.”
Christina wasn’t surprised when Ms. Vice told her at the first parent-teacher conference in November that Victoria was going to need more help than what the two of them were providing.
“I requested testing to see if Tori could qualify for additional services, and in January of first grade, she started with an IEP, an Independent Education Plan. This gave her access to one-on-one time with a special education teacher each day. I saw her confidence growing. Tori is a natural hard worker, so she liked the growth she could see herself making, and it helped her to work even harder.
By the end of first grade, Victoria could count to 100 by herself. Her reading had improved, and she was ready for second grade with the support of her IEP.
“Tori’s second-grade teacher was Mr. Greenlee (now North Side’s middle school math teacher) and he stayed in touch with me regularly, too,” said Christina. “He told me what he saw, and he pushed Tori. He was a cheerleader for her. At the November parent-teacher conference, he told me, ‘I don’t think Tori is going to need the extra help of an IEP forever. Knowing he thought that, that made Tori feel more confident and capable as she worked to build her skills.”
By winter of second grade,Tori was testing proficient in both math and English skills. At the beginning of third grade, Tori’s new teacher Ms. Fetsch asked Christina, “ Why does Tori have an IEP? It’s more of a distraction to her learning than anything at this point.”
So, the time had come. Before Winter Break of Tori’s third-grade year, Christina and Tori’s IEP team met with balloons and cupcakes for a celebration of Tori’s progress–an informal, joyful graduation of sorts from the IEP program.
By the end of the third grade with Ms. Fetsch, Tori was testing at advanced levels. Now, Tori is in fourth grade with Mr. Neal as her teacher. Christina says Tori is doing well and feels capable, and appropriately challenged. She continues to work hard and keep up with her classmates.
“I feel like back in kindergarten, they didn’t listen to me as a mom,” says Christina. “I know I’m not a teacher, I don’t have a degree in education. But here at North Side, I feel like a partner. They listen.”
School-year 2019-20. Amia is a second-grader. Amia and her father Shawn were proudly featured as the Scholar Success Story in North Side Community School’s 2019 Year-End Appeal.
Amia’s two older sisters did well at the private school they attended, so of course, that’s where her dad Shawn sent his youngest daughter Amia for kindergarten. By the time Amia was in first grade, Shawn saw that she wasn’t flourishing like her older sisters.
“We have this routine where they come home and do homework before they do anything else, and I help them. With Amia, I had to keep reiterating everything. A lot. She wasn’t getting it, those simple first-grade things. I knew something had to change. Her school administrators kept saying she was fine, but I knew she wasn’t.”
When Shawn found North Side and had Amia enrolled, the news after her initial evaluation was hard to hear. Amia would need to repeat first grade. Her academic knowledge and skills were at the level of a new kindergartner. “It was hard having her start behind, but she had a lot of catching up to do even at that.”
“Amia was placed in Ms. Clark’s class, and man, how I love that lady,” said Shawn. “She has finesse. She wouldn’t let Amia sit there and be invisible. She would encourage her and have her be a part of what the class was doing.”
We had Amia tested for learning disabilities, but found none. So Ms. Clark, she just dove in deeper. “You can do this,” said Ms. Clark. “You are going to work hard, and you will learn.” She tutored Amia on Tuesdays after school every week. Amia began to spell better, to read better. “Ms. Clark communicated with me all the time. I would take the class curriculum home so that Ms. Clark and I would be using the same vocabulary when we worked with Amia. It was little things like we both would say “take away” instead of “subtract” so there was no confusion for Amia.”
It hasn’t just been about learning how to read and do basic math. “Amia has learned how to speak up for herself, how to have a voice,” said Shawn. “She still struggles with this to a point, but we’ve come a long way. I knew we’d turned a corner when I overheard Amia talking to my oldest daughter who was frustrated about something.
“Amia told her, ‘You have to have a growth mindset.’ I asked her what she meant, and she explained it to me and said, ‘You can always find another way to try, another way to learn. You don’t want to have a fixed mindset.’ I was blown away. She knew exactly what she was talking about and had no problem sharing her knowledge.”
By the end of first grade, Amia was testing at grade level in math and reading. Essentially, she had worked so hard with her dad and her teachers here at North Side, she learned two years of material in a single year. No one is prouder than Ms. Clark and Shawn, except maybe Amia herself.
Amia still attends speech therapy at North Side for a slight language impairment, but aside from that time away from the classroom, she is taking all the same course work and meeting all the expectations of a typical second-grader at North Side where she is now in Ms. Woods’ class.
“Ms. Woods just called me and said that Amia still needs encouragement to raise her hand. She is still shy, but we’ve come a long way,” says Shawn. “She has the best spirit, and she knows how much she has accomplished through her own hard work. I’m so proud of her.”