This is the last in a series exploring how a school starts from scratch.
On a Friday morning, the mostly white, female and middle-class teachers gathered inside their new school for an unusual training session. The agenda: learning to teach children who live in poverty.
The session began with a teacher's inquiry: Why aren't teachers told who is in the free and reduced-price lunch program?
"It's a confidentiality thing," Glenkirk Elementary School Assistant Principal Bridget Outlaw said.
The 30 or so teachers could have spent the day arranging books or preparing lesson plans. Instead, Glenkirk Principal Lisa Gilkerson and her assistant led them through a frank discussion about a matter that teachers typically talk about privately. They discussed the most effective ways to teach students from low-income families, and how their behavior differs from that of students from middle- or upper-class households.
At a school such as Glenkirk Elementary in Gainesville, one of two opening this year in Prince William County, summer means lots of heavy lifting, ensuring that the computers work, books are shelved and the surrounding roads leading to the subdivisions under construction are cleared of dirt.
Sometimes the most crucial preparation is one long discussion among teachers in which the topic isn't about boosting standardized test scores or creating lesson plans. An all-day seminar on teaching children in poverty might seem unnecessary at Glenkirk, where only about 3 percent of the 850 students will need free or reduced-price lunches, a commonly used indicator of poverty. Several other elementary schools in Prince William have much higher proportions of low-income children.
But, this summer, all Prince William schools are undergoing the training, devised by Ruby K. Payne, a Texas-based education consultant. School officials said the lessons are crucial, especially because the federal No Child Left Behind Act is forcing schools to close the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students and white students and minority students.
In their session at Glenkirk, the teachers touched on several topics, including how a low-income family background directly affects students' schooling, strategies for talking to their parents, and a poor student's expectations for success compared with a wealthier student's.
For the teachers at the new school, the session was a bonding experience, as they swapped stories about students from their previous schools who had had difficult lives and whether they were able to make those children as successful as their less impoverished counterparts.
"We will have some pockets of poverty," said Gilkerson, whose school is nestled in a new subdivision off Route 29. "But the majority of our staff is middle class, and they need to know how to deal with all the students."
In one of their first exercises, the teachers had to figure out how they would spend a monthly budget of $1,100 with four children. Food for four people for a week? One teacher suggested a four-pack of ramen noodles. Another said living with grandparents might ease the burden. Some pressed their hands on their foreheads and wondered aloud how children could learn in such an environment.
"You cannot make snap judgments about kids in poverty," Gilkerson said. "They may not have the financial resources, but they have the emotional and mental resources."
Often, the teachers found it difficult to understand the decisions made by families whose backgrounds are much different from theirs. In one exercise, they were told a fictional story about Noemi, a 27-year-old mother who does not speak English, and Maria, her 10-year-old daughter. Maria's father works construction jobs, and the family lives on $400 a week, plus food stamps.
The story was quite detailed and quickly laid out how family traditions and poverty can affect a child's education -- and can unfairly put the student behind his peers.
"Maria comes home and says she has to do a salt map. [The mother has] just spent all the money for the week on food -- and she needs five pounds of flour, two pounds of salt and a piece of board to put it on. She also needs to get information from an encyclopedia, whatever that is. . . . It has rained for two weeks, and [the father] hasn't had any work or pay."
When Maria is asked to stay after school to compete in an academic contest, her mother says no. She expects Maria "to get married and have children," just as she has.
"We question whether her mother is a good role model," said first-grade teacher Jennifer Burke, 34. "It's a question of whether Maria's being pushed into the direction she wants to go."
Later, the teachers considered a family whose parents have remarried many times and how that scenario affects a parent's allegiance to one child vs. another.
"How does that play into parent conferences? Can you confer with the mom's boyfriend?" one teacher asked.
Gilkerson told them they should check with her first, but that typically teachers can speak to whoever is acting as the parent -- living at the home with the child.
Outlaw, the assistant principal, told them to be judicious with praise, noting that children in poverty and in working-class families receive two criticisms for every positive comment and those of wealthier parents get about five compliments for every negative remark.
Later, Gilkerson asked the teachers about how wealthier parents engage teachers. Everyone seemed to know, as the teachers began smiling and shaking their heads. Those parents want information now, Gilkerson said, the rules don't apply to them.
"When I got back yesterday into the office, I had six notes from parents who wanted their children moved from the a.m. classes to the p.m. classes," she said. "So, I will share with them the procedure [for changing classes], and once that's in place, keep an open line of communication."
Then it was time for lunch. In addition to all her other duties as a new principal, Gilkerson had cooked her entire staff a meal of chicken salad, gazpacho and vichyssoise.