Shared from the 8/7/2016 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette NW eEdition

Justin Minkel

Teacher becomes literacy superhero

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NWA Democrat-Gazette/ANTHONY REYES • @NWATONYR

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Photo courtesy of Pete Souza

Justin Minkel’s advocacy for more systemic support for teachers working in high poverty schools led to an invitation to meet with President Barack Obama at the White House, an event he unsurprisingly calls “the highlight of my career.” Minkel is pictured to Obama’s left with Education Secretary Arne Duncan and a group of teachers on July 7, 2014.

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NWA Democrat-Gazette/ANTHONY REYES • @NWATONYR

“[Justin Minkel] does it purely because he wants to make a generational change in all of these children, and, as he said to me, if I can make that generational change with one child, I am successful in what I’ve done — and he’s done that with hundreds of children now so he has very much inspired me.”

— Stephanie Davern, Scholastic Book Fairs

In the world of education, controversy swirls over the most accurate way to measure a teacher’s success in the classroom.

But no matter which metric you might choose, Justin Minkel is an unmitigated success as an educator.

He’s lauded by his school’s administrators. “He works locally and nationally to advocate for kids,” says Principal Melissa Fink of Jones Elementary School in Springdale. “He wants every child, regardless of their ZIP code, to attend a high quality school. His connections to lawmakers and community leaders allow him to influence policy that impacts schools.”

He’s praised by his co-workers. “Justin is an amazing educator. He has this amazing ability to see things in a big picture way,” says his co-collaborator on the Home Library Project, Amber Stout. “He has made a difference in the lives of many children.”

He’s held in high esteem by his colleagues halfway across the country. “That’s the word most people use to describe Justin: brilliant,” notes Marguerite Izzo, New York’s 2007 Teacher of the Year and Minkel’s colleague in the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. “But that’s not his best quality. His best quality is that he’s kind.”

Awards? Minkel’s got that covered. In 2006, he was named Milken Educator for Arkansas. In 2007, he became the Arkansas Teacher of the Year. In 2013, he became a Lowell Milken Center Fellow.

Or perhaps you would measure him the same way that he measures himself: What do Minkel’s students learn after a year in his classroom? “[The Home Reading Project] is a very good project, and, thanks to that project, I am a very good reader,” one of his students wrote to him recently. “I still remember that in the beginning of second grade my [Developmental Reading Assessment score] was 16, and, at the end of third grade, I was in DRA 50.”

“Getting to read books that they’re excited about, that are about topics they like, or a new author they love — getting to read with their mom and dad or their brothers and sisters, is this thing that builds love of learning and creativity and curiousity.”
— Justin Minkel at Jones Elementary School in Springdale

Indeed, most of Minkel’s students — 85 percent of whom are English language learners and 99 percent of whom are living at the federal poverty level or below — have made enormous literacy gains in a single year, some skipping two or more grade levels.

Bottom line: In a profession where measures of achievement can by muddied by politics, poverty, and other barriers to learning, Justin Minkel’s status as one of the most effective, committed educators in our area is unequivocal.

PROLOGUE

Minkel’s fervent desire to be a positive force of change for at-risk, under-served children first blossomed back in high school when he volunteered to work with kids at a women’s shelter. A friend had been assaulted, leaving her with PTSD. “I just remember feeling this kind of anger about violence against women so, I thought, here’s this constructive thing I can do instead of being angry about it. Here’s a way to channel this anger and frustration into helping these young boys hopefully not follow that path, even though they’re experiencing the abuse.”

That first experience working with kids left Minkel awed by the way simple kindness could sometimes combat behavioral problems in troubled children. “I just saw them change so dramatically. I thought, OK, you can really have an impact at a young age.”

Minkel attended college at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and then signed up with Teach for America, where he met his wife, Karen, a fellow TFA member. Through that program, he taught for two years in a high-poverty West Harlem school. He immediately loved teaching but felt he needed more training.

After getting his master’s in elementary education with a focus on English language learners at the University of California at Berkeley, Minkel and his wife moved back to Fayetteville, where Minkel had attended high school and where his family still lived. He was thrilled when he was hired at Jones Elementary. The population of the school, high poverty and 85 percent English language learners, closely mimicked that of the West Harlem school he had previously found so challenging and rewarding. He quickly realized that improving his students’ literacy skills would be his toughest job, and would require a new and innovative approach.

The genesis for what would become Minkel’s Home Library Project was his own childhood in rural Stone County, Ark.

“There weren’t great libraries, there weren’t great schools, so my parents made sure I had books, just a ton of books,” remembers Minkel. “I would go running in the fields, pretending to play with these characters. I feel like it really shaped a lot about me.”

He happened on to a University of Nevada study that showed that the number of books in a child’s home impacted the level of that child’s educational attainment, regardless of socio-economic status or the parents’ level of educational attainment.

“Both factors — having a 500-book library or having university-educated parents — propel a child 3.2 years further in education, on average,” wrote Science Daily of the study.

This study led Minkel to the books of literacy specialist Richard Allington. “I looked at his research, and he found that just sending kids home with 12 books over the summer was equivalent to summer school in terms of their reading gains. So you have this huge impact, and it’s about one-sixtieth the cost. [Allington] spent $60 on those books, $5 a book, and summer school costs about $3,000 per kid by the time you factor in their teachers and the facility, so it just makes so much sense to me as a way to close that gap.”

Intrigued by what he was learning, Minkel conducted a home reading survey in his classroom. “My kids said they had three books, or five books. One girl had one book. In some cases, the parents know it’s important, but they’re living so close to subsistence — if all your money is going to groceries or rent, you just don’t have any extra money for books.”

CHAPTER ONE

In 2010, Minkel launched the first Home Library Project, originally called “The 1,000 Books Project,” so named because Minkel was determined to get each of the 25 students in his classroom 40 books to take home over the course of the year. Capitalizing on a chance meeting with a Scholastic executive who was touring Jones Elementary while Minkel was working out how to implement his project, Minkel was able to convince Scholastic to donate 20 books per child.

“What attracted us to [Minkel’s project] is it’s right in what our mission is,” enthuses Stephanie Davern, foundational and corporate partnerships representative for Scholastic. “We want family engagement, which is very strong with Justin and Jones as a whole, and it fosters that reading practice. … He really wanted Jones to be this really literacy-rich community and environment and really foster that school-tohome connection.”

Minkel scraped together the remaining funds needed through a combination of his own money and donations from family and friends. He carefully timed the distribution of books prior to holidays and school breaks, periods that typically result in “slides” for students in high poverty and English language learners — when a student regresses academically while away from school for long periods of time.

“Scholastic comes in, and the library is set up with all of these books, and it really feels like Christmas … The kids are so happy that they can choose three or four or five free books,” says Minkel. “One time, there was this little guy, he was Marshallese, and he wasn’t picking out any books, and he looked so sad. I said, ‘What’s the matter?’ and he said, ‘I don’t even have a dollar,’ and I said, ‘No! You don’t have to have a dollar! This is all free!’”

At the end of the year, Minkel was astonished when he tallied up the progress his students had made.

“That was the year I had the most reading growth to that point, ever,” Minkel says. “I was doing everything else the same. I did guided reading and ‘read alouds,’ you know, all of the stuff teachers do, but there was this boost that seemed like it was directly attributable to the Home Library Project. And so I saw this big impact in terms of accelerated reading development.”

There were other clear successes.

“Family literacy was huge [with this project] … There’s a student I always talk about with the Home Library Project who had just had every horrible thing happen to her. She’d been abused, she had one book at home, her mom wasn’t literate — and she made two years of growth in one year. I asked her how she made all of this growth, and she said, ‘You know those books you gave me? Now, when we’re watching television with my mom and my little sister at night, my sister and mom tell me to turn off the television and read to [them].’”

Other Jones teachers soon took notice of Minkel’s success.

“I had a group of students who were not progressing in their reading abilities as quickly as I wanted them to,” remembers Stout. “I called Justin … He suggested trying the Home Library Project.”

The result? More success. Says Stout, “I saw an excitement for books in my class. I felt like I was not only helping students but empowering families.”

This success prompted Principal Fink to work with Stout to find school funds to implement the program in 13 more classrooms. Two years ago, Minkel and Stout wrote a successful grant proposal for $100,000 from the Farmers Insurance “Dream Big” Program for teachers. It was one of only five such awards in the country, and it helped fund the project for all Jones students, as well as others at Harp Elementary and Lee Elementary in Springdale.

This year, Minkel and Stout are thankful for a $24,000 United Way grant that will fund the Home Library Project at Jones. But they are still seeking funding that will also bring the program to 11 other Springdale schools that mostly serve students in poverty.

EPILOGUE

Minkel is a force of nature when it comes to doing what’s best for his students, but he’s well aware he couldn’t achieve as much without the support of administrators like Fink and hard-working collaborators like Stout.

“I work with so many wonderful people,” he says. “[Fink] talks about this evolution from focusing on the core academics — reading, math, writing — to focusing on the idea that you had to see kids in the context of their family and their community, and also that you just have to meet the needs of the whole child,” Minkel says. Jones does this by offering family literacy night, parent workshops and sending home backpacks of food on Fridays for their most food insecure families. Jones even hosts a family clinic in their building so that students have ready medical care.

Still, despite the innovation and massive literacy gains, Jones Elementary still finds itself struggling on the state report card. “You end up with these absurd situations where [Fink] got elementary principal of the year — the same year we were one of five schools in the nation to get this grant for the Home Library Project — and the U.S. Department of Education profiled us as one of five [high-poverty yet successful] schools in the U.S. …and we got a ‘D’ on the state report card. There’s a disconnect here, this complicated formula that’s mainly looking at these basic reading and math scores and not so much growth from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.”

The danger of using test scores to tell the whole story of a school’s successes or failures is one of the things about the current state of our educational system that motivates Minkel to keep teachers at the forefront when making educational policy.

“I just think there’s no substitute for being there at the table with them when there’s an issue you care about … I think we need stronger partnerships. The best policy I’ve seen, the best curriculum I’ve seen, is developed by teachers or, at least, in partnership with teachers.”

Minkel currently holds a part-time teaching position at Jones and spends the other half of his day — on his own dime — meeting with policy makers and blogging about current educational issues for EdWeek.com and the Center for Teaching Quality. His advocacy for more systemic support for teachers working in high poverty schools led to an invitation to meet with President Barack Obama at the White House, an event he unsurprisingly calls “the highlight of my career.”

“It was just this amazing moment. And I feel like this is what America is supposed to be: People who don’t have a ton of money, don’t have a ton of political influence, but are normal, everyday people, sitting here with this view of the White House lawn, talking to the most powerful person in the world about kids and teaching.”

Always at the forefront of his work, though, is his fervent championing of his students.

“The real solution to inequity is to make sure that students of color and high poverty kids have equal access to great teachers,” he says. “I just don’t think we can keep having one system for poor kids and one system for the middle class and affluent kids.”

Meanwhile, he continues to impress those who watch him work.

“He’s inspired me to grow, not only within my company and who I am and what I represent, but who I am as a person and what one single person can do,” says Stephanie Davern, the Scholastic representative who intends to continue to work with Minkel on the Home Library Project. “I often speak about him when I am talking with other people and say, ‘You think one person can’t do something big? Let me give you an example.’”

SELF-PORTRAIT

• Place of birth: Mendota, Ill.

• Family (spouse, children): Karen Minkel (my wife), Aidan (age 5) and Ariana (age 8), who attend Leverett Elementary in Fayetteville.

• The book I’ve been recommending lately: The Inspector Gamache mystery series, set in a Quebec village near Montreal, Quebec, by Louise Penny. Inspector Armand Gamache is my role model — he’s the kind of dad, husband, friend, and professional I strive to be.

• I know I’ve helped a child when: Her life becomes a little better because of the time she spent in my classroom.

• If I’ve learned one thing in life, it’s that: Every human being, whether a single mom working as a hotel maid or the billionaire CEO of a Fortune 500 company, has equal value. My parents taught me this by example — growing up, I never saw them bow down to someone because that individual had power, and I never saw them disrespect someone because he or she lacked it.

• My most humbling experience was: My first year teaching. Teaching is the most meaningful, joyful work I know, but it’s also the hardest.

• A really good piece of advice I received was: From my dad, who is a contractor with his own small construction business: “There are a thousand ways to build a building. Most people are so afraid of making a mistake, they never get started. You just have to begin.”

• The biggest pressure I feel is: To do what I can each school year to help my students overcome the immense obstacles to their dreams posed by poverty, racism, and a national fixation on standardized test scores.

Lara Hightower can be reached by email at lhightower@nwadgcom..

Minkel called one of the most effective, committed educators in the area

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ROY DUDLEY

Little Rock

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