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Principal Primes Kids to Succeed

A Texas transplant, former high school assistant principal Donald W. Salm told Education World he is impressed with the caring staff and community members he has met since taking over as principal of Beatrice Rafferty School on the Passamaquoddy reservation in Perry, Maine. Salm talked with Education World news editor Ellen R. Delisio last spring about life on the reservation and his goals for the Beatrice Rafferty students. This article is a part of a continuing Education World series Lessons from Our Nation's Schools. Included: Insights into running a rural school on a Native American reservation.

ImageJust a few months ago, Donald W. Salm left his job as an assistant principal at a Texas high school and became principal of Beatrice Rafferty School on the Passamoquoddy reservation at Pleasant Point in rural Perry, Maine, the eastern-most point in the continental United States. Passamaquoddy, in fact, means "People of the Dawn."

The school has 140 students in kindergarten through grade eight. Salm recently talked with Education World about his students' challenges and efforts to help them succeed.

Education World: What are some of the challenges your students face?

Donald Salm: The immediate challenges are the at-risk situation we deal with in the area, the county, and the state of Maine. The county has a very high unemployment rate, and we want our students ready for whatever they want to go into. My point is, if they want to be doctors or lawyers, that's where I want them to go and be successful, or if they want to be boat captains, I want them to be the best boat captains.

EW: How do you go about addressing those challenges?

Salm: We work a lot on their feelings toward themselves. The Save the Child, Save the Teen program that we just went through promotes the fact that it is not their fault that sometimes their family has [experienced] substance abuse or some [other] type of abuse. A lot of times we've seen the students take it upon themselves, that if they had been better students or not done whatever they had done, there would not be a problem in the home. The one thing I've seen since I've been here is that a lot of these students have tasted success.

EW: Are there any support programs in the school for children who might have substance- abuse problems at home?

Salm: We have three counselors who are available at various times. We have after-school programs that target just the students; they give outlets for students. Our summer programs are designed to give students a little bit better grasp of life. We have a summer leadership program. We're a program-rich school, but we're not a school driven by programs. I know sometimes the worst schools have the most programs, but our programs do what they are designed for.

EW:What would you say is one of the biggest misperceptions about reservation schools?

Salm: That we water down our curriculum. That we pass them just because. That we don't really care if they learn as long as they get old enough to get out of here. It's not one misperception. My whole point of being here is that I don't believe it.

EW: How do you and your staff structure the school and curriculum to help your students succeed?

Salm: We let them know when they are successful. One of the things that we found out [about] our students [is] that if they understand what you want them to make, they can go make it.

EW: What would you like people in other parts of the country to know about Beatrice Rafferty School?

Salm: I'd like them to know that we do care about our students. I'd like them to know that it is not just a job that we do here.

EW: What strategies do you use to help children learn?

Salm: We care. We probably have one of the best-trained staffs that you'll find anywhere. We have the ability to get our staff to training that a lot of schools only get advertisements on because a lot of our training is out of the state.

EW: Is that because you are a reservation school?

Salm: I think it's partially because of that, and I think it's partially because of the commitment that the board and the superintendent have made. Our board is extremely generous with our ability to travel. Our board -- I hate to use the word requires -- but it has strongly suggested that we get involved in travel.

EW: What do you see as the role of teaching the students about the Passamoquoddy culture in the curriculum?

Salm: I think it's fantastic that we have Passamaquoddy instructors on staff to lead in that. We also have assistance from various groups on the reservation; we have elders who donate their time to come in. One of our members comes in and teaches herbs and medicine, why [herbs] will work and what [herbs] are there to heal and where they are found. He'll go out and he'll show the kids [herbs]. Interesting. And that's the way the natives pass down their culture. They don't go read about it in books; they tell it.

EW: How do you see the school addressing the issue of standardized tests?

Salm: The school is addressing this issue by being mindful of where we are not as good as we could be. Next year, we're going to be on a schedule that will give us ample time in language skills and in math to make sure we're teaching what we need to be doing and having the students on track for where they need to be. Through teacher input, we've identified those students who may need some remediation; with our small population, we can do that. We have a real nice class size; teachers can really zero in on what students need. We have teachers available after school for academic assistance, and that is available as often as a student needs it. We also have some time during the day for a study hall or an advisory program.

EW: What about the possible tie-in of state and/or federal funding to test scores?

Salm: Tie-in? I think it's coming. I think it's a matter of time before we see that coming in from a national level. Do I like it? Nope. Am I going to get to live with it? Yup. Do I have a choice? [laughs] Not at all. The one thing that bothers me up here, in our small classes, if you have 12 kids in a class, and they take the test, and one of them tanks it, well, guess what? You lost 8 percent of it right quick.

We have to be real careful and cautious about reading the results, and I think we need to know the kids.

EW: How many of the staff are Native American?

Salm: We have one Passamaquoddy teacher; we have counselors, two who are cultural instructors, three or four who are educational technicians. Then we have other staff who are Passamaquoddy; [who work in] food service, janitorial [areas.]

EW: Are there any plans or programs in place to recruit more Native American teachers?

Salm: We would love it. I'm sure if there had been a native available for a principalship, I wouldn't be here. I would love to have a native staff. For one reason or another, though, we don't have it. A lot of our people are drawn out of this area to higher-paying jobs down south, like in Portland and Bath [Maine].

EW: How did you prepare to take this job?

Salm: Prayed a lot. I think it was mostly attitude ... I was somewhat knowledgeable about the area from travel up here. I obviously did some research on the Passamaquoddys and on the area.

Notes from the Classroom

On a bright spring day, Beatrice Rafferty School Principal Donald W. Salm starts the morning with a queue outside his office: teachers with questions, students who committed infractions during breakfast or the previous afternoon. Two middle-school boys are escorted in. A little girl wearing pink overalls and a feathered barrette waits her turn; her eyes are moist, face sullen, arms crossed in front of her. Salm needs about 30 minutes to clear the line.

A former high school administrator, Salm says he still is getting used to disciplining the younger students. "They're so little."

While walking through the halls, though, children seek out Salm and other adults to greet and hug them. "They seem to need it," a teacher says of the children's quest for affection.

In the classrooms, most children are engaged but distracted by visitors; some glance behind to see if a reporter still is there, smile, or wave. The first graders in teacher Shirley Mitchell's class are listing long i words and decoding compound words. The bulletin boards are packed with basic knowledge: the alphabet, numbers, colors, vowels, calendars, weather charts, and clocks. Also prominently displayed is a list of Passamaquoddy values: honesty, respect, unity, spirituality, communication, love, wellness, pride, commitment, humor, and dependability.

Mitchell, who is Passamaquoddy, has taught here 19 years; she grew up on the reservation and knows most of the families. "I would recommend this to anyone who wants to teach in a Native American school. [We have] a good administration, very congenial staff, and low teacher turnover."

Two eighth graders, Briggette, 14, and Tiffany, 13, say their teachers are helpful and generous with their time. The girls particularly like the extracurricular activities, such as a civil rights group and a leadership group in which they learn about living outdoors. "We picked sweet grass to use in basket-making," Briggette says, "and visited Passamaquoddy lands."

Modern influences, though, trouble the reservation. Students mention knowing other students who abuse alcohol and drugs. "It's a big problem with Native Americans," one student offers. "Kids do it to look cool."

Although both Briggette and Tiffany plan to go to college, Tiffany notes that a number of teens on the reservation have vague aspirations of fame but no firm plans of how to achieve it. "A lot of people here have dreams about being actors or singers -- they want to be known for something big. There is not much to do around here."

Still, the kids enjoy what the their school and community have to offer. "I think it's pretty good for a little school," Tiffany says. "We have a lot of different things."

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World

11/02/1998



 

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