Growing up in rural Tennessee, Nathaniel Provencio was not fond of school and was, in his own words, “a terrible student.”
As a Hispanic boy in the rural South, “I never saw myself in any of my teachers,” Provencio said. He expected to follow his parents, garment-factory workers, into manual labor, and his upbringing was challenged by spells of poverty.
In high school, he joined a student club, called Future Teachers of America, not because he was interested in education but because the activities — including tutoring youngsters — got him out of math class occasionally. Then he discovered that he enjoyed it — and decided to become a teacher.
“I was like, ‘Well maybe I want to be the teacher I never had,’ ” he said.
Today, Provencio leads Minnieville Elementary School in Woodbridge, Va., and has been named Washington Post Principal of the Year for the metropolitan area.
Many of the students who dart through the hallways and swarm him with hugs when he wanders through the cafeteria share his background. Nearly half of the student body is Hispanic and a quarter is black, many of them immigrants or first-generation children of parents from West Africa or Central America. Nearly three-quarters come from impoverished households, meaning the school qualifies for federal Title I funds to help boost achievement.
Despite these challenges, Minnieville Elementary is among the best-performing elementary schools in Prince William County, with 87 percent of students passing state reading exams last year and nearly 90 percent passing state math exams. The school’s test scores have bested the countywide average, earning it several awards.
“Most schools that have our demographics are not as successful as we are,” Provencio said.
Provencio, now 39, arrived at the school in 2010 as a first-time principal. In his early years, test scores showed that the school was faltering. It was one of 485 across the state required to implement an improvement plan for failing to meet benchmarks in 2012. But in 2013, scores began rising.
Provencio said that teachers told him students were floundering because they lacked basic literacy skills — but no one was noticing before serious intervention was required. So he sent teachers to Bensley Elementary in Richmond, a Title I school known in education circles for its successful literacy program, and replicated it, with tweaks. The program sends extra teachers into classrooms to run reading groups, so each student gets a half-hour of intensive reading instruction, in groups no larger than six students, every school day.
“If students are able to get it the right way first, we decrease the need for interventions,” Provencio said.
The program seems to be paying off, and he points to this year’s kindergartners as proof. At the start of the year, only two of the 100 youngsters had been to preschool and few had grade-level literacy skills. Now, about 90 percent are reading at or above grade level.
Assistant Principal Deborah Ellis said the school knows that students start far behind the curve when they walk through schoolhouse doors, with many speaking little English. Ellis said that the staff treats literacy with a sense of urgency — rather than waiting to see if kids catch on.
“It’s like an emergency-room situation and all resources are poured in,” Ellis said.
Teachers often work in teams, planning lessons together and brainstorming how to help children who are falling behind. Second-grade teacher Fatima Mohammed, in her third year of teaching, said the school’s warm environment makes the work less daunting.
“You get a lot of support in the classroom,” Mohammed said. “It’s not as hard because it does feel like a team effort.”
Provencio approaches his role with an obsessive focus on data, measuring things such as a 5-year-old’s literacy skills. Students monitor their own progress through “data binders,” setting personal goals for themselves. Teachers and administrators also closely monitor student progress using assessments — including a program called Interactive Achievement, which simulates state tests — and flag students who are slipping.
Those who fall behind or have behavioral problems are labeled “students at promise” — Provencio doesn’t like the term “at risk” — and their names go up on a wall in his office. Staff members meet monthly to pore over spreadsheets and talk about how to help those students.
Despite the emphasis on data, Ellis said children are never reduced to numbers or spreadsheet entries. In her office, she gestured to a photo of two girls beaming before a table decorated with a pink tablecloth. Provencio, who worried that the girls would not get birthday parties because of instability at home, threw them a small celebration in a conference room, using decorations from his daughter’s birthday party.
Provencio also worked to get parents — many of whom come from other countries and speak little English — more involved with the school so they could feel more comfortable asking questions about their children’s education.
“I knew in my heart of hearts that we could only be as successful as the parents are engaged,” Provencio said.
When he started, he began going to bus stops to speak with them — sometimes, with the help of a translator. Many said they wanted to learn English, so he applied for a grant to get them access to language-instruction software. The school also tracks volunteer hours to measure parent engagement. Its annual numbers have risen from about 500 volunteer-hours to more than 4,500. The parent-teacher organization has grown tenfold, to 100 members.
It has all translated to student success. Provencio said he is driven to ensure that students at Minnieville Elementary get the same high-quality education as students in more affluent communities do. And he never counts them out. He aggressively seeks to identify gifted students. Minnieville Elementary has the highest share of gifted students, as a percentage of enrollment, among Title I schools in the county.
“We really pride ourselves on saying that it doesn’t matter where you come from. It doesn’t matter what you look like. It doesn’t matter how much money your parents have,” Provencio said. “You have so much potential as a student. You’re going to do great here.”