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Jo-Ellen Connolly, Principal, Colliers Primary School – Colliers, WV

Jo-Ellen Connolly Photo

In a community beset by poverty, loss of jobs, and opioid addiction, Principal Jo-Ellen Connolly placed a stake in the ground: “It is the school’s responsibility,” she said, to help students overcome obstacles in their lives that inhibit their ability to engage successfully with school. Drawing on research that establishes basic needs—food, clothing, and a sense of feeling safe—as prerequisite to academic success, Principal Connolly engaged the local community of businesses and religious institutions to step up for her students.

Many Colliers students are from high-poverty single parent homes or are being raised by extended family members. To aid students’ social and emotional development, Principal Connolly initiated programs to promote more positive male and female role models. The Papa Bears program brings fathers in to spend a day with students and promote education and positive adult-child relationships. The Mama Bears program places volunteers in classrooms to facilitate learning. With the help of a local church, she initiated a “Food for Ewe” weekend backpack program, providing weekend meals and snacks so that students do not go hungry. The school’s clothes closet, filled with seasonal clothing, sees regular use.  Another community resource provides meals for students in an after-school tutoring program.

Evidence that attending to students’ physical and emotional needs aids academic achievement is clear: more than two-thirds of 3rd and 4th graders scored proficient in ELA and nearly two-thirds were proficient in math; 93% of fourth graders increased their reading scores over the previous year, as did 87% their math scores. Colliers has earned recognition as a West Virginia School of Excellence and a Title I Distinguished School.

To keep students engaged in literacy, Principal Connolly sets whole-school reading goals, with awards such as shirts and book bags. At weekly morning school-wide assemblies, students are recognized for their achievements—in and out of school—the school body reviews the Colliers Top 10 Rules, and students lead both the Pledge of Allegiance and the school pledge. Each week, one classroom earns the “Golden Trash Can” award from the custodial staff, reinforcing the importance of working as a team and pride in their school.

High standards challenge students to achieve while teachers offer support through differentiated instruction and interventions. A designated intervention period is structured into the school schedule. Every student has an individual Student Learning Plan which travels with the student from grade to grade to encourage consistency among teachers. Student achievement and effort are celebrated at academic pep rallies and students are urged to compete in Math Field Days and the district Spelling Bee.

Teachers participate in workshops and PD on the opioid crisis and other poverty-related hardships in addition to pedagogical enrichment. Teachers are included in decision-making about new programs and initiatives and have the flexibility to innovate in their classroom teaching.

A newsletter keeps parents informed about academic and social successes while the school’s website is regularly updated to let the community know of happenings at the school.  A county all-call system enables Principal Connolly to communicate with parents and guardians at a moment’s notice. Principal Connolly was a founding member of the Colliers Alumni and Friends Association, which recognizes fourth grade students and gives a scholarship annually to a high school senior who attended Colliers Primary. She also lends her energies to special fund-raisers for families with extraordinary needs, raising more than $16,000 for a family with a medical emergency.

Principal Connolly ensures that the school-community relationship is two-way. She supports numerous Fire Department fund-raisers and holds an outdoor Memorial Day event for the whole community. Colliers students lead the Pledge of Allegiance, recite the Gettysburg Address, and read patriotic poems, after which community members are invited into the school for refreshments. Community members are also invited to the school during the holidays for refreshments and an annual Craft Show.