Mrs. Odle: the woman behind an IPS success story
Good, better, best – we never let it rest;
Until our good is better and our better is our best…
We’re School 14,
We’re the best students that you’ve ever seen;
We’re School 14
We are a part of a world-class team!
— from the School 14 Pep Song
On my first day at School 14, the improbably named Washington Irving Elementary School on the city’s near eastside, I’m standing in a narrow hallway outside the principal’s office. But referring to Elizabeth Odle by her official title doesn’t begin to evoke the full gamut of what she does, or how she is regarded here. Talk to teachers at School 14, or to parents, staff members, community volunteers or, for that matter, students, and another word will come to mind: Leader.
Odle’s leadership has turned what some educators would consider a hardship assignment into an extraordinary success story. Last year, against what would seem daunting odds, the students at School 14 surpassed the state average on ISTEP testing for all grades in English/Language Arts and Math, coming in with a passing rate of over 75 percent.
This, in spite of facts like these:
• Over 80 percent of families whose kids attend School 14 are living below the poverty line.
• There are more homeless kids attending School 14 than any other single school in the entire state of Indiana.
• Approximately 20 percent of the kids at School 14 qualify for special education services for learning disabilities, mild mental handicaps, emotional handicaps or communication handicaps.
• Data from the Indianapolis Police Department indicates the overall crime rate for School 14’s boundary area is over eight times the Marion County average.
• Juveniles in this area are arrested at a rate more than seven times the Marion County average.
Located at 1250 E. Market St., just off Oriental and New York, School 14 is in what urban planners euphemistically call a “transitional” neighborhood. It’s a tough part of town with a history of crime and violence. Although the first stirrings of gentrification are apparent on certain blocks, the signs of urban decay are still prevalent. This is a neighborhood where, when things break, they tend to stay broken.
In too many cases, the same could be said about the kids who come from places like this. At least that’s the stereotype. When he first ran for president, claiming to be an educational reformer, George W. Bush attacked schools in low income neighborhoods that, as he put it, condemned kids to a future of low expectations. Public schools, he implied, were failing inner city kids, a message that many Americans were all too willing to turn into an even broader generalization: Public schools were simply failing.
But if that’s true, how does one account for a success story like the one that unfolds every day at School 14?
Seeking the answer to this question is what has me standing in this hallway outside Odle’s office. I’ve been asked to wait here a moment until her previous appointment is finished. The door is ajar; inside, Odle is sharing lunch with a third grade girl. They sit side-by-side, both of them with straws tucked into cold boxes of milk. A book is open on the table and the girl reads aloud, carefully enunciating every syllable. A kind of peaceful stillness fills the room; you can practically hear the beam of sunlight that comes in through a nearby window.
Teaching the whole child
Elizabeth Odle grew up in a small farming town called Cheraw in South Carolina. She was the youngest of 11 children; her mother was a school teacher and homemaker, her father a farmer who was also a civil rights activist and leader of the local NAACP.
“My favorite teachers were my mother and father,” says Odle. “I quickly say my mother was my favorite teacher because she taught me the true essence of patience, perseverance and working to support the best interests of others. She was supportive of my father as he encouraged nine of the 11 children to complete post secondary educational careers.”
Although her father finished school with the eighth grade, Odle says, “He pushed us with the message that our education was key to our success in life,” adding, “Both of them helped to mold my level of Christian faith and community concern for others.”
Odle’s family moved to Indianapolis when she was a junior in high school. She graduated from Shortridge High School and went on to graduate from Indiana Central College, where she majored in Sociology. She then completed a Masters degree in Special Education at IUPUI in 1974.
While Odle was in graduate school she became involved with Teacher Corps, a program that placed her in an inner city school with a team of her fellow students. Their job was to build bridges between the school and the neighboring community. This turned out to be an idea that has served Odle ever since. “It formed what I’ve been doing all along,” she says today. “You can’t just teach in a classroom. You need to be involved in the community. We couldn’t just wait for parents to come to school.”
What began as a commitment to outreach on the neighborhood level eventually evolved into the larger concept of the community schooling, an approach that Odle and her staff refer to as addressing “the whole child.”
Elizabeth Odle has a history of meeting challenges head-on, and she speaks the same way, with a bright-eyed openness that reflects the energy she brings to her vocation. “I’m probably more philosophically invested in embracing community and raising support outside the classroom because of my experiences in Teacher Corps and as a social worker. We cannot just teach within these four walls. We have to go outside the classroom. Anything our kids need to experience, I try to make sure we can give that experience to them.”
“Principals,” continues Odle, “have to realize that if you’re going to be successful you’ve got to build a team of staff members and then you have to embrace the kids and the families as a whole. Once you establish that connection, kids will walk on water for you. Parents will give you whatever they can, if they have that confidence and trust that you love their child and that you value them. They may say to you, ‘I was in Special Ed when I was in school.’ But, by God, don’t treat them or have them think that that you know they were in Special Ed.”
Odle tells of how once she was at a school function and the father of one of her students greeted her as “girlfriend.” When one of her colleagues seemed upset by this seeming breach of etiquette, Odle set her straight: “That means he now respects me. For him to call me girlfriend meant we were there. We were finally at a point where he was confident enough to call me that.”
Getting to that point didn’t come easily. That particular parent’s son had been disciplined by his teacher for bringing a deck of cards to class. Word got back to school that the student’s father was upset and had threatened to come to school and give the teacher a beating. Although Odle’s husband, a police officer who had worked in the neighborhood, warned Odle not to go to students’ homes there, she couldn’t think of a better way to diffuse what looked like a bad situation-in-the-making. When she got to the angry parent’s house, she left her car’s motor’s running in case she needed to make a quick getaway. Then she saw a sign on the front door: “It says in all kinds of profane language that he sleeps in the daytime because he works at night and get the ‘f’ off my porch,” says Odle. “I’m thinking do I interrupt him, do I wake him up, or do I let him to come to school and cause this confusion.”
Odle knocked on the door.
“He fussed and fussed,” she remembers, “ but I talked real fast.” And she turned what could have been a dangerous situation into a basis for trust and cooperation.
“The community is my stomping ground,” says Odle. “If the kids come from down the street or wherever they come from, that’s where I am.”
Odle’s enveloping vision for the school as a base of operations whose work extends to include all aspects of her students’ lives is at the heart of what community schooling is about. “We can’t be all things to the kids, but kids need so much — and so much more. If we’re going to make a difference in the life of a child, if we’re going to be that listening ear, we need to have others help us. So I spend a lot of time in getting those support systems to be here at our school.”
Odle saw that after school kids were going back to environments that were often unstable or unsafe. In many cases, even when parents wanted to be helpful they lacked the time or the means to take their kids to places like the YMCA. “The Y was saying, ‘we have all these programs here, but our kids couldn’t get to the Y.”
Odle invited the Y’s CEO to School 14 and proposed that the Y set up shop in the school’s gym. They started with basketball, cheerleading and crafts. A model after-care program is the result.
Odle’s entrepreneurial approach has earned School 14 an extraordinarily diverse array of alliances with city businesses and organizations, ranging from the nearby Women’s Prison, that provides the kindergarten with handmade pouches for school supplies and Christmas stockings, to Midtown Mental Health, which provides School 14 with two, on-site, therapists.
Thanks to its partnership with Even Start, School 14 provides adult basic education so that parents working on their GEDs and family literacy can go to school with their kids. Then there are full day kindergarten services, mentoring programs, volunteer tutors and the School on Wheels, which works with homeless and other families in need of after-school support. The Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library operates a Parent Center, where adults can learn computer skills, the Boy Scouts and Girl scouts have a standing presence in the school and kids can also get speech therapy and dental services at school.
Chase Bank is a longstanding partner with School 14. Jim Hopkins, Chase’s Vice President responsible for the bank’s Community Partnership Office, has worked with School 14 for ten years as his bank has morphed from Indiana National through Bank One. The bank helped build outdoor classrooms, garden projects and a Reading Tree, dedicated by Judy O’Bannon. “Having these kinds of partnerships with charitable centers, community organizations, churches, businesses is a very healthy thing,” Hopkins says. Hopkins often brings banking colleagues to School 14 to volunteer. “Their impression of IPS is based on reading test scores in the newspaper. Hearing about the bad things. That’s what makes news sometimes. But there are so many things that happen in this school — and when people come in and see it, it goes back out. It’s a wonderful place to be.”
Foundation of respect
Josette Jackson, School 14’s School/Community Coordinator, is at the center of the community school effort. Jackson says she arrived at this position, which is made possible through a partnership with the Boner Center, by practically willing it into existence.
She discovered School 14 through her first child, her son. In those days, says Jackson, she wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of her son having to attend an IPS school. ”I was angry and bitter,” she says. But then, at a family night program, she was challenged to get involved with her son’s education. “I discovered I was complaining about something that wasn’t real. The more time I spent in the school, the more I realized that there was a lot going on.”
Jackson became the Vice President of the PTA. When she had a second child, she brought the baby to the parent center, where her daughter was potty trained and learned to walk. “I was welcomed, whether I had my baby on my hip or was by myself.”
When Jackson went through a bitter divorce and, in the process, lost her home and her car, she found that the School 14 family was there for her. “Being here at school is probably what saved my sanity…people here made sure I felt really secure.”
Jackson eventually earned a degree in social work and became the Community/School Coordinator. She remembers making a Wishing Board with other School 14 parents on which they wrote their wishes for the school, including before and after school programs, special needs pre-school and kindergarten services, achievement programs, a full music department, and Dad’s programs. Every one of these wishes has since come true.
In defining what makes a community school, Jackson refers to the African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child. School 14, she says, seeks to influence all aspects of a child’s life. Creating partnerships with other organizations and people in the community helps to accomplish this. Angie’s List has recently called, says Jackson, asking how they can help. “It’s amazing to bring someone to our school,” she says, “and watch them see what’s here.”
At one point, circumstances compelled Jackson to move out of IPS and send her daughter to a suburban school. But when her daughter began coming home and saying things about other people that Jackson found to be disrespectful, she arranged to have her daughter transferred back to School 14. “I don’t ever want her to grow up not honoring everybody’s background,” she says of the education she sees her daughter receiving at School 14. “Not honoring the struggle all people have gone through and not realizing the privileges she has as a white child, just because she was born white. I want to make sure she doesn’t abuse or overuse that privilege. And I want her to have that strength growing up as a girl becoming a woman who knows how to stand on her own two feet. You need a foundation of respect to be able to do that.”
Not long after she arrived at 14, her daughter received a poor grade on a math test. Two different teachers approached the girl about it — not to scold her, says Jackson, but to make sure her daughter knew “that she was loved.”
All that’s necessary
This year, School 14 has added a sixth grade class and seen its boundaries expand. As"