Recent Grad Thrives in Challenging Position
by David Price (January 2011)
University Park, Pa. -- With a student population of 161,000, the Gwinnett County school district has twice as many students as Penn State has undergraduates at all 24 campuses. With 130 schools and 11,250 teachers, Gwinnett—located northeast of the city of Atlanta, Georgia—has a budget of more than $1.75 billion. The nation's 14th-largest school district, most of its student body is ethnic minority. More than half of its students qualify for free or discounted lunches.
"(Gwinnett) has a very high level of poverty. According to our state department of education, in my current school, 95% of the students are considered to be disadvantaged," says Leslie Potter, a recent Penn State alumna who now teaches kindergarten at Rockbridge Elementary for Gwinnett County Public Schools.
The challenges are many, yet the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation recently awarded $1 million in scholarships to Gwinnett County Public Schools for demonstrating strong student achievement and improvement while narrowing achievement gaps between income and ethic groups. The scholarships go to graduating seniors. For Gwinnett, the foundation for that improvement begins in elementary school, where Potter teaches kindergarten.
"One of the things that we do as a district is, we work together in teams," says Monica Batiste, who was principal of school where Potter served her first two years with the district. The approach is longitudinal and deliberate, growing the students' abilities as their education progresses. "When we look at educating the elementary child, we look at what we need to teach them to go to middle school and then to high school." Gwinnett is recognized for the exacting educational standards it adopted in 1996, Academic Knowledge and Skills. Coupling these expectations with the team-oriented approach and its own standardized test, Gateway (implemented seven years before No Child Left Behind), helps identify how individual students may need to be educated.
"I think that the collaborative effort of all the teachers, administrators, and the board of education is wonderful. We have been closing the achievement gap," Potter says.
Like many in her chosen profession, Potter knew early on that she wanted to be a teacher. "Looking back at my fifth grade memory book, my dream job was to be a teacher. I always enjoyed working with children. I volunteered at a hospital in the maternity ward for 1,300 hours in high school. I taught tennis to young children, and I babysat a lot in high school." The dream started to become a reality when she received a scholarship from her high school in Red Bank, New Jersey, and attended Penn State. She graduated in 2008 from the Penn State College of Education's elementary and kindergarten education program.
Batiste recruited Potter at a career fair while she was still a student at Penn State. "One of the things that captured my interest about Leslie was her passion for students," Batiste recalls. "She was the one who did not distinguish a difference between the type of student she wanted to teach. She has a natural passion to help students learn."
"Leslie asked tough questions and thought creatively about the problems of teaching and learning," says Jacqueline Edmondson, associate dean for undergraduate and graduate studies in the College of Education. Edmondson met Potter during her junior year at Penn State. "She was a student in a class I was teaching, and it was clear from the first day of class that she was committed to learning everything she could so that she could be the best possible teacher. She also embraced challenges and seemed to thrive in situations where she had to work hard to figure out solutions. It was no surprise to me that she wished to become a teacher in a context that would be challenging."
Potter's classroom is the kernel of educational opportunity. In the purest sense, it can be the beginning. "Many of my students have not even held a book before attending kindergarten," she says. "Many of my students come to me barely speaking English. They do not know how to write their name, and they do not know their letters, letter sounds, numbers, and colors. Most students leave my room reading simple sight word books and writing a sentence or two. It is really rewarding to see the amount of progress they make in a 180-day school year."
Kelly McConnachie, the principal at Rockbridge Elementary where Potter now teaches, says, "(Leslie) is dedicated to her students and holds them to high expectations, regardless of their socioeconomic status. Keeping expectations high for all GCPS students was one of the factors contributing to us being the 2010 Broad Prize winner."
The 2010–11 academic year is Potter's third with Gwinnett County Public Schools, a district that encourages robust continuing education for its teachers.
Her formal Penn State education ended with her student teaching in central Pennsylvania's Penns Valley Area School District. Now she is close to obtaining her master's in reading and literacy from Walden University.
"I wanted to become a better reading and writing teacher since I believe that is one of the most important parts of kindergarten and primary grades," says Potter. "I take my career very seriously, and I love being able to be the foundation of my students' education. This is definitely how I envisioned my contribution as an educator."