Big Steps Towards Big Dreams
When Aquabah Gonney first arrived at Lewis School of Excellence three years ago, the scene was very different than it is now. “The past three years have been phenomenal in terms of the amount of growth we’ve been able to make,” she says. But Aquabah is not stopping there.
After serving as Assistant Principal for a year before being named principal at Lewis, Aquabah learned that “Progress is slow. It takes a lots of patience, a lot of dedication.” Nonetheless, Aquabah has Lewis on the path to sustained attainment, which she hopes to reach by continuing to integrate personalized learning and students’ social-emotional needs.
Lewis is fortunate to have earned a grant from Leap Innovations. The school is now in Phase 2 of a “whole school redesign” focused on personalized learning. The shift has brought students access to 1-to-1 technology and individualized support that is helping them to articulate their strengths and weaknesses and will allow them to create their own learning plans. Aquabah knows that pushing her students as far as she possibly can will only help them “navigate through their own strengths and areas of growth.” In the classroom, this means having students set goals and use rubrics to track improvement, while also incorporating new methods like flexible seating.
Aquabah describes her students’ new experiences with personalized learning as “choice for the first time ever.” She reports that students’ behavior improved dramatically when they were given autonomy over what they were learning in the course of a day. “The teacher is facilitating all of this learning, but kids are really taking ownership themselves,” says Aquabah, who often hears from parents that her students don’t even want to miss class for sick days.
To support students’ social-emotional needs, Aquabah has introduced daily “talking circles” where students come together to share whatever is on their minds. Each classroom features a reflection corner that student can use when they need to “cool down.” There are even more formal “peace circles” to discuss more serious conflicts. Another example of supportive SEL culture is the 6th-8th grade Peer Ambassadors. These are students trained as a Restorative Practice Coach through the Office of Social Emotional Learning. They help students talk though conflict, help them share their issues respectfully and create an agreement for how they will move forward. As the school’s leader, Aquabah wants to let her students know it is okay to be upset, while also providing them the tools to handle their emotions.
Aquabah’s innovative ways have inspired her students. Students now routinely ask, “Can we have a peace circle about this because I’m not trying to get into trouble?” Aquabah sees this “mature move” from kids as young as third grade and others who in the past might have gone “straight off the deep end.” Aquabah takes pride in teaching her students life skills like conflict resolution and mindfulness, as she was still mastering them in college.
Aquabah has already made some big changes at Lewis, but she dreams even bigger. In five years, she wants her school to be “on the forefront of personalized learning” and hopes to see her students “mastering the craft of knowing themselves.”