KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — As a new principal, Elisa Luna inherited a violent inner-city school.
“[The students] were fighting constantly. We had parents coming in trying to fight kids. We had parents fighting each other,” she says.
What made it worse: This is an elementary school. Kindergarteners through fifth graders were at the heart of the chaos. Luna and teacher Amy Slay say kids were bringing in knives and pornography, throwing chairs and supplies, refusing to go to class and often walking out of school. Luna says the fights were often racially-motivated and out of control.
“We had to get behavior under control before we did anything else,” Luna says.
The first thing she did was talk to teachers and set school-wide behavior rules. Amy Slay was one of the teachers there for the transformation.
“A lot of people, when they come here, they think we’re too mean,” Slay says. “But kids love the structure. They know what to expect; they know the consequences. They are held accountable for their actions,” she says.
Slay says that’s especially important for students to understand – they’re loved, but they’re here to learn.
“You see the growth, and the parents are shocked,” she says. ”And when the parents see their child growing – what better way to make you happy?” she says.
Turning Inskip Around
Inskip Elementary was the lowest-performing school in the Knox County school system. It was on a state list of failing schools. But by 2006, Inskip had the seventh-highest test scores in Tennessee. Luna credits her teachers for doing the heavy lifting it took to get there: They were following the latest research in reading, doing 90 extra hours of professional development, and implementing discipline measures and community outreach programs.
“You have to find each teacher’s strength and areas to improve and everyone be accepting of that,” she says. “It’s not firing everyone. It’s just bringing everybody together and saying this is where we are, this is where we need to be, and we need to come together.”
But Luna did end up firing teachers who didn’t meet school expectations. She says when she fires teachers, it’s not because that person is a “horrible” teacher; it’s about being a bad fit for the school.
“Some teachers at the beginning had the mindset that these kids couldn’t learn. And when the teachers do have that, they’re not going to try new strategies or they’re not going to change that mindset – this community can rise above – then those teachers didn’t need to be at this school,” she says. “There weren’t that many, though,” she adds.
But Luna’s determination to change the status quo put her on a dangerous path. One snowy February afternoon in 2010, Luna declined to renew employment for a fourth-grade teacher. He walked out of the building … and walked back in with a gun. He shot Luna and assistant principal Amy Brace multiple times at close range. Both survived. But a bullet struck Luna’s spinal cord, paralyzing her lower body and putting her in a wheelchair. No one would have blamed her if she never came back. But she did.
“When I was in the hospital the only thing I wanted to do was get back to this school. I wanted to get back to Kindergarten graduation and fifth grade graduation and to get back to my teachers because I knew they depended on me. We all depend on each other,” she says.
Kindergarten teacher Amy Slay says when Luna was shot, it was hard to keep that turnaround momentum going – but at the time, another kind of transformation was happening. “It brought the whole community together,” she says. “People thought our community was not very strong, that our parental involvement wasn’t very high. But that was a stereotypical view.”
Slay says the support after the shooting also helped her realize that teachers from around the county were supporting her school, too. Slay says that helped Inskip teachers keep the mission going even while Luna was in the hospital.
“We knew that we were doing it for her. It was kind of like, we had to do this for her, because that’s what she would have wanted.”
Making A Turnaround Stick
Luna may be in a wheelchair, but she still makes rounds to each of Inskip’s classrooms daily.
“I try to do everything that the teachers do. I go in and I teach and relieve them; I make sure that I’m helping doing lesson plans; whatever they do, I make sure I’m doing the same thing,” she says.
Inskip is still making a turnaround. Luna says turnaround schools never really stop the process of improving. And this year, the school dumped the reading program that made it so successful in 2005-2006. It just wasn’t working, says Luna. The kids were making gains, but the program didn’t meet new, stricter state standards.
“It’s just a balance of going in and looking at the research, but also trying it with our students,” she says. “Sometimes what a research study did with a certain group of students won’t work with our students. So we have to go in and try with our students and see what’s gonna make those gains,” she says.
“If we assess say in two or three weeks and that it doesn’t work then we’ll change it in that group,” she says. But she says even in the trials, she doesn’t short students. “You’re still having all that other time in the day in those other whole groups, small groups, and in centers and individual learning where they’re continually doing other strategies.”
“You see the growth,” says teacher Amy Slay. “And the parents are shocked: ‘How did you do it?’ and then they appreciate it. And that just helps – when the parents see their child growing,’ she adds, “they have trust in us.”
Slay says Luna’s vision, leadership and constant communication also helps teachers see the bigger picture – and stick with the hardest challenges.
“There’s change; you make changes and at first it’s hard and at first you’re kind of unsure,” she says.
“And you all get mad at me,” Luna says.
“We get pissed at her,” Slay says, deadpan, as Luna laughs. “But the change is always for the better of us, and most importantly, for the students,” she says.
Luna still holds her teachers to high expectations. And sometimes, she still has to fire someone. After all, it’s part of the job. But she says there’s no fear in that decision. She knows she’s doing right by her students: She says Inskip needs teachers who love them, care for them, and never give up. She won’t accept any less.
“I think that everybody has a purpose in this life. And I know it’s my purpose to make sure that these kids have the absolute best teachers. I just know it in my heart,” she says.
Luna says Inskip kids are the students society expects to fail: kids whose daddies are in jail, whose mamas are on welfare, kids who come to school without breakfast or lunch, students who never learned to speak English. But in this inner-city community where other people might see an insurmountable challenge, Elisa Luna sees and cultivates potential every single day.