Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

At the top of her class

North End school principal named one of Canada's best, for a good reason

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Sharon Pekrul is watching her students dance in a room where natural light spills through a bay window and the kids are twirling and giggling to classical music.

Just another day at Isaac Newton Junior High.

"It's my dream," said Pekrul, the school principal, when asked about the scene. "Just look at those guys."

The boys and girls are members of teacher Peter Vanderhout's dance class -- from ballet to tap to hip hop. Down the hall, another three students are in the music room, where the school's original vocal jazz class, tutored by Angela Wasyluk, is practising. Two of them are also members of school bands -- which never even existed five years ago.

Without the performing-arts programs?

"It wouldn't be as special," said student Sarah Kohinski. Her friend, Queenie Ramos, threw an arm around Kohinski and added, "That's how we know each other."

Pekrul's dream is smiling. On Tuesday, she was one of three Manitoba educators named Canada's Outstanding Principals by the Learning Partnership, along with Neil Moffatt of Heritage School in St. James and Tom Gallant of West Lynn Heights in Lynn Lake.

The Manitoba principals were among the 51 educators selected by the national organization, which will be holding an awards gala in Toronto on Feb. 26.

Pekrul arrived at Isaac Newton seven years ago. After two years, she came to the realization the school was failing.

So if this is a school named after Newton, what was the apple that fell on Pekrul's head?

"It was data," she replied. "The apple for me was seeing report cards and seeing not enough students were passing and completing assignments."

Five years ago, teachers Stephani Bourbonnais and Kelly DeKlerck attended a workshop and returned with the inspiration for creating a Professional Learning Community at Isaac Newton. It's another way of saying the staff began to stress learning over teaching. What did it matter what or how you taught, said Bourbonnais, if the kids never finished their assignments?

"A lot of people come back from conferences with good intentions," Bourbonnais said. "We didn't just have good intentions. We did it. All the teachers jumped on the bandwagon. It was amazing."

The apple that first alerted Pekrul to a problem, the data, is now the apple of her eye. Five years ago, only 27 per cent of Isaac Newton students had grades of 70 per cent or higher. Now it's 57 per cent.

In 2007, 22 per cent of students in the inner-city school were failing. That number has fallen to 10 per cent. Suspension rates dropped from more than 10 per cent to 3.5 per cent last year.

The number of students with marks of 80 per cent or higher has risen from 14 per cent to 36 per cent. "That says a lot about what our students are doing and what our teachers are teaching," Pekrul said.

In an era of stagnant growth in the North End region, the population of Isaac Newton continues to rise, now up to about 350 students (from about 310 five years ago).

"More kids have stopped instead of walking by," she noted. "They've stayed."

Some of the reasons? Along with strong sports programs -- dating back to when future Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy was in short pants -- the school introduced a band program in 2007. They started with 12 kids.

Today, Isaac Newton boasts bands in every grade, 7 through 9, along with a Grade 9 jazz band, a guitar class -- "that's just awesome to hear," Pekrul said -- and a school choir.

Teacher Amanda Opalko, who grew up in the neighbourhood, arrived at the school as a student teacher. And stayed. These days, the social studies teacher oversees a social justice club that meets weekly, and is currently planning a fundraiser for fellow students in Swaziland.

"The things that are different today... I'd need more than two hands (to count)," she said, sitting in the school's colourful, quiet library. "It's a completely different world in this building. A lot of my friends assume there's major issues and problems because of where it (the school) is located. They're shocked."

Not Pekrul. Apparently, the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree. "If you engage teachers in learning, that becomes contagious for kids," the principal said. "If the teachers are learning, the kids are learning. It's created an energy in the building. They (the teachers) are accountable to each other and supportive of each other."

-- ABOUT THE AWARD: Principals are nominated by their peers, school staff and community members in every province and territory. Nominations are reviewed and final winners selected on a representation-by-population basis by a national selection committee made up of a group of distinguished Canadian education, community and private-sector leaders. Candidates are chosen using the following criteria: characteristics of outstanding principals; evidence of partnerships with parents and community; a personal story illustrating successful change and innovation that resulted in improved student achievement; and letters of support.

"Behind every great school is a great principal who is not only an outstanding educator but an excellent manager and leader," said Akela Peoples, president and CEO of the Learning Partnership. "These school CEOs communicate compelling visions, engage their communities, mentor their staff and, most importantly, create safe and nurturing learning environments for students... "


-- ABOUT THE ORGANIZATION: The Learning Partnership is a national charitable organization dedicated to championing a strong public education system in Canada through innovative programs, credible research, policy initiatives, leadership training and public engagement. Since 1993, more than 4.9 million students and teachers have participated in one or more of the Learning Partnership's programs.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 7, 2013 B1

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