“Oh when the hope,
Oh when the hope,
Oh when the hope comes flooding in,
I want to be at Oakwood
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When the hope comes flooding in.”
— Sung to the tune of, “When the Saints Go Marching In”
Kids at Oakwood Elementary School in Lakewood start each day with promises — and a song.
They promise to do “Good, better, best — never let it rest.” They sing about having high hopes — a virtue that can be hard to find some days in a school where nearly 87 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
Each morning, Oakwood students assemble and tell themselves out loud: “I am a kid at hope. I am talented, smart and capable of success.”
Say it often enough, the theory goes, and kids start to believe it. Then they start to live it. That’s the philosophy behind the national Kids at Hope movement, of which Oakwood is a part.
Just ask student body President Ace Falenofoa what it’s like to attend a Kids at Hope school.
“What makes this school different from other schools is, when you make a mistake, they got your back,” the fifth-grader said. “All the teachers are so determined to help the kids. It inspires us.
“Going to a Kids at Hope school is fun. A lot of people encourage you. This isn’t a school where it’s every person for himself. This is a family.”
This year, Oakwood won three Washington Achievement Awards from the state for showing growth in reading and math test scores over the past three years. Last year, Oakwood was named a winner for overall excellence.
It’s not just kids making promises at Oakwood. Teachers and other staff members pledge to become “treasure hunters,” who dig deep to find the talents, skills and different kinds of intelligence that they believe every child possesses.
“The message is everywhere,” said Principal Leila Davis. “We talk about it every day with our kids. It’s about the rituals and the practices that we have in school, like the morning openings.”
Fifth-grader Nery Rodriguez-Valdez, student body secretary, said the rituals are what make her school special.
“In most schools you don’t get to go up in the morning, and be all together,” she said. “In the morning when you say the pledge, you sing the songs and you say, ‘Good, better, best.’ ”
Kids at Hope started in Phoenix in 1993 and is still based there.
A group of youth workers began talking about the commonly used term “youth at risk.” To them, it spoke of stereotypes and de-valuing kids from low-income or troubled family backgrounds.
They coined the term “Kids at Hope,” and developed ways to train adults who were working with these children to change their mindset.
Oakwood, which is part of the Clover Park School District and serves Lakewood’s northern neighborhoods, is not the only Kids at Hope school in Pierce County. There are seven others, including Southgate Elementary School and Lakeview Hope Academy, both in Clover Park.
“Every staff member comes to school each day looking for the best in our students,” said Davis, the Oakwood principal. “That doesn’t mean just academically. It can mean the whole child. We look for something in every kid for an opportunity for them to be successful.”
She said teachers develop relationships not only with their own classroom but also with all Oakwood students.
“You don’t just know 30 names, you know 330 names,” Davis said.
Davis said staff members must embed these beliefs deep inside for a culture of hope to take root.
“There are teachers who come here and decide it’s not for them,” she said. They find jobs elsewhere.
Oakwood kids not only have hope, they also have ambition. Nery, for example, loves to bake cupcakes for school friends. She also loves making her family’s secret cheesecake recipe at home.
She wants to transform her baking skills into a career, and hopes to own her own bakery some day. This is part of the Kids at Hope philosophy, too — helping students focus on their futures.
BREAKING THE CHAINS
Being a Kids at Hope school also involves welcoming parents, who come to evening events to learn the language of hope.
Carlos Mullen has two daughters at Oakwood.
“When I first came to Oakwood, they were so inviting,” the retired veteran said.
Mullen was asked to join a school-based dads group, known as Watch DOGS (Dads of Great Students.)
Earlier this year, he and the dads organized a family fitness night that got kids, parents and teachers moving, and he’s working now on a Disney-themed night for kids.
He credits support from school staff members.
“A lot of magic happened because of that school,” he said. “I called the superintendent to let her know how amazing the school is.”
The Kids at Hope concept was brought to Oakwood with the help of Southgate Elementary School Principal John Mitchell; he was principal at Oakwood for 16 years before moving to Southgate.
This fall, Oakwood and Southgate — among the district’s oldest elementary schools — will be closed and combined on the campus of the new Four Heroes Elementary School near Lakewood Drive and Steilacoom Boulevard.
Mitchell will be principal at the combined schools, and he plans to bring Kids at Hope with him.
“It’s a culture, not a program,” he said. “Especially in failing schools, there are people who don’t believe all kids can do it.”
To counter those negative perceptions, he started slowly, introducing the Kids at Hope philosophy bit by bit. He began holding student assemblies, asking teachers to write specific affirmations for two to three students monthly. They would read the messages to students in front of the entire school.
Later, he asked teachers to bring the new positive attitude about their students into the way they taught.
“We finally got to the point where I was so proud,” Mitchell said. “I felt that there was not one person working for me who didn’t believe that every kid could learn.”
Three of his former Oakwood students now work for the school district; two are teachers and one is a para-educator.
“I love to put kids in situations where they are going to break the chains, and be successful in life,” Mitchell said.