“Kids Are Care Detectors”–Dr. Kenneth Bowen, Southside-Ashpole Elementary School Director

I met Dr. Kenneth Bowen on November 8, 2019 at Southside-Ashpole Elementary School in Rowland. Bowen is the Director–as opposed to the normal term we hear of “Principal”–of the school, and just with that information alone, you know that something is different at Southside-Ashpole. If you were not aware, this school became the first school in the state to become a member of the North Carolina Innovative School District. Bowen brings an impressive mix of education, business, and leadership experience to the school, and he has quickly demonstrated his ability to integrate that experience into what appears to be a fresh start and bright future for students.

Believing is Seeing

You will perhaps recognize this phrase as scripture in the Bible or from the Christmas movie Polar Express. While Dr. Bowen didn’t use those words to describe his marketing strategy at Southside Ashpole, they seem to fit perfectly with what he is doing. But if you’re thinking of “marketing” in the traditional way that a business thinks of advertising its product to consumers, you are missing the target.

Before I elaborate on the marketing strategy, recall that Southside-Ashpole was a school that previously ranked near the bottom of any state-measured statistical performance category. And with those results, year-after-year, it’s not hard to imagine how a negative mindset can take hold. How do you get students, teachers, and the community to believe success is possible when what they have seen is far from it?

In my short visit with Dr. Bowen, it is clear that he has an adept ability to mesh his business and entrepreneurial skills into the school environment. He understood that his initial target audience (his “consumers”, if you will) for “marketing” his ideas for success is actually the students, teachers, staff, and parents–the people “inside” the school. He has to convince them that success is possible. Proof of this change is seen in a short conversation I had with Ms. Whittington, who works in the office. When I asked her what has changed at the school, without hesitation, she said, “we have an expectation that we will succeed”.

Ms. Whittington’s comment begs the question: Succeed at what? For Bowen, that is a simple question to answer. He has changed the focus from students being judged on passing a test at the end of a school year to focusing on growth. In fact, the school’s mission statement is now a simple statement that anyone can remember: “To Grow and Achieve Together”. Bowen told me that “we all speak the same language [at the school] and that revolves around the question of ‘How are we growing?'”.

When hiring teachers, Bowen said the first thing he looks for is heart. He commented to me that he can provide many forms of professional development for teachers. But he cannot provide professional development for “how to love kids”. He continued by saying that “Kids are Care Detectors. They know if you really care”.

Difference Makers

I have been to many meetings during my professional life. Instead of setting myself up for failure by trying to implement all of the tips and suggestions learned at these meetings, my goal is to bring back one or two ideas that I may be able to implement easily in my office.

As I write this, I wonder what one or two ideas an educator (a system superintendent; a school principal; a teacher) could take to his/her school and implement with success. Here are some of the things happening at Southside-Ashpole that are unique–“difference makers” in my opinion–and that are having a positive effect on the school’s growth goals.

  • Southside-Ashpole is a K-5 school. There are two teachers in every grade level, with an educational partner in both Kindergarten classes and one educational partner serving 1st Grade, and another serving 2nd Grade.
  • Students have PE every day. They have art and music instruction on alternating days. One of the ways that music education has immediately proven its worth at Southside-Ashpole is the creation of a school song. I was able to watch a video of 5th graders singing the song. It was incredible. It was easy to see the pride the students had in helping to create it, and then to perform it. The school song is part of Bowen’s “marketing” strategy to help students verbalize and reinforce a belief in their ability to grow.
  • All teachers are assigned to one of eight small teams that meet periodically and report back to the larger cohort of teachers with success and strategies. Everyone has a place to be involved on teams such as the Student Learning and Growth Team, the School Climate, Culture, and Events Team, and the Parent/Community Advisory Team.
  • Play Therapy: in partnership with UNCP, a classroom at Southside-Ashpole has been set aside to allow space for play therapy. An example would be a student who has experienced the death of a family member. This student would have scheduled time to talk and play through those emotions and challenges with a professional counselor. The room currently being used is set up with comfortable chairs, toys, and an area to color and draw. It’s not hard to imagine how this helps the student (and his/her family) at home and in the classroom.
  • Learning Commons: You and I would have known this space as the library. And while there are the normal library items (books, computers, couches, etc), the “librarian” isn’t what we traditionally think of. This person is not always in the library. Rather, this person is in classrooms, helping teachers integrate technology and other resources into their teaching.
  • Parent Center: soon, Southside-Ashpole will have a space for parents which will include a washing machine and dryer, along with computers and sitting area. I LOVE THIS IDEA! The ability to have a center devoted to parents, making it easier to take care of important tasks while being a vital part of their child’s education is extremely valuable. Kudos to Dr. Bowen for offering this space. Improved student attendance, parent involvement at the school, and improved morale are just a few benefits.

I recognize that Southside-Ashpole has somewhat of an advantage over a larger school system in that it becomes easier to implement changes in a small setting. Sort of like turning around a ski boat as opposed to a cruise ship….it’s just easier. At the same time, many of the improvements at the school have nothing to do with money or size. Rather, in this case, it starts with Dr. Bowen’s leadership (although it certainly doesn’t end there). He firmly believes people will rise to the expectations that are established. He communicates those expectations in simple and consistent ways (a focus on growth, for example) so that everyone from students to teachers to bus drivers can tell you what the goals actually are. He provides opportunities for stakeholders to take ownership of meeting expectations (sub-committees for teachers, students creating a song). He (and his staff) care about the students and their success.

What’s the Good News?

The changes implemented at Southside-Ashpole seem to evolve from a recognition that simply teaching core curriculum subjects often isn’t enough in a society where schools are expected to be all things to all people. Dr. Bowen recognizes that there are external factors influencing student achievement. He has quickly demonstrated the ability to integrate “outside the box” opportunities (such as the partnership with UNCP to provide play therapy, as well as providing a parent center) with a clear mission and set of expectations.

Without exception, everyone at Southside-Ashpole believes they can succeed. That belief started before anyone could see results. There’s no doubt there have been many changes at the school in the past few months, and based on my short time visiting with Dr. Bowen, it won’t be long before there is at least one more change: They will believe AND see the results of their hard work! I can’t think of anything more exciting for the students, teachers, staff, and parents to experience!

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