Transcending Poverty Through Early Education

    Principal Helps Remove Barriers for Families In Need

    Joseph Alexander, Principal
    West Avenue Elementary School
    Waco ISD, Waco, Texas
    Raise Your Hand Texas Alumnus, ’14 (Harvard – Improving Schools: The Art of Leadership)

    High school is to elementary school what night is to day. Just ask West Avenue Elementary school principal Joseph Alexander.

    “I’d always been in secondary education,” he said. “When I had the opportunity to come to elementary last year – my first year at the helm here as principal – I really was drinking from the fire hydrant. Everything was so new.”

    In high school, Alexander could really get into the minds of his students. There were advanced ways to communicate with them. In the course of a school day, Alexander could predict much of what would happen.

    It’s completely different with the younger set.

    “In elementary school, they’re so warm, nurturing and caring,” Alexander said. “It took me a minute to get used to that, and to realize that these are children. You have great influence and the power to shape their community to make a difference.”

    Making a difference is a high priority for Alexander. Especially since nearly 100 percent of his student body is poor.

    “We’re 98 percent economically disadvantaged,” he said. “More than 85 percent of our population is at risk. We have the numbers. We have the barriers. But, to me, those are just excuses.”

    A surefire way to transcend those barriers, Alexander said, is by getting children enrolled into school early. West Avenue Elementary has a bilingual Pre-K program that teaches students as young as 4 years old. In many cases, Alexander said, “parents are educating themselves along with their child.”

    “We’re 98 percent economically disadvantaged. More than 85 percent of our population is at risk. I know you can educate kids regardless of where they come from, and add value to their lives. It’s very critical to start when they’re young.”

    “For me, it’s not about where they live. It’s about how they live.”

    Taking note of the obstacles for students and faculty at West Avenue Elementary, Raise Your Hand Texas recently selected and sponsored Alexander for participation in the Improving Schools: The Art of Leadership institute for principals at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. One aim of the institute is to explore multiple approaches for addressing leadership challenges like those Alexander faces. One clear message Alexander returned home with is that quality education has the power to lift entire families out of poverty. In a school where the vast majority of the students are underprivileged, Alexander’s work may be cut out for him. But, he said, the possibilities are endless.

    “The earlier we get started in getting parents to teach kids letters, sounds, how to write their name, how to spell, encouraging them, and making a big deal about reading, the more they can pick up on their own and start to understand,” he said. “The sky is the limit.”

    “It was an opportunity for me to grow and to learn from other esteemed principals; an opportunity to network, to communicate, to collaborate, to be transformational, and really learn from others what they’re doing in their schools and their communities for their parents and kids.”