SUGAR HILL -- As we watched the cars stream in to start the school week at While Oak Elementary School, a parent volunteer and her daughter dutifully recorded the number of vehicles dropping off students. As the clicker climbed to 186, it became evident why it's so difficult to get out of my subdivision around 8 a.m.
I was at While Oak on Monday as part of the Principal for a Day program that celebrates American Education Week. It was my fifth year shadowing a Gwinnett principal, but my first visiting a neighbor. The school is a stone's throw from my home (if Craig Kimbrel is throwing it) so the commute was something I could get used to. The principal's job, however, is another matter.
Jean Loethen-Payne opened the school four years ago, and judging by Monday's pace I'd guess she's sat down about three times since. The Missouri native has energy that belies her diminutive size, but what really impresses me is the way she's been able to impart her educational vision into the fledgling school, located at the corner of Suwanee Dam and Buford Dam Roads near the edge of Lake Lanier.
She wanted White Oak to be a workshop-based school with an emphasis on reading literacy, and we saw many examples of both during our tour. No matter what the lesson -- even art or reading -- the children used charts or journals to record the info they had learned. There seemed to be a lot of emphasis in the process as much as the final answer.
"We're looking for our children to be thinkers," said Loethen-Payne, who has worked for Gwinnett County Public Schools for 26 years, nearly 10 as a principal. "We're helping to create lifelong learners. We want children who can go out into the world and figure out: Why did this test fail?
"It's really preparing them for real life. If you bake a cake and it flops, you kind of want to know why."
To my chagrin, we did not visit a cake-baking class. But we had plenty of other entertaining moments, including a visit to a science lab where the students were building levees (a couple the Corps of Engineers would be proud of) and a trip to one classroom where first-graders tried to determine the length of a lifetime (60 was a popular answer, as was 57. Nineteen also received a vote).
The most unique classrooms, and probably the best example that Loethen-Payne's vision has permeated the staff, were those of fourth-grade teachers Matt Smith and Nick Boyers. Their In-Tec program is one that has students doing their own research and work on projects that are then presented to their peers.
During our visit the theme was the solar system (hard to beat one group's name -- the Lunartics) and the groups were writing scripts and shooting and editing videos for their projects. One student was learning about tracking shots while another discussed an article she read about black holes. The way they worked and interacted made it easy to forget these are 9- and 10-year-olds,
It was the perfect example of the students being engaged, a word Loethen-Payne says epitomizes her goal for the students. And the very existence of the class shows that teachers are embracing the principal's vision.
The day ended with seeing the buses off. As the kids walked by, one little girl said she recognized me from the morning announcements, another gave me a hug. The children left knowing they were a day closer to Thanksgiving break, and I departed thinking a busy roadway is a small price to pay for such a good neighbor.
Email Todd Cline at email@example.com. His column appears on Wednesdays.