When you listen to the educators at Elmont High School, it's clear they share a real sense of commitment to each other and to their students.
"The student in your class is somebody's child and that child may be their whole world," said social studies teacher Patty Justin.
"Kids are in here for hours after school," added English teacher Amy Giorgio. "They feel like we're family."
A well-organized approach to professionalism has helped make the school an inspiring, award-winning showcase — despite lacking many of the socio-economic resources often associated with academic success.
On paper, this large Nassau County school, on the Queens border, faces many of the challenges embedded in urban education.
At least one-fifth of Elmont's 1,900 students are eligible for free or reduced lunch; 77 percent of the ninth through 12th grade students are African-American — 13 percent are Latino, eight percent are Asian. Though there is an income spread in the community, residents — both homeowners and renters — share pride in the school and support educators' efforts.
In 2010, 99 percent of the economically disadvantaged students graduated, as did 100 percent of the Latino seniors and 99 percent of the African-American students.
"Our members' dedication and commitment are key to student success," said NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira. "Through their efforts, the Elmont community has become an example of what educators working together can accomplish."
Elmont was one of only three schools nationally recognized in 2007 by the Schott Foundation for excellence in the education of African-American males and closing the achievement gap in graduation rates. The College Board acknowledged the school for having the highest number of African-American students attaining a 3 or higher on the Advanced Placement U.S. History exam, and for having the largest number of African-American students scoring a 3 or higher on AP exams in 2005.
The union's role
"Our local has created an atmosphere where student needs are the top priority," said Ro Mamo, president of the Sewanhaka Federation of Teachers. "We've worked to establish a positive environment so kids who've gone to Elmont are ready to handle life's challenges."
The Sewanhaka FT represents more than 650 members serving 8,600 students in five high schools.
Key to Elmont's success:
• Observations of new teachers. "Our goal is to build great teachers, not to tear anyone down," said assistant principal Ed Thomas, a long-time Elmont teacher.
New teachers receive six observations a year — one early in the year, a two-day continuous observation, and others by the department chair and district subject coordinator. By the end of a teacher's first three years, he or she will have had at least 18 observations, giving educators and evaluators a good sense of strengths, weaknesses and areas of growth.
• Common planning time in grades 7-9. The practice helps establish a bond between faculty and students and eases the transition into high school. The teachers in four core subjects — English, math, social studies and science — share a cohort of 90-100 students.
"Teachers supported this so we could have common planning time to help students," said Mamo. "Teachers meet as a team with parents so they can give a wide perspective on student performance."
• Experienced educators spend hours with newer ones in informal mentoring so they become fully conversant with curriculum and practices. Teachers also use curriculum maps so teams move in unison.
Elmont's success is a community success.
"We have a strong Caribbean neighborhood here, culturally we have standing with the parents. They think teaching is like a ministry — we have control in the classroom because of that relationship," said Nkenge Gilliam, an AP U.S. History teacher. "Parents expect our best; we give it to them."
Spanish teacher Mitzi Young nodded in agreement. "Even if parents are not professionals, they do not expect their child to be left behind," Young said. "They tell their kids — you are not there to play around."
This trust with parents is a two-way street built over time.
"We know it's not easy with both parents working, but as a district and a school, we take the extra steps," said teacher Jason Allen, an Elmont grad. "I tell parents — I'm always here, if you need something, find me."
The school has averaged a 97 percent attendance rate the past three years.
Respect and admiration for their colleagues is also crucial.
"People here see the passion others have, they want to emulate it. You want to rise to Nkenge's level," said Allen, gesturing toward his co-worker. "You're not afraid to say you want to be like your colleagues."
"The teachers are so dedicated here, there's a kinship," said Young. "Teaching becomes a way of life. A teacher will sit and tutor a kid at lunchtime, it's that kind of commitment."