Vicki Graf, principal of H.O. Wheeler Elementary School, knows that a child's future is an open book. And if any of her students hasn't opened a book yet, Graf herself will find one and read it aloud.
Seven years ago, Graf walked into the red brick schoolhouse on Archibald Street in Burlington's Old North End and found a staff of committed but frustrated teachers who were struggling to educate their students. Test scores were abysmal and discipline was a full-time concern. "Behavior was getting in the way of learning," recalls Graf, a native Vermonter who at the time had just finished 10 years as a teaching principal in a small, rural elementary school in Huntington. "It's easier for children to act out than not do well. If you act out, then people don't know what you don't know. Kids will be famous for something."
These days, Wheeler students are famous for something, but not their behavioral problems. In only a few years, Graf and her team have not only gotten their students' discipline issues under control -- Graf brought in a behavioral specialist to do that -- but they have raised reading and writing scores to dizzying heights. From 2001 to 2002, the number of second-graders who met or exceeded Vermont's reading standards jumped from 44 percent to 65 percent; in 2003 those scores were up to nearly 80 percent. Last year, Wheeler's fifth-graders were reading at a higher level than the national average.
But Graf's accomplishments at Wheeler also go beyond what can be measured by standardized test scores. In many respects, she and her staff have created a rock of stability in a neighborhood where the lives of many children and their families are tumultuous. And they've done it despite difficult odds -- high rates of poverty, a transient student population, state budget cuts in education and even a recent effort to close Wheeler down and consolidate its students into other schools.
How did Graf do it? "My philosophy is that our job is to take down any of those roadblocks in the way of children learning," Graf says. "Yes, you have a staff and you need to support them, but you really need to think about what's best for the children first. And that moves to their families. What do our families need to feel like they have a partnership with us?"
Creating that partnership has been no easy task. As one of only two elementary schools in Vermont that qualifies as an "inner-city" school -- nearby Barnes is the other one -- Wheeler doesn't look like other elementary schools in the state. The number of students from low-income families is so high that the state of Vermont has determined that every child in the school qualifies for a free or reduced lunch.
Then there are the huge language barriers to overcome. For one in five Wheeler students, English is not the first -- or even second -- language. The primary languages spoken are Vietnamese, Tibetan, Bosnian and African French. Tracing these children's paths to Vermont is like a lesson in 20th-century geopolitics. There are Vietnamese children whose families fled the miseries of the Vietnam War and its aftermath. There are Tibetan students whose families lived in India before immigrating to the United States. There are Bosnian students whose families were refugees from war in the Balkans who fled to Germany, Russia or the Netherlands.
Even many Wheeler students who were born in the United States face challenges. A significant percentage have parents who are in the correctional system or otherwise absent from the home. And the transient nature of the Old North End is such that by the time the average Wheeler kindergartener reaches the fifth grade, only about half of his or her original classmates will still be there.
While many teachers, administrators and other professionals have had a hand in meeting these challenges, no one doubts that the crucial factor was Graf's leadership. "There's no question that the orchestra leader has been Vicki," says Lyman Amsden, superintendent of Burlington Schools. "She's such a trooper. She loves those kids, and thank God there are people like her."
The first step toward that success, Graf explains, was establishing stability among her teaching staff. As she points out, it can take seven to 10 years before a change in a school's teaching philosophy shows results. That's hard to accomplish when teachers don't know whether they'll even be around the following year.
Third-grade teacher Meghan Phillips has been at Wheeler for five years. "When I was hired on, there was a lot of turnover. Now, for the most part, we've been able to keep a fairly consistent staff," Phillips says. "We know our students from year to year, we know our staff from year to year... Vicki's been key in changing our entire school atmosphere."
Graf also brought another kind of stability to the classroom. Phillips recalls that when she first started at Wheeler, teachers were often "on their own" when it came to creating their class curriculum. But the reading and writing workshops Graf implemented provided some stability and uniformity that wasn't there before. "The kids come into my class and they already know how things are done because they did it in the second grade," Phillips explains. "That's great, especially in our population of students, where there is a lot that's unsure in their lives. To have school be something consistent and steady is really nice for them."
Graf also realized that children can't learn if they're absent from school due to physical or psychological problems. Since many parents in the area don't have transportation or can't afford to take time off from work, Graf set up a school-based health center where students can access health care two mornings a week. She also brought in a mental-health counselor to help students cope with problems like depression, the loss of a parent from the home or serious childhood trauma.
When it came to finding better ways of instructing a multi-ethnic, multiracial student population, Graf couldn't look to other Vermont schools for guidance, so she went elsewhere. She visited several schools on the edge of Chinatown in New York City that were successfully reaching their kids. "It was really all about good instruction," Graf says. "When kids feel successful, they can do it and they're glad to be there."
What made the difference there, Graf noticed, was the emphasis on reading. She discovered that children in those schools were reading books that were meaningful to them and matched the experiences of their own lives. "They were treated as though they were the best and the brightest. If you walked around those buildings, literature was at the forefront," Graf explains. "Beautiful materials, beautiful places to sit and read, beautiful places to do math."
So Graf set out to replicate that environment at Wheeler. She launched an intensive literacy training program for her staff that includes a weeklong institute every summer with staff developers from Columbia University. She tapped into federal funds to create outstanding libraries in every classroom that include hundreds of fiction and non-fiction books, easy readers and multicultural materials. She brought in a literacy specialist based at the University of Vermont and, for one hour every day, Wheeler students read a book at their instructional level. And she introduced the Read Aloud program, where teachers read to their students every day.
But Graf, a former first-grade teacher, wasn't content to leave all that work to others. Each year she chooses a theme she wants to communicate to her students through literature, such as "never give up," or the "wonders of poetry." Then she visits each classroom about once a month and reads aloud to the students. "My goal is to make some kind of contact with every child every day," she says.
That contact doesn't just take place in the classroom. Terry Buehner, president of the Burlington Education Association, recalls the time she went to speak to Graf about possible school closures. When Buehner arrived late that afternoon, she found Graf outside with her students on the playground.
"I would say that happened three or four times when I went over to Wheeler, that each time I saw her surrounded by kids," Buehner says. "That's the image I have of Vicki Graf, that the kids absolutely adore her. She is like Ms. Pied Piper.
"Vicki is an adult who is still in touch with the little kid inside herself," Buehner adds. "And she's an administrator who's still in touch with the teacher inside herself."
As a teacher, Graf firmly believes in the power of reading and writing to change a child's life. So it's no surprise she is acutely aware of the power of words -- especially how they're interpreted under the federal government's new "No Child Left Behind" initiative and its heavy emphasis on testing, data collection and accountability.
"Before 'No Child Left Behind,' we were a 'school in need of technical assistance.' That was true. The new term is that we are a 'failing school,'" Graf says. "We are not a failing school. That's semantics, but it's the nature of the switch that worries me."
Indeed, by any measure, Wheeler is not failing -- quite the opposite. While Wheeler students may lag behind other elementary schools in Vermont on some measures, no one doubts that the school is heading in the right direction.
Still, Graf has no illusions about how quickly change will come. "Work is never going to be easy here. It's never going to be like, all of a sudden these children are easy to teach," she says. "It's always going to be hard, hard work."