Understanding the School Community: A Principal Shares His Approach to Student Success

For award-winning principal Nathaniel Provencio, relationships — among students, families, staff, and community members — are the key to creating a school in which kids succeed. Learn more about how he lives that mantra each day.

Nathaniel Provencio is the principal of Minnieville Elementary School in Prince William County, VA, a suburb of Washington, DC. In 2017, he was named Principal of the Year for his district and also The Washington Post Principal of the Year. In this interview, Nathaniel talks about his diverse school population, the importance of building relationships among students, families, and staff, and his approach to supporting immigrant families during uncertain times. You can see more from Nathaniel and his school in the following:

School Overview

Can you tell us a little bit about your school, district, and ELL / immigrant population?

Minnieville is a diverse Title 1 school located 30 minutes outside of Washington D.C. in Prince William County, VA.  Over 60% of the student population is ELL with a significant percentage of immigrant families.  The ELL students represent a wide array of cultures and ethnicities, with the majority coming from Central America, West Africa and the Middle East.  The economic and cultural student diversity at Minnieville is seen as an opportunity and not an obstacle.  Minnieville is a nationally recognized Professional Learning Community, a Virginia distinguished Title 1 School and a Prince William County School of Excellence. Our school is ranked as one of the top schools in Northern Virginia, which is a huge honor considering our Title 1 designation.  Last year, I had the great honor of being named both the Prince William County and Washington Post principal of the year.    

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What kinds of experiences have your families been through before arriving in this country?

The immigrant families Minnieville serves have sacrificed much to create a life for their children that is secure, safe and filled with opportunity.  Many immigrant families have made the difficult choice to leave their homelands in search of economic opportunities.  Some, however, have left their homelands to escape crime and violence, such as our Middle Eastern immigrants who have fled their native homelands to escape significant political instability. 

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Walk us through what happens when a new ELL or immigrant student enrolls in your school.

When an ELL/immigrant family enrolls in our school, we want to make sure they have everything they need to enroll in an efficient manner.  We make sure our forms are available in multiple languages, mainly (English, Spanish, Urdu, Twi, and French).  For low-incidence languages, we utilize division (district) based translation programs to assist.  We have multiple staff members that speak a variety of languages that are always on call to support when needed as well.  Often, we have parent volunteers that assist our students and families.  Most of our registration for ELLs is done at a central site; however, it is important that we begin developing rapport and relationships with each of our families as soon as possible and provide them with the best possible customer service. 

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Professional Development and Instruction

What kind of training and PD have you done to build staff capacity, particularly in the front office, for getting families off to a good start with the school?

As a school, it is essential for us to have a real understanding of our school community and the types of backgrounds and experiences our students and families have.  Often times, our staff have not come from the same backgrounds as our students, so it is important that we build empathetic understanding of the challenges many of our students go through.  One way we do this is through an annual event we call the “Amazing Race.” Our administrative team creates challenges for our grade-level teams to complete: various tasks and challenges around the school and in the community so that our educators get out into students’ neighborhoods. Once a task is completed, the teams are rewarded with a package.  Each package contains school supplies, gift cards and materials a student may need to start off the year successfully.  Once the challenges are completed and the packages are gathered, the final destination is a student’s home.  The family, who has been notified beforehand, welcomes the team into their home to share their story with the team without knowing that a surprise is in store.  The team then donates their packages to the family.  These types of activities brings our staff closer to our students and families and help foster a powerful relationship before the school year even starts. 

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Tell us about the collaborative push-in model you use for literacy instruction, and the impact it has had for students.

We believe that our school owes our students the best possible educational experiences while in the classroom setting with their peers.  Where some schools have a default intervention mindset, we believe our staff and students should invest our efforts on solid Tier 1 instruction.  We have designed a collaborative planning and instruction model that utilizes small group instruction in reading that is carried out by multiple staff members.  ESOL specialists, Reading specialists and Teacher Assistants work side by side with the classroom teacher to ensure each student is receiving quality literacy instruction.     

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How would you describe your approach to gifted and talented education?

We work very hard to cultivate a belief that all of our students have gifts and talents and that our job is to seek them out.  The concept of giftedness is relative.  What may mean gifted in one culture could mean something different in another.  Our division has provided exceptional professional learning to our staff that has provided us the tools needed to foster and support our students’ talents. 

What is an asset map?

All schools and communities have resources surrounding them that can be utilized to support the school.  Resources can be in the form of community businesses, outreach organizations, churches, parents, etc.  A priority for our school is to collaboratively build networks and partnerships with these organizations to enhance both our school and the overall community.  An asset map is a tool our team uses to map out where our best community resources are available and locations of opportunity for support.  Through our asset mapping efforts, our schools have procured thousands of dollars in donations which has provided needed technology materials for staff and students.  Organizations have offered tutors and teacher volunteers to support our classrooms.  We have even strengthened our partnerships with our local police department as well and have created student mentorship opportunities through those relationships.

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Would you describe the “stopwatch” PD experience you had?

For me, the most impactful staff development and professional learning takes place within a school building with real students, teachers and parents.  We noticed a lack of engagement with several subgroups including our EL population.  Too many students were being pulled out of the classroom for services which caused academic and behavior issues.  I spent several days shadowing individual students around the school.  Each time the student was engaged in a relevant and engaging instruction, I started the timer.  Unfortunately, we found that our neediest students were receiving the least amount of quality instruction.  If I hadn’t spent time with these learners, I may not have realized the area for concern.   

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What is your advice to administrators regarding the stresses and pressures of testing?

Principals should strive to be CCOs (Chief Celebration Officers).  Our job is to collaboratively set goals and benchmarks for student achievement, provide resources and support for our staff to achieve those goals, and celebrate and recognize our teachers and teams when they accomplish those goals.  Too often schools wait for end of the year summative results to discuss data, which is too late!  My job as a principal is to recognize, encourage and celebrate the small wins our staff accomplishes each and every day.

What type of development do administrators receive for ESOL programs, from monitoring and supporting students and ESOL teachers?

In recent years, organizations such as WIDA has been vital in providing our school and division with the resources needed to recognize and instruct our English language learners.  The diverse needs of our families are constantly evolving and schools can often times be in a constant catch up mode with processing the necessary resources, materials and research to ensure each family and student has everything they need to be successful.  Resources like Colorin Colorado have helped bridge that gap. 

Supporting immigrant families

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What kinds of impacts have you seen on your families in terms of recent immigration policy?

The uncertainty and increase of recent topics on immigration have had an impact on our immigrant families.  Throughout the year, our school has seen an increase in students impacted by the deportation of family members.  The sudden departure of a parent causes significant emotional stress and insecurity on the student and their family which has a direct impact on instructional performance, attendance and behavior. 

What has been your approach in communicating and showing support for your immigrant and refugee families?

The Prince William County school division has provided tremendous support and guidance for schools in addressing immigration questions and concerns. School counselors, social workers and support personnel are trained and equipped with specific strategies specific to immigration concerns.  Various community outreach organizations such as V.O.I.C.E. (Virginians Organized for Intercommunity Community Engagement) have also been instrumental in assisting families in need of resources to assist with immigration questions and concerns. 

What are some ways that different groups of families’ needs vary?

Minnieville Elementary prides itself in working with each family to provide them and their child with resources and supports to meet their various needs.  One of the best ways to support families is to support the child.  Minnieville works closely with business organizations to provide subsidies for field trips, payment of lunch accounts and after school tutoring and enrichment experiences.  Parents are provided English language instruction and lessons on the American school system through the PEP (Parents as Educational Partners) program. 

How have you handled difficult conversations on this topic with young children?

One of the most difficult conversations we’ve had with students has been around the topic of immigration.  Students as young as 5 have approached me on this topic.  Questions such as, “I’m scared my dad is going to be sent away?” or “Are the police going to take me away?” have not been uncommon.  When these conversations come up, our staff makes sure children know that they are safe at our school.  We provide counseling resources and community outreach resources to our families on this topic.

What do you mean when you say that if you have good relationships with families, the technical details take care of themselves?

It is often said that no significant learning takes place without a significant relationship.  The staff at Minnieville takes great joy in working with each family to build a substantial relationship.  The staff at Minnieville saw a need to develop a Community Engagement team to research effective family engagement activities, plan and carry out strategies to increase parent volunteer hours and work with local community agencies to build business partnerships that support our diverse families.  As the school saw an increase in parent engagement, student achievement began to steadily rise.  Our school’s academic success is directly related to our parent engagement efforts.

Who are some staff members who have played a key role in supporting your families this year?

Our school has a dedicated team of teachers that work as our Community Involvement Committee.  This team sets goals for our school involving parent and community engagement and conducts action research in attempting to meet those goals.  Our Community Involvement team has been responsible for growing our volunteer hours from 400 to 4,500 in four years and creating meaningful business partnerships for our school.  In collaboration with our school PTO and Parent Advisory Council, our team has created on going celebration events that work to raise money for our PTO and bring our families together in celebration and recognition of learning!  

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