Melissa Fink

Ed­u­ca­tion is her mis­sion field

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - PROFILES - LARA JO HIGHTOWER

When walk­ing past the front doors of Jones Ele­men­tary in Spring­dale — where Melissa Fink is cel­e­brat­ing her tenth year as prin­ci­pal — it’s im­me­di­ately ob­vi­ous that the school does things a lit­tle dif­fer­ently. The clinic lo­cated just in­side the school — one of only three in the dis­trict

— has been of­fer­ing free men­tal and phys­i­cal health care to Jones’ stu­dents, fam­i­lies and com­mu­nity mem­bers since 2010. Though school is out for the year, there are signs posted out­side the main of­fice ad­ver­tis­ing the free lunches of­fered through­out the sum­mer as well as a sched­ule for the mo­bile den­tal clinic, which of­fers free ser­vices to Jones stu­dents.

A cul­ture of car­ing per­me­ates this mod­est build­ing on Pow­ell Av­enue. This is a school that takes care of its com­mu­nity.

“Jones is a fam­ily, and we treat our stu­dents and their par­ents as our fam­ily,” says fifth-grade teacher Cindy Flores, who has been teach­ing at Jones for 10 years. Con­ver­sa­tions with Flores and a few of her fel­low teach­ers re­veal a fac­ulty deeply com­mit­ted to their pupils, 84 per­cent of whom have lim­ited English pro­fi­ciency and 98 per­cent of whom are liv­ing at or be­low the fed­eral poverty level.

That com­mit­ment also in­cludes com­ing up with in­no­va­tive ways to im­prove the chil­dren’s lives, both in­side and out­side of the school walls. In­spired by a di­lap­i­dated ten­nis court on the Jones Ele­men­tary School cam­pus, Flores started a United States Ten­nis As­so­ci­a­tion Club — one of only two in the dis­trict at the ele­men­tary level — that nearly 80 Jones stu­dents tried out for this year. Justin Minkel, an Arkansas State Teacher of the Year who has taught at Jones since 2004, cre­ated the Home Li­brary Ef­fect — a pro­gram to in­crease read­ing at home by cre­at­ing home li­braries for high-poverty stu­dents. Af­ter Minkel noted rad­i­cal gains in read­ing scores on stan­dard­ized tests as a re­sult of im­ple­ment­ing the pro­gram in his class­room, thev

“I’ve had the priv­i­lege to watch Melissa grow from a stu­dent in our school sys­tem to one of the great lead­ers, in my view, in our state and be­yond. She has al­ways had an enor­mous heart for ev­ery child and, I think, specif­i­cally, chil­dren of need.” — Spring­dale Su­per­in­ten­dent Jim D. Rollins

pro­gram ex­panded through­out Jones. It is now be­ing im­ple­mented in three other Spring­dale ele­men­tary schools and has gained na­tional recog­ni­tion. Minkel con­tin­ues to seek fund­ing to ex­pand it even fur­ther.

Jones Ele­men­tary teach­ers are em­pow­ered by Fink to cre­ate such in­no­va­tive pro­grams, says Minkel, who has worked with her since her first day as as­sis­tant prin­ci­pal at Jones in 2004.

“I ex­pected the sup­port but not also be­ing chal­lenged,” says Minkel of Fink’s first year in the prin­ci­pal’s seat. “I think that’s what she bal­ances re­ally well — she pushes us to get bet­ter ev­ery year.

“There is the per­cep­tion that public ed­u­ca­tion is un­der at­tack right now. It’s hard to be a prin­ci­pal in a high-need school. But public ed­u­ca­tion is not only for the easy kids, it’s for all kids. Our stu­dents have in­tense needs that make the job harder. Melissa is so fo­cused on mak­ing this job a col­lec­tive team ef­fort — she doesn’t want to be this lone, heroic per­son. In re­al­ity, it’s a team — ev­ery­one from the prin­ci­pal to the vice prin­ci­pal to the teach­ers to the cus­to­di­ans to the lunch ladies. I think she’s re­ally fo­cused on that team ef­fort.”

Such ac­co­lades help to ex­plain why Jones Ele­men­tary has vir­tu­ally a zero per­cent turnover rate on its staff — al­most un­heard of in a school that has such a high per­cent­age of poverty-stricken stu­dents.

“When she took over as prin­ci­pal, the school en­vi­ron­ment slowly started to switch to a more teacher-driven en­vi­ron­ment,” says Jen­nifer Mills, who has taught at Jones for 11 years. “Melissa al­lowed us a lot of in­put into what we would study as a fac­ulty, our mis­sion state­ment and vi­sion [and] our PLC agen­das. She helped us form teacher-led com­mit­tees that dis­cussed things such as les­son plans, parental in­volve­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties and af­ter school stu­dent op­por­tu­ni­ties.”

“She’s very in­vested in her school,” says Spring­dale’s As­sis­tant Su­per­in­ten­dent Kathy Morledge. “So are her teach­ers — and it shows. She is quite a leader, not only among her teach­ers but also among the other prin­ci­pals in the dis­trict. They look to her for in­no­va­tion.”

SPRING­DALE IS HOME

Born in Wagoner, Okla., Fink’s fam­ily re­lo­cated to Spring­dale when she was only 2 years old. Fink’s fa­ther, a K-Mart man­ager, was ac­cus­tomed to be­ing moved from town to town af­ter a spend­ing only a few years in each lo­ca­tion. But when Fink’s younger sis­ter was born with spe­cial needs, the fam­ily de­cided to stay put: The Spring­dale schools had good pro­grams for her.

“I grew up in Spring­dale,” says Fink. “I’m a proud prod­uct of the Spring­dale School Dis­trict. This is home to me.”

Fink was al­ways a good stu­dent, and she is still in touch with some of her ele­men­tary and sec­ondary teach­ers.

“My mom passed away in Au­gust, and my third­grade teacher read about it in the pa­per,” says Fink. “She stopped by Jones to see me. I said, ‘How in the world did you track me down?’ be­cause I know she’s not on Facebook. She said, ‘I keep up with you! I know where you are!’”

Fink’s de­sire to help oth­ers ap­peared early — she men­tored a younger girl in high school and had her sights set on be­com­ing a so­cial worker — which she at­tributes to a strong faith in God and the sup­port of a like-minded fam­ily. Her sopho­more year in col­lege, Fink made some mo­men­tous life de­ci­sions: she mar­ried her hus­band, De­wayne, and switched her ma­jor from so­cial work to teach­ing.

“We were driv­ing back from our hon­ey­moon, my hus­band and I were talk­ing about the di­rec­tion I wanted to go in,” says Fink. “I de­cided that I’ve al­ways en­joyed be­ing around chil­dren. I come from a long line of ed­u­ca­tors — I have sev­eral rel­a­tives who are teach­ers and prin­ci­pals and ath­letic di­rec­tors — and it just made sense. When I got back to school, I changed my ma­jor and en­rolled in the ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram and never looked back.”

Fink taught for just five years at Parson Hills Ele­men­tary be­fore re­turn­ing to school for an ad­min­is­tra­tion de­gree. As­cend­ing to man­age­ment was a fa­mil­iar path for the re­spon­si­ble, prag­matic Fink.

“When I worked as a teenager, I was al­ways quickly pro­moted to fields where I su­per­vised other peo­ple,” she says, smil­ing. “I was check-out su­per­vi­sor at K-Mart, head cashier at Lowe’s.

“As a teacher, you’re touch­ing the lives of 25 kids, but as a prin­ci­pal, you have the op­por­tu­nity to touch the lives of 650. That’s just who I am. I’m just driven by that. I love work­ing with the teach­ers and col­lab­o­rat­ing with them, and cre­at­ing a team and get­ting re­sults. That’s very mo­ti­vat­ing to me.”

Hired as as­sis­tant prin­ci­pal at Jones in 2004, she would take the reins as prin­ci­pal just three years later.

“As a new ad­min­is­tra­tor serv­ing as an as­sis­tant prin­ci­pal, Melissa had a strong vi­sion of what an ideal learn­ing en­vi­ron­ment should be, and had the de­ter­mi­na­tion to work count­less hours to make it hap­pen,” says Deb­bie Flora, Fink’s pre­de­ces­sor at Jones.

THE WHOLE FAM­ILY

Fink says she used her five years in the class­room at Parson Hills — where the 94 per­cent free or re­duced lunch rate ap­proaches the level of that at Jones — to guide her in her role as ad­min­is­tra­tor.

“Even as a teacher, I was try­ing to re­move some of those bar­ri­ers, try­ing to build re­la­tion­ships with them to see them suc­ceed,” says Fink. “It’s re­ally fun now, be­cause the kids that I had back then are adults now, and I keep in con­tact with so many of them.” It is a joy, says Fink, to see so many of them lead­ing pro­duc­tive, suc­cess­ful lives. “I had a stu­dent who had a sin­gle mom [and] did not have a very good home life. She has gone to col­lege, and she is a teacher. The last time I checked with her, she was teach­ing at a col­lege in Kansas and has done re­ally well. So that cy­cle of poverty was bro­ken for her.”

Break­ing the cy­cle of poverty be­came a fo­cus for Fink, and she quickly re­al­ized that the “whole child ap­proach” — which es­chews a fo­cus on purely aca­demic ar­eas of a child’s devel­op­ment and ex­pands to in­clude a child’s needs out­side of school — was cer­tainly help­ful, but not suf­fi­cient.

“I think she was the first per­son I ever heard say, ‘Re­ally, it’s the whole fam­ily,’” says Morledge. “She pointed out that we need to think about how we ap­proach teach­ing and learn­ing through the fam­ily. It’s a fam­ily event.”

“The ma­jor­ity of our stu­dents live in poverty, and it would be easy for teach­ers to blame aca­demic per­for­mance on that part of their lives,” says Mills. “How­ever, Melissa al­ways has us fo­cus on things that we as teach­ers

can change in or­der to help our stu­dents con­tinue to suc­ceed and grow.”

“We don’t let poverty de­ter­mine our stu­dents’ des­tiny,” says Fink firmly. “We just don’t do that here.

“We’ve shifted to ser­vic­ing the whole fam­ily, be­cause we know if we want our chil­dren to be happy, healthy and ed­u­cated, we have to wrap our­selves around our fam­i­lies to help them so that they can make bet­ter de­ci­sions for their fam­i­lies. We re­ally want this school to be a place where par­ents can come and get all of their needs met, so that they can be bet­ter par­ents for their chil­dren. With poverty, there’s such a stigma that ex­ists, and I am al­ways try­ing to break that stigma. Peo­ple from poverty are happy. They love their chil­dren. Some­times, they just need some re­sources or tools to do what they need to do for their fam­i­lies.”

HEALTH FIRST

Fink’s first big tool in ex­pand­ing Jones’ out­reach to the fam­ily level was the school-based health and well­ness cen­ter that opened in her school in 2010.

“In­ad­e­quate health care is a big bar­rier for a lot of our kids,” says Fink. “I re­ally saw this as one of the big­gest things that we could do to re­move the bar­ri­ers, to get their phys­i­cal and men­tal health needs met. This in­cludes well child checks, as well as chronic and acute care [for] strep throat, ear in­fec­tions — all those child­hood ill­nesses that kids get. We can also meet their emo­tional needs im­me­di­ately, so if they’ve had trauma in their lives, we can go ahead and get those ser­vices started.”

Fink says ab­sen­teeism dropped dra­mat­i­cally soon af­ter the clinic opened.

“Prior to the clinic, we would have a kid who would have blis­ters on the throat or the ears were hurt­ing, and we would call the par­ents and say, ‘They

re­ally need to go to the doc­tor,’” says Fink. “Three or four days would go by, and we still wouldn’t see the kids. So we would have to load into our cars and go to the house and knock on the door, and the fam­ily would be there with the child. ‘Have you taken the child to the doc­tor?’ ‘No, we don’t have a doc­tor,’ or ‘We don’t have the money,’ or ‘We don’t have a car.’ Those were the three things we would hear from our fam­i­lies. So it was not un­com­mon for us to load th­ese chil­dren and their fam­i­lies up and drive them to the emer­gency room, which I al­ways felt bad about, be­cause I know that wasn’t a good use of the hos­pi­tal re­sources, but what else are we go­ing to do? Strep can grow very dan­ger­ous very quickly.

“Since we got our clinic, it has not been an is­sue at all.”

There is a pri­or­ity struc­ture in place — Jones’ stu­dents are al­ways served first — but the clinic is also free to fam­i­lies of the stu­dents, as well as com­mu­nity mem­bers who live in the neigh­bor­hood.

Jones’ Parent Univer­sity, now in its third year, is per­haps its most am­bi­tious ini­tia­tive to date, one that Fink calls “the high­light of my ca­reer thus far.”

“That need arose out of a con­ver­sa­tion I was hav­ing with a mom one day,” Fink re­mem­bers. “I had been here for years, and I had al­ways just as­sumed that par­ents knew what it meant when we told them that they need to read at home with their chil­dren. I was talk­ing to her be­cause her child was strug­gling, and it oc­curred to me in the mid­dle of this con­ver­sa­tion that she had no idea what it looked like. Hav­ing to step back and teach some­thing that was so in­nate in me re­ally led me to be­lieve that our par­ents needed a lot from us.”

At Parent Univer­sity, par­ents choose from two or three class of­fer­ings — re­cent choices have in­cluded In­ter­net safety, path­ways to grad­u­a­tion and par­ent­ing skills — and at­tend class once a week from 5 to 6 p.m. To bring a wide range of in­for­ma­tion and re­sources to their par­ents, Jones part­ners with area or­ga­ni­za­tions, such as the Spring­dale Po­lice Depart­ment. Din­ner is served af­ter each class.

Fink says that the school has been able to fully ad­dress sub­jects that are im­por­tant to their fam­i­lies through Parent Univer­sity.

“I gave a sur­vey back in 2007 and one of the ques­tions on the sur­vey was, ‘Will your child grad­u­ate from high school?’” re­mem­bers Fink. “It was shock­ing to me that 70 per­cent of the par­ents said they didn’t know. It’s not that they don’t care about their chil­dren, it’s be­cause they come from coun­tries where high school was not an op­tion for them — it’s more for the elite and up­per so­ci­eties. I thought, ‘Wow, we have work to do.’”

GET­TING GOOD GRADES

The work they’re do­ing has been phe­nom­e­nally suc­cess­ful. Classes have had as many as 90 fam­i­lies in at­ten­dance, and, on an av­er­age night, 40 or 50 fam­i­lies will come.

“I’m look­ing at out­side fund­ing sources to try and keep the mo­men­tum go­ing, be­cause I’m not go­ing to be able to af­ford it much longer,” says Fink.

Such in­no­va­tive pro­gram­ming has be­come the norm at the school — in ad­di­tion to the clinic, Minkel’s Home Li­brary Ef­fect and Parent Univer­sity, Jones has helped to pi­o­neer break­fast in a class­room set­ting, a rou­tine that helps take the stigma out of free and re­duced meals and en­sures the ma­jor­ity of their stu­dents are get­ting fed in the morn­ings.

There is also the Fam­ily Lit­er­acy Pro­gram.

“I had worked with a com­mit­tee to ac­quire the first Toy­ota grant to de­velop a Fam­ily Lit­er­acy pro­gram at Jones,” notes Flora. “When Melissa be­came prin­ci­pal, she car­ried the re­spon­si­bil­ity of im­ple­ment­ing the fam­ily pro­gram, which she did at the high­est level.”

“That’s where we have moms and dads that come to school ev­ery day, and they’re learn­ing English based on what their chil­dren are do­ing in class,” ex­plains Fink. “Part of the day they get to come into the class­room and be­come a stu­dent in their child’s room and prac­tice their English skills. I’m pretty sure we have the largest fam­ily lit­er­acy pro­gram in the na­tion in Spring­dale.” Jones part­ners with North­west Tech­ni­cal In­sti­tute, which pro­vides teach­ers for the adults. Jones is host­ing the first ever sum­mer fam­ily lit­er­acy pro­gram this year, with 14 fam­i­lies par­tic­i­pat­ing.

Fink’s model of “whole fam­ily” ed­u­ca­tion is clearly work­ing. Un­der her lead­er­ship, stan­dard­ized test scores con­tinue to rise to lev­els un­usual for a school with such high poverty and LEP pop­u­la­tions, and Fink and her school are re­ceiv­ing state and na­tional recog­ni­tion. Fink was named Arkansas Prin­ci­pal of the Year in 2015. That same year, Jones’ teach­ers and stu­dents were filmed for a U.S. Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion film that high­lighted ele­men­tary schools that had im­ple­mented ini­tia­tives that were mak­ing pos­i­tive changes within the school.

Fink firmly passes all credit on to her fac­ulty and staff.

“It’s not what I’m do­ing, but what our school is do­ing,” says Fink. “This is noth­ing that I have done. This is some­thing that we have built to­gether. And when I say ‘we’, I mean the teach­ers, the fam­i­lies, the as­sis­tant prin­ci­pal and the staff — we have all been a huge part of this. This isn’t al­ways an easy place to work, but our hearts are here. I think that peo­ple who work at Jones are here for the very same rea­son I’m here.”

For Fink, that rea­son is that it’s im­por­tant for her com­mu­nity that she con­trib­utes.

“I think your com­mu­nity is only as good as your schools,” she says. “By sup­port­ing th­ese fam­i­lies, by wrap­ping around them when we need to, they’re go­ing to be more pro­duc­tive in their com­mu­ni­ties.

“I con­sider this job to be my mis­sion field. I sit in church and I think about, when they’re talk­ing about mis­sion­ar­ies go­ing abroad, and I think, ‘My mis­sion field is across town, and I get to drive there ev­ery sin­gle day.’”

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/ANDY SHUPE

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