Sovanna Mireles has been in 5th grade for less than a month, but she already feels accomplished. Her name is on the reading tree in the hallway of Mountain View Elementary School.
“It feels pretty good,” the 10-year-old said. “I’m really proud of myself this year.”
To get her name on the tree, Mireles had to read for 25 minutes at home 10 times. As a reward, she got a brand new set of books from Barnes and Noble. It’s part of a new program at the school meant to get kids excited about reading.
Mountain View Elementary School is one of the most diverse schools in the Anchorage School District. More than 90% of students identify as non-white, according to district data.
It’s also one of the lowest performing. In statewide PEAKS tests for the 2020-2021 school year, nearly 70% of Mountain View third, fourth and fifth graders tested far below proficient in English and language arts. That compares to 31% in the district as a whole.
Principal Clare Hill wants to change that.
Hill was the principal of Chugach Optional Elementary for six years. At Chugach Optional, just 5% of students tested far below proficient in English and language arts.
“I came from a pretty high achieving school, and I want the same thing for Mountain View,” she said.
In 2020, Hill earned her doctorate in education. For her dissertation, she spoke with Black and Alaska Native parents about the academic achievement gap between white students and students of color. Many of those parents were from Mountain View, and Hill said many of them weren’t aware of the school’s below average reading scores.
“That was a piece I realized needs to be a focus – that partnership piece for the parents, and making sure there’s transparency in however many languages we need to get it out,” she said.
When the principal position opened up at Mountain View, she jumped at the opportunity. Now, in her first year on the job, she’s putting her research into action.
“They wanted culturally responsive instruction, they wanted to have that communication, and one of my goals here is to create a space that the community feels very welcome in,” Hill said.
Some of that work started this summer. She had the front lawn mowed and dead trees removed.
“There were signs that said, ‘Police your dog.’ I had those removed. That just felt like a strange sign,” Hill said. “We love our police officers and our SROs, but there are better words that you could say.”
Other changes happened inside the building. Along the hallway are the letters of the alphabet with pictures – a cat next to C, a dog next to D. The idea is to give students, especially English Language Learners, a visual reminder of those letters and sounds.
To give students extra creative time – and help with morning childcare – the school started hosting “morning Mustang rallies.” An hour before school starts, students can come listen to music, work on art projects and eat breakfast together.
Third, fourth, and fifth graders can now join basketball teams after school. A morning choir program is also in the works. The school recently received a $20,000 grant to fund a new computer lab, where students will work on STEM projects before and after school.
Some changes are specifically geared toward Muslim students many of whom came to Anchorage as refugees from Afghanistan last year. The girls’ bathroom sign shows a girl wearing a hijab. A space in the front office is now a prayer room.
“When we’re trying to create that partnership, it’s not one size fits all,” Hill said. “How do we create those partnerships that are meaningful? What is safety and what does our school feel like and look like for a lot of our different community members?”
Hill grew up in Kodiak, and she said her school played a huge role in supporting children and families. Now, as a parent herself, she wants Mountain View Elementary to do the same.
“I definitely see through the lens differently with having a child myself,” Hill said. “And she’s half Black, so it’s helpful for me to see some of those system issues that I know children of color deal with more than their Caucasian peers. I want her to not have those barriers.”
The next project on her list is a family resource center, with the help of a $17,500 grant from Mayor Dave Bronson’s office. Donated backpacks, jackets and shoes are currently stored in an extra classroom. Hill wants that room to become a place where families can meet with school staff and get connected to resources like food pantries or affordable housing.
“Many times, when families are refugee families, or they’re new to the country, or they’re in crisis, the school is a place they know about, but they might not know about a food pantry,” she said.
These are early steps in a process that might take years. But Hill is hopeful that stronger relationships with parents will lead to higher achievement for students.
In the meantime, the reading tree will keep filling up, each leaf representing another Mountain View Mustang.