I would like to introduce you to Principal El.
Chances are you don’t him because his current school is in Wilmington, Del. However, you probably know other educators who follow his recipe for success: a positive vision plus hard work. Salome Thomas-El produces great strides in student achievement using those simple ingredients. Imagine a new, Ivy League educated teacher coming to a middle school in North Philadelphia, where the poverty rate among students was 96 percent. This was the situation Mr. El faced when he first started at Vaux Middle School in the ’90s.
Mr. El had a vision in which the students from his school were academically successful, socially comfortable outside their neighborhood and college-bound. He had an undeniable belief in the potential of each student and served as the cheerleader and father figure for many students whose own families discouraged their potential.
Much like the line from a Dr. Seuss book, he thought, “If not me, then who?” Mr. El felt strongly that he needed to go back to the basics of discipline, hard work and hands-on time spent with students to affect a change in their lives. Instead of the latest and greatest software programs, he chose chess as a teaching tool.
Mr. El chose chess for several reasons. It can be played by people of all ages and physical abilities. It involves a minimal amount of equipment and helps students learn to think ahead and develop critical thinking skills. His chess team started winning against other middle schools and he worried that they were becoming a bit “cocky.” He set them up against a high school team with the hope that they would learn humility from a crushing defeat, when, in fact, they defeated the older players. That’s the point at which he realized that by setting the bar higher, he helped the students achieve more. At one point, an 11-year-old student of his defeated a chess master at a tournament they attended. The students started to believe in themselves, and through their travels, they began to experience life beyond their neighborhood and see college as a logical step in their futures.
Mr. El eventually became Principal El, and under his leadership, the chess team traveled the world and was named National Chess Champions eight times. Also under his leadership, and perhaps more impressive, 98 percent of the students at Vaux Middle School passed the state math exam for their grade levels at the proficient level or better. Many graduates have continued on to college and graduate school.
I was fortunate to hear Principal El speak at a United Way conference. I was impressed with his simple formula for extraordinary success. His goal each day is for students to experience joy and rigor at school. I was inspired by him and hope that I have been able to convey even a small amount of that inspiration on to you.
Lynn Urban is president and CEO of United Way of Southwest Colorado.