When Laverne Nimmons, Ed.D., (GSE ’09) arrived at Public School 335 as principal six years ago, she faced what some might call an insurmountable challenge.
The Brooklyn elementary school, which serves the predominantly African-American Crown Heights and Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhoods, had just gone through four principals in four years and numbered among the district’s most underachieving schools.
“We were at a 30 percent passing rate in state math tests and 26 percent in English language arts,” Nimmons recalled. “I knew it was going to be tough, but I was up for it.”
Today, P.S. 335 boasts a 97 percent passing rate in mathematics and 87 percent in English. It leads a pack of schools, including one previously slated to close, that have posted consistently better scores on the state fourth grade math exam since 2006.
Nimmons credits the research she conducted at Fordham with much of the success.
“I didn’t realize until the [state test]scores came in just how much of my research was going into my actual work,” she said.
In her doctoral dissertation, Nimmons examined how some underachieving schools in poor Brooklyn neighborhoods transformed themselves into high-performing institutions, reaching a passing rate of 70 percent or greater on state tests.
She found a common link: transformational leaders—those who take a visionary position and inspire others to follow them.
“Teachers and staff felt like [the leader]cared about them, collaborated with them and allowed them to make decisions,” Nimmons said. “The leader had high expectations of them and the work that they could do. It was a good feeling among everyone—children, parents, teachers, the community—and because of this, the scores went up.”
While observing and conducting research at these high-performing schools, Nimmons became a transformational leader herself.
“It was all based on love, kindness, consideration and respect,” said Nimmons, who made it a point to tell her students, 90 percent of whom qualify for a free lunch, that they were “the best children in the world.”
“I treat my teachers like the professionals that they are,” she explained. “I give them a lot of professional development because, although I am the instructional leader for the school, I am not the one in front of the children.”
At P.S. 335, six staff members are charged with supporting teachers.
“Most of their day is dedicated to doing lesson modeling, working alongside teachers and meeting with them to help them plan,” Nimmons said.
An after-school and Saturday program run in conjunction with OASIS, a local community organization, also makes a difference for students. This summer, about 200 students from P.S. 335 will attend an all-day summer school, courtesy of Nimmons’ 2009-2010 budget and funding and services provided by OASIS.
“Our children live in an impoverished community that has all of the negative experiences that go along with poverty,” she said. “The only things they have available to them are what we offer. We give them intensive work, but also art, drama, music and sports, so they get a well-rounded experience.”
Nimmons also involves parents, some of whom have experienced homelessness and must stay in shelters with their children.
“My main concern is making certain that they send their children to school prepared,” she said. “I want them to make sure that when their child gets home, they are ready for them and send them to school the next day prepared—that they’ve gotten their rest, have eaten well, are wearing clean clothes and their hair is done.
“These may be pretty simple goals for a community that is middle or upper-middle class,” she said. “But to an impoverished community, coming to school with clean clothes is no easy feat.”
Nimmons admits that the turnaround for P.S. 335 did not come overnight. Each year saw improvements, as she and her staff worked diligently to get the children excited about taking state tests, even going so far as holding pep rallies.
After the state announced this year’s test scores, her school rewarded the students with a special field day and luau-themed party.
I have the best children in the world, the best teachers in the world and the best parents in the world—and I let them know it, too, Nimmons said. It keeps them joyful and involved. I have children whose parents walk the streets at night because they are homeless. If we could have a luau, especially after we do something as wonderful as this, then it’s just fabulous.