Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Riverside Elementary School principal Craig Barlow interacts with students in the hallway earlier this week. For 11 of the school's 13 years of existence, Barlow has been principal.
SUWANEE -- Riverside Elementary School, with a student population of about 1,200, is tucked away amid quiet, upscale neighborhoods not far from North Gwinnett High School. For 11 of the school's 13 years, Dr. Craig Barlow has been principal and has seen some sweeping changes in teaching philosophies, both locally and nationally.
His school alone has been through five redistrictings in the years he's been principal. Student enrollment has fluctuated and demographics have changed, but the momentum in Gwinnett County schools has remained focused on the student.
Born and raised in Barnesville, Barlow earned his doctorate from the University of Georgia and is well versed in both established and cutting-edge educational approaches. The changes he has seen and steered over the past few years at Riverside benefit students, and he credits Gwinnett's focus on leadership with many of those benefits. Teamwork and leadership are at the core of the culture at Riverside Elementary.
"We are very much like a family here," Barlow said. "I like to see a mix of male and female teachers, as well as young and more experienced teachers. The students get the benefit from these teachers teaming up and working together."
"What has been missing in many American schools is involvement of the children. Even at the kindergarten level, our kids are tracking their own data throughout the school year. That takes the fear, anxiety and surprise out of a child's education."
In fact, Riverside Elementary was one of the first Gwinnett schools to bring kindergarten students into this philosophy of self-tracking and accountability. Some school leaders and teachers felt that students that age might be too young to exhibit that level of leadership and accountability.
"They do just fine; they may use crayons and simple graphs to record their progress, but you can go up to any kindergarten student here and ask how they're doing. They can tell you," Barlow said.
Riverside Elementary also practices 100 percent student-led conferencing. Students plan, prepare for and participate in parent-teacher conferences; their involvement spurs ownership of their choices and efforts. Since leadership became a focus at Riverside, performance and test scores have been on the increase. "Our parents already set the bar high. We set it high too. Sure, we want these kids to go to Yale if they want to, but right now they have to be allowed to be kids, too." Students' involvement in their own academic success removes the fear and anxiety that have for so long characterized the student-teacher-school relationship. Barlow believes that his school has reached that delicate balance between peak achievement and letting kids be kids.
Parent, community and business partnerships are also key in the success of the school. Barlow has seen changes in parental involvement over the years, and today, family involvement and commitment are long-term. "Years ago, many of our students were here for about 18 months before a corporate transfer would require a move. It didn't make sense to a lot of parents to invest in and volunteer in a school that their child would only attend for a year or so. Now, families move here to stay. Parents are more motivated to give time and resources to the school, PTA and council."
The administrators, faculty and students at Riverside have taken community and business partnering to a whole new level, even rolling up their sleeves to help houses on the market sell to families -- with children. Working with listing real estate agents in the district, Riverside enlists the help of students to take prospective home buyers on a tour of the school if they request one. The school's academic record, warm environment punctuated with live plants and specially commissioned art (from nearby North Gwinnett High School), and obvious family atmosphere are attractive to families with young children.
Barlow's personal interest in architecture, lighting and environment are reflected throughout the hallways in the school. The cafeteria features countertop seating, a move that has opened up the area and makes it calming and orderly. A nature mural on one wall softens the institution atmosphere that characterizes many school cafeterias, and a large window adorned with bird feeders is a point of fascination for students.
Civic-mindedness is also part of the culture at Riverside. Through Riverside's Community of Kindness initiative, "Each homeroom is encouraged to come up with their own individual service projects," Barlow said. Students are encouraged to pursue their own charitable initiatives, and not just for the purpose of padding college applications down the road.
"You don't wake up at 17 and decide you want to go out and change the world. It has to start early."
Barlow brings a love for teaching and passion for young people to his position at Riverside. "I want for these students what I want for my own children," he said. "If we see that something can be done better for the good of the students, we do it."