Paige Hanks is a tenacious fighter. Behind unassuming, dark-rimmed spectacles lie eyes that gleam with an unrelenting dedication to her students—a fierce commitment to student success that tolerates no excuse for unrealized potential. Surrounded by a staff of equally passionate teachers at Press Elementary, Principal Paige Hanks is leading an unwavering charge toward college readiness at her school. And, giving excuses the boot.
“We believe that every kid can go to college,” said Hanks. “Not every kid will, but we want them to have that choice. We’re not going to make excuses for kids. We’re not going to say, ‘Oh, that student came from a home of poverty, so they can’t learn,’ or ‘That kiddo has a single parent, and they can’t meet that expectation.’ They can absolutely meet that expectation. It’s our job to figure out how to get them there.”
Behind that philosophy, Press has become the 181st school in the nation, and the first McKinney ISD school, to be named a No Excuses University Network School.
It’s not an award, and no money or dues are involved. Rather, the “Network School” designation represents inclusion in a growing national cadre of campuses that meet very high standards for college-preparedness. Not every school that applies gets in, and not every school that gets in, stays in. In short, it is an acknowledgment of hard work and dedication—and a rallying cry to keep pressing forward.
“Our staff is thrilled to achieve this recognition,” said Hanks. “They have worked hard and will continue to commit to every child achieving success. We have transformed our approach to working with our students using the NEU six exceptional systems, and we are relentless in our approach to preparing all kids to be ready for college.”
Founded by former Los Peñasquitos Elementary School principal Damen Lopez in 2004, the No Excuses University model is changing the way elementary schools—and their students—think about college-preparedness by creating “exceptional systems” in the following areas: 1) culture of universal achievement 2) collaboration 3) standards alignment 4) assessment 5) data analysis 6) interventions.
“With the necessity to have a college degree in today’s marketplace, the students who are prepared at an earlier age will have a clear advantage by the time they graduate from high school and enroll in college,” said Lopez. “The importance of this type of college readiness is magnified for our students of poverty who are looking to be the first in their families to earn a college degree.”
NEU Network Schools receive the benefit of being connected to other schools around the country with the same mission. “NEU Schools are made up of staffs that not only wish to learn from other like-minded educators, but more importantly, share ideas and strategies with them. Press Elementary is the type of sister-school that will be able to do just that,” said Lopez.
Hanks is pushing that concept forward. “I’m working with [the NEU network] to leverage social media. We’re going to start having NEU chats on Twitter and stay connected. So, my 4th grade teacher can talk to a 4th grade teacher in California and a 4th grade teacher in Illinois, and they can collaborate on how they are showing data in the classroom or how they’re working towards collaborating with people on other grade levels, making sure their kids are ready for middle school,” she said.
At Press, Hanks and her staff have created a culture that is immersed in the trappings of college. “We’re talking college everywhere we go. You’ll see that as we walk around. Every classroom has adopted a college,” said Hanks. Indeed, from wall hangings to t-shirts to class cheers, students are exposed to positive celebrations of college at every turn, along with the idea that a college education is attainable. And, that there are no excuses for not preparing for it.
“Many of the students that we serve have come from homes where college has been out of reach for them,” said 1st grade teacher Carolyn Miller. “We have students here who are really bright students, and if given the opportunity and the skills and the love that we have here at Press for them, they will be successful in life. I’m just so happy that we were given the opportunity to help these students in this way, and I think the NEU [model] will definitely be a plus for us.”
“One of the most important things we do is just to help them understand how important it is to be responsible for their own learning,” said Miller. “We do that throughout the day in the classroom, in the hallways, in the cafeteria, on the playground—wherever they are. We are teaching them how to be good students as well as being very motivated to do their best.”
Press Student Council President Catherine Davis, a 5th grader, already knows her long term goals for college. “I like Harvard and USC, probably because I want to be an author when I grow up or a lawyer.”
And she knows what it will take to get to there. “You have to get grades, and you have to work really hard because just sitting around and pretending to do your work is not going to help you at all,” she said.
Hanks, her teachers at Press Elementary and college students everywhere would heartily agree with that sentiment.
And so, Paige Hanks and her team fight on, tenaciously, to ensure that every kid who walks through the doors of Press Elementary knows that college is out there, it’s important and it is attainable.
Story submitted by Shane Mauldin, MISD