Sharing a skill for building ties

The Baltimore Sun

At Tyler Heights Elementary School in Annapolis, parents can accompany their children on their first day of school and sit with them throughout their classes.

Principal Tina McKnight scheduled family field trips to the Maryland Science Center and the National Aquarium, and parent information sessions on test-taking and helping with homework.

In January, she added a second parent-teacher conference at a parent's recommendation.

"The influence of parents on student achievement is huge," McKnight said. "It's a resource we need to tap more."

Now, after seven years of building family ties at Tyler Heights, McKnight will take her talents statewide as an educator-on-loan to the Maryland State Department of Education.

She is scheduled to be in the position for three years, but the county could call McKnight back to her old position if need be, said Kevin M. Maxwell, Anne Arundel County schools superintendent.

"While we certainly hate to lose her to the state ... we hope to bring her back in a greater role when she returns," Maxwell said.

The state's selection of McKnight is a tribute to the work she has done reaching out to parents at Tyler Heights. It also speaks well of the caliber of teachers in county schools, Maxwell said. McKnight is one of 12 county educators on loan to the state.

McKnight was one of the first principals to contact him after he was appointed last year, inviting him to a business partnership breakfast. Maxwell said he was impressed by the connections being made by school officials, parents and business representatives.

"The relationships that you have at that school are unbelievable," he said.

Tyler Heights has had challenges in building ties with students' families. About 75 percent of the 282 students live at or below the poverty line, McKnight said.

The school also has a growing Hispanic population and a need to reach out to parents who might not speak English. When McKnight arrived at Tyler Heights, the Hispanic student population was 6 percent. This year, 43 percent of the students are Hispanic, McKnight said.

"It has been necessary to refocus our efforts," she said.

During her second year at the school, McKnight took a six-week Spanish language immersion trip to Mexico one summer. She lived with a Mexican host family and learned about the culture so she could relate better with her students, she said. The next year, she took four fellow staffers on a three-week immersion trip to Mexico.

McKnight enlisted students who are taking Spanish at Annapolis Area Christian School to translate for Tyler parents at back-to-school events. She began sending bilingual information sheets home.

McKnight went above and beyond to educate her staff to reach out to minority families, particularly Hispanics, said Enrique Melendez, a county school board member. He praised the fact that she tried to hire more bilingual teachers and provide Spanish translators at back-to-school nights, Melendez said.

"The leadership and motivation she provides is going to be missed," he said.

Faye Daniel, a former Tyler Heights teacher, will become acting principal Tuesday. She has spent several days working with McKnight on the transition.

McKnight said she is looking forward to helping other schools build similar programs as the one at Tyler Heights. "I'm hoping some ideas will be shared," she said.

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