- Associated Press - Saturday, December 5, 2015

TACOMA, Wash. (AP) - The best part of being an elementary school principal?

“You get to feel like a superhero every day,” says Taj Jensen, principal at Tyee Park Elementary School in Lakewood’s Clover Park School District. “If I’m having a bad day, I can walk into a kindergarten classroom and it changes the day.”

The unassuming Jensen doesn’t wear a cape as he makes his rounds from classroom to lunchroom each day, but his colleagues say he’s an unrelenting crusader for kids at his high-poverty school.

An estimated 90 percent of Tyee Park students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch last school year, and the school remains on the state list of priority schools flagged for low state test scores.

About a third of the students are English language learners, and the school population is highly mobile. By the end of the school year, a little more than half the 400-plus students will be new faces.

Jensen came to Tyee Park as principal last year, and was named the 2015 Washington State Elementary Principal of the Year by the state principals association.

Before coming to Tyee Park, he was principal at Tillicum Elementary, also a Clover Park school, from 2009 to 2014. Under his leadership, Tillicum was named a state School of Distinction on two consecutive years for improving test scores.

Timothy West, father of a second-grader at Tyee Park, was ready to pull his daughter out of school and try homeschooling before Jensen arrived.

“He commands respect in a respectful manner,” West says. “I have never seen him flustered.”

Christine Kelly, the literacy coach at Tyee Park, is one of five teachers who followed Jensen from Tillicum and now is in her sixth year of working with the award-winning principal.

“He always puts kids first,” she says. “That drives everything else.”

Building relationships with students is also part of his strategy, she says.

It’s easy to watch Jensen’s strategy in action as students begin their school day.

By the time buses arrive at 7:30 a.m., he’s already been at work for half an hour.

He greets students as they arrive.

“Morning, bud. You awake?” he calls to one student, who flashes him a smile.

Inside the cafeteria, Jensen makes his rounds as kids eat breakfast. Because of the school’s high poverty rate, all students receive breakfast and lunch at school.

Jensen walks around, fist bumping some kids, stopping to chat with others.

“You have a sub today,” he tells one girl. She frowns. “So be on your best behavior,” Jensen adds.

He asks two brothers why they don’t sit together at breakfast.

“He called me stupid,” one of the boys explains.

As Jensen makes his way out of the cafeteria, a girl approaches him.

“Can I come to your office?” she asks.

Jensen replies: “That’s up to your teacher.”

This is a school where being sent to the principal’s office is more often a reward than a punishment.

Every kid in the school knows Jensen’s office has an Xbox. Teachers can reward students who work hard on academics or behavior with Xbox time.

Jensen keeps a supply of squeezable stress-ball toys for students who need to have a serious talk with the principal - kids like the boy who missed his bus two days in a row.

“He looked at me and didn’t stop,” the boy says, referring to the bus driver. “I ran all the way to school.”

“Thanks for doing that,” Jensen says. “I’ll take care of it.”

He says he’ll watch video recorded by the bus cameras to see what happened.

After the boy goes off to class, Jensen explains: “He could have walked home. But he knows school is a safe place, and he knows his teachers support him.”

One of Tyee Park’s mottoes is “No Excuses.”

“Our job is to teach kids,” Jensen says. “Pity doesn’t get them anywhere.”

He warns his staff against making what he calls “cardiac assessments” - decisions of the heart, rather than the head. Instead, he wants teachers to rely on data from students’ daily classroom performance.

Lessons are broken into discrete pieces, and students complete an “exit ticket” assignment to show what they’ve learned after each lesson.

“Everything is about the data,” Jensen says.

Students get 90 minutes of reading and 90 minutes of math each day, plus 30 minutes of writing instruction. That happens in the morning or early afternoon. The rest of the day is devoted to science, social studies and pull-out intervention for students who are below standards.

There’s one recess, and only one all-school assembly every quarter.

“We cut out some of the extra stuff so we can focus on the instructional pieces, just because of where we were starting out last year, being a priority school,” Jensen said. “We had to cut out some things that didn’t give us a net gain. If it didn’t get us a result, it went away.”

Jensen tries to visit every teacher’s classroom on a daily basis. At the end of the day, he emails them feedback. Jensen also gets daily reports from teachers.

Shannon Scott, a reading teacher new to Tyee Park this year, says the daily documentation helps her see how kids are growing. And Jensen’s daily feedback is very specific, she says.

“He holds students and staff to a high level of achievement,” says Scott. “I like that philosophy. ‘No excuses’ is a big part of Tyee Park. No matter the circumstances, we can take them where they need to be.”

Jensen knows that even though there should be no excuses, there are reasons why children can’t always be at their best in school.

He talks about one student whose father is in jail. Mom works nights, and the student is in charge of watching younger siblings while she’s away.

Tucked away in one former classroom space is a food and clothing bank, where school outreach worker Jennifer Lopez gathers clothing, food and school supplies to distribute to kids in need.

Lopez loves that Jensen supports new ideas, such as the one she came up with for the Teddy Bear Closet.

“When Family Services comes to pick up a child, or more than one, Mr. Jensen comes over and picks out a blanket, a stuffed animal or coloring books and crayons,” Lopez says. “He gives it to the children to take with them.

“We don’t know if they’re coming back, or if they will be able to get anything of their own from their house. It’s something to give them a little bit of hope and something to hang on to.”

The school fills 64 backpacks with food every Friday and sends them home to ensure kids have something to eat over the weekend.

Lopez is collecting boots for the winter, along with socks.

“A lot of kids are barefoot under their shoes,” Jensen says.

He says kids are good about asking for only what they need, and that teachers also try to pay attention to physical needs.

“It’s pretty simple,” Jensen says. “If a kid is hungry, isn’t safe, doesn’t feel that people care, then they don’t engage in learning.”

Jensen says the good things happening at Tyee Park are happening because of his staff’s hard work.

“There’s no magic,” he says. “It’s not programs, it’s not curriculum, it’s not the newest thing that comes out on the electronic device or iPad or what (textbook publisher) Houghton is pushing at you.

“It gets back to fundamentals. It’s all about teacher instruction and using data to plan for your instruction. So that’s where we focus.”

___

Information from: The News Tribune, http://www.thenewstribune.com

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