What can W.S. Harlan teach Alabama?

Published 11:31 pm Monday, September 22, 2008

W. S. Harlan Elementary School principal Brent Zessin said there’s no secret to his school’s success.

“There is no magic pill or potion,” he said. “We just teach.”

But researchers hope they can find something magical at WSH that can be duplicated across the state. Recently, WSH was one of 10 high-performing rural public schools at similar socio-economic levels statewide selected to participate in a study to determine why their students are achieving at a higher levels than some of their peers.

WSH joins schools in Choctaw, Cleburne, Escambia, Franklin, Jackson, Mobile, Monroe, Wilcox and Perry counties in the study.

The study will be performed by The Center for Rural Alabama, who proposes to do a thorough evaluation of each of the schools and communities to determine similarities in the education process of schools in lagging economic areas.

Visits will be made to schools and communities to interview principals, teachers, students and community members. Special attention will be given to the leadership of the principal, academic expectations, instruction methods, teacher training opportunities and parent and community involvement.

There are three objectives to the study: one, to increase the awareness that rural students and rural schools can perform at a high level and encourage greater community involvement; secondly, to determine if the characteristics of high-performing teachers and administrators; and thirdly, to determine the programs and incentives that schools have in place to motivate students to learn and do their best.

Zessin said evaluators will use data based on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) system of characteristics to determine if there are common characteristics among successful teachers and administrators.

Zessin said when officials notified him of his school’s selection he told them that his school doesn’t do anything “special” to warrant the distinction.

“We just teach,” he said. “It’s our philosophy to try and create a learning environment made up of loving relationships.

“We don’t mind giving hugs and high ‘5’s for a job well done,” he said. “On the flip side, we are consistent in discipline. When you add those two together…it makes for a great place for children to learn and grow.”

WSH was one of the top scoring schools in the county when students were tested for Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).

“All we do here is follow the course of study,” he said. “We’re lucky in that our school has a lot of parental support. We’ve got great extracurricular activities. God has really blessed our school.”

Zessin said if he had to pinpoint one particular advantage WSH has over other schools not only in the county but also in the state, it is its teachers.

“If you look around in our classrooms, the majority of our teachers sat in one of those desks as a student,” he said. “They’re homegrown. Me, this is my school. I went to school here.

“The majority of our parents, they went to school here, just like their parents did,” he said. “What that means is that we are a community that believes in the education process at W.S. Harlan Elementary School.”