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Showing Students They Care While Encouraging Them to Do Their Best

Today, the North Carolina Public Schools released 2016-17 results for public school systems throughout the state. Overall student growth in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools hit a 4-year high. South Fork Elementary is one of a number of WS/FC schools that is no longer considered low-performing. John F. Kennedy High School exceeded expected growth for the third year in a row.

You will find more about the local results at Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools.

You will find more pictures from South Fork at Your Permanent Record.

Fork 95 By Kim Underwood

Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools

SEPTEMBER 7, 2017 – Because students at South Fork Elementary improved so much on state tests, the school is no longer categorized as low-performing.

“We made incredible growth overall,” said Principal Joanell Gatling.

Based on the results from the 2016-17 school year released by the state today, the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school system awarded the school a grade of “C plus.”  

“We’re happy with that, but we’re not settling for that,” Gatling said.

Everyone at the school wants to help students continue to learn and do even better in the future. 

“Every child can grow, and every child will grow,” said Instructional Facilitator Velvet McGregor.

Fork 34 Knowing how hard everyone at the school works to help children learn and how much they care about them as people, McGregor was not surprised by the results.

“I knew that it could happen,” she said. 

Teachers and other members of the staff were delighted to learn the good news.

“It feels awesome,” said second-grade teacher Elizabeth Douthit.

“I think it’s wonderful because teachers in this building are hard-working, dedicated, talented,” said Michelle Fitzgerald, who is beginning her 15th year as an ESL (English as a second language) teacher at South Fork.

“I have always said we have an amazing group of people here.”

On Tuesday afternoon, classrooms at South Fork were filled with students learning in different ways. In one room, fifth-grade science teacher Trey Nichols and students were talking about learned and inherited traits. Dimples – inherited. Reading – learned.

IMusic 45 n the music room, music teacher Ashley Hayes and the students were drumming. In the computer lab, computer teacher Amanda Murray – who has difficulty hearing some sounds and uses a service dog named Katherine to alert her to those she might miss – was taking a moment to show students the sign-language hand sign for “help.”

Learning wasn’t limited to the classrooms. In a hall, a tutor was helping a student with his reading.

When asked why they think students exceeded expected growth, people at South Fork talked about high expectations, new approaches to learning, and attention to performance data.

“We have high expectations for students,” said third-grade teacher Jennifer Collins. “We push them as far as they can go. We don’t give up.”

“We do whatever it takes to succeed,” said third-grade teacher Corneisha Rodgers.

Fork 1 “We meet all our children where they are and take them where they need to be,” said Nichols.

“We are very consistent with the kids – pushing reading – encouraging kids to do their best,” said Douthit.

They also talked about making sure that students know everyone cares about them as people.

“We are very student-centered, and we love all our children,” said fifth-grade teacher Diamyn Goss.

They talked about a school staff that functions as a family.

“We are really family at this school,” said third-grade teacher Kim Mayfield, who is in her 23rd year as a teacher.

Fork 99 If staff members are dealing with something in their personal lives, their colleagues are there for them, she said. Seeing how much staff members care for each other helps students understand how much staff members care for them as well.

From there, she said, “They have no way to go but up.” 

“We’ve got good teachers here – really good teachers,” said Jeff Smith, an Exceptional Children teacher assistant. “They really care about the kids.”

And they talked about a principal and other school leaders who support students and staff members.

For Gatling, keeping students at the center of everything that happens is at the top of the list of reasons that students did well.

Fork 6 “The most important thing is we have stayed true to our vision,” Gatling said. “If it is not best for students, it doesn’t happen. We can’t just meet the children’s academic needs. We have to meet the social and emotional needs of the children.”

Many students at South Fork face challenges in their home lives – 100 percent of the students are eligible for free lunches. A student who comes to work hungry cannot focus on learning, Gatling said, so it’s important to make sure students are fed.

The school has students from all over the world – Mexico, Japan, Korea, Nepal, Egypt. A number of students are members of a group of people from the Kayah State of Myanmar, also known as Burma, who came to the United States after spending time in United States refugee camps in Thailand.  

Gatling also talked about how important the people who work with those children are. At South Fork, those people are caring and good at what they do.

“I have a good staff,” Gatling said.

Fork 58 That includes custodians and cafeteria workers as well as teachers and teachers assistants and other staff members, she said.

Teachers, teacher assistants, and other staff members added Gatling – who came to South Fork at the beginning of the 2015-16 school year – to the list of reasons for students’ success.  

Goss talked about how Gatling greets students as they come in each day – hugging some and high-fiving others.

“They feel welcomed,” Goss said. “They feel loved when they come in the door.”

“We have good leadership,” said Fitzgerald. “Our principal has really been on board for the teachers in the building.”

“Our administration is the glue that holds it all together,” said third-grade teacher Kristen Holliday.

Fork 60 McGregor said that, while supporting teachers’ authority in the classroom, she and Gatling – as well as Kim Kelley, who left South Fork to become the principal at Old Town Elementary – have worked hard to help them learn good teaching techniques.

“We don’t’ just ask what you’re doing,” she said. “We ask why you’re doing it.”

One specific technique being used at South Fork, Gatling said, is the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP), a technique that was developed for those learning English as a second language.

It has proven to be an approach that is effective for all students, Gatling said. “SIOP really helped.”

In the coming days, Gatling said, teachers will also be using John Hattie Visible Learning and Teaching. It’s an approach that encourages teachers to see learning through the perspective of students and helps students to become their own teachers.

fFork 3 Thanks to a contribution from a donor who wants to remain anonymous, McGregor said, teachers were also able to take outside workshops designed to increase their effectiveness. (The contribution also enabled teachers to take students on field trips.)

McGregor also talked about how much students matter to everyone at South Fork.    

“The teachers here care what happens with and for children,” McGregor said. “They care about the whole child.”

“It’s a collaborative effort…We stay late. We take children home. We tutor for free.”

 “We are children-centered,” said Sharmila Saravanan, a kindergarten teacher assistant.

“I love working here. We feel like we are a family and all of our students are our kids.”

Fork 53 While focusing on teaching, she said, they try to meet the children’s personal needs.

“We have meetings,” Saravanan said. “We talk about how to help the kids.”

Ramona Lane Starling, who is a first-grade teacher assistant, said, “We have excellent teachers.” 

And Gatling and Assistant Principal Donyea Hairston are wonderful, she said. 

It didn’t take Olaine L. Smith, who joined the team of fifth-grade teachers this school year, long to recognize what a special place South Fork is.

“It’s like heaven,” Smith said. “The administration is so supportive, and the students and the administration and staff are as one. The students can only go up. We want them to succeed.”


Fork 33 Other Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools also did well on state tests. At John F. Kennedy High School, for instance, students exceeded expected growth for the third year in a row.

“I am excited and extremely proud of both the students and staff,” said Principal Keisha Gabriel.

Gabriel, who became the principal at Kennedy for the 2016-17 school year, attributes the students’ success to a number of positive approaches at the school.

“Our staff focuses on building positive relationships with students,” she said. “I wholeheartedly believe there is a direct correlation.”

Kennedy, which is a magnet school, is small. The high school has about 250 students, and the middle school has about 100 students. That means that, in some subjects, a single teacher is teaching a subject. The advantage in that is that teachers teaching different subjects can work together to ensure that no students falls between the cracks, she said.

“This gives us the opportunity to do more cross-curriculum planning,” she said. “We are working as a staff to perfect our practice.”

They also look at the data so they can help students in areas that need attention.

“We are creating personalized learning plans for every student,” Gabriel said.     


Kim Underwood