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Melissa Barclay: Reinvigorating Community

Melissa Barclay is the new principal at Lafayette Elementary School. Keeping parents connected is one of her biggest priorities this year, but the kids are what this gig is all about. Ms. Barclay is focused on bringing her experience to bear on doing what she does best—reaching all students in schools.

Each year, back-to-school night follows a predictable routine. Teachers prepare presentations and showcase their classrooms; principals welcome families, preview the upcoming year, and discuss important routines; parents and caregivers hire the babysitter, meet the teacher, and sign up for volunteer opportunities. Business aside, back-to-school-night always has a buzz! Getting into the classroom, learning children's’ daily routines, making connections, and seeing old and new friends add up to making this seemingly straightforward evening one that parents and caregivers anticipate every year. Due to the pandemic, however, the Lafayette community hasn’t had a chance to experience it in person for two long years.

Melissa Barclay, the new principal at Lafayette Elementary School, knows full well the importance of this night. Sitting in her office as she talks about the upcoming school year and prepares for the evening ahead, she is thoughtful and reflective. “The 1st and 2nd grades didn’t have a typical back-to-school night. A full third of the school hasn’t felt connected in the ways that we’re used to,” she says, as she considers the renewed significance of this night. “The biggest goal going into this year is rebuilding as a community. This is a good year to bring back traditions and reintroduce them.” Keeping parents connected is one of her biggest priorities through things like Leopard Day, PTA meetings, volunteering in the lower grades, and grade-level events. Getting that face time will be essential in helping us “come out of our shells again,” she hopes.

While reaching out to parents is a big priority, anyone with a teaching background will tell you that the kids are what this gig is all about. Important community goals aside, Ms. Barclay is focused on bringing her experience to bear on doing what she does best—reaching all students in schools. The pandemic, however, introduced new challenges, interrupting that strong sense of connection within the school community. Supporting students as they recover from the disruption to their elementary years underlies much of the work. Students are, of course, thrilled to be back at school with their friends; but even under the best of circumstances, they sometimes need extra help navigating classroom and playground dynamics. Ms. Barclay is especially grateful that LPIE is providing additional support for full-time counselors at the elementary level. She says that "as a site we are enthusiastic about being able to expand the support that we provide for students in the SEL realm. The LPIE-funded counselors can provide whole class support with topics like empathy, friendship, and mindfulness. This has a direct impact on student well-being and therefore, students' ability to learn." Giving students the support they need to succeed academically and socially will go a long way towards strengthening the Lafayette Elementary School community.

Like many teachers and administrators, coming out of the pandemic presents plenty of challenges, but Ms. Barclay has a long history of teaching and a special connection to Lafayette Elementary School that makes her especially poised to help. Some parents and students may recognize her from her time working as a literacy specialist at Lafayette Elementary. Long before that, though, Ms. Barclay began her teaching career in Boston as a literacy specialist and classroom teacher, transitioning to the West Coast about 10 years ago. She got her start teaching 5th and 6th grade literacy and English Language Arts. As her career progressed, she saw the benefits of experiencing other districts and grade levels, noting that “you see different ways of doing things, and you have new experiences.” In each new setting, she was drawn to what made it unique: “I always sought out different leadership roles and ways of expanding my own learning and professional development.” That drive to understand and refine her own practice led her to curriculum and school site councils in the places where she taught. She asked questions such as, “What is the big picture of school? How do all the pieces fit together? How do you reach all kids and make sure you’re reaching everyone? I wanted to be a part of these conversations.” While administration wasn’t on her mind when she had younger children, she “realized it was finally time.” Four years ago, she completed an administration program and began working as an assistant principal at Springhill with a special focus on curriculum work.

Now back at Lafayette Elementary, Ms. Barclay is excited to bring all her interests together and tap into LPIE’s funding for Professional Development to introduce Professional Learning Communities, or PLCs. The goal of PLCs is to encourage teachers to work collaboratively and learn from each other for the betterment of student education. PLCs emphasize best teaching practices and underscore the question, “Why are we here?” with the critical answer being, “We are responsible for educating everyone.” Reflecting on the wealth of talent in Lafayette schools, Ms. Barclay notes that “as a district, we are one whole PLC. There are so many people with different skills and expert knowledge to share.” Looking ahead, she sees the theme of reuniting community running parallel to her goal of bringing teachers together: “Teachers are excited! This is a good moment for jumping into PLC work.” The biggest topics on her mind this year include addressing the standards for learning. Student standards can often settle for breadth, not depth, so she hopes to encourage teachers to delve into essential learning proficiencies. She is also interested in creating room for more formative assessments—methods of assessing learning throughout the teaching process rather than once at the end—so teachers can adapt lessons when needed to ensure all students’ understanding.

Ms. Barclay looks forward to bringing all this together with grade level teams during Wednesday staff collaboration. What does that look like at each grade level? For first grade, it might mean including reading specialists during grade-level meetings. For Kindergarten, it could be adding a speech language expert to the grade-level teaching team. PLCs are about bringing teachers and specialists together so they are not working in isolation, but rather benefitting from each other’s knowledge so they can elevate classroom learning and student experience. Collaborative work is also very exciting for teachers. It is about “helping teachers have a chance to keep growing and learning through PLCs and peer observation.”

Elementary schools aren’t just about focusing on assessments—they are also about meeting the needs of the whole child. There are students who count down the hours until the next LPIE art, music, or science lesson. Ms. Barclay is mindful that the best education is one that supports the whole child, and she is grateful that we live in a district with a fundraising organization that supports classes in these areas. Reflecting on her time as a teacher in Boston, she says, “A lot of people don’t realize that schools on the East Coast aren’t like schools in California. Many of these classes are a given because they are already funded by the state.” In California, the support for arts education is tenuous at best due to the focus on statewide assessment outcomes. She is grateful to LPIE for preserving a well-rounded education and making it possible for schools to offer here what students in other states take for granted: “Thank goodness we have a foundation in Lafayette to make the difference. That we are able to have art and have someone be thoughtful about lessons is so valuable. It really enhances the experiences our kids are having here.” She is also grateful for the instructional aides, who are so dedicated to the students and so valuable to teachers: “More adults in the classroom means more feedback and guidance for kids.” Those adult-to-student connections help meet the goal of reaching all kids in the classroom.

What is she most excited about this year? “This is a big job. I’m excited to be here at LES. The amazing teachers and staff made for such a positive experience before, and I’m excited to be part of the community.” Curious about what drew her to the West Coast in the first place? San Francisco was her first stop. “Sunshine originally beckoned, but wasn’t to be found in San Francisco,” she laughs. “We were disappointed at the fog. When we moved to Lafayette, we were searching for sunshine.” Great sunshine, green hills, great schools—what a great reason to land here. Lafayette Elementary is lucky to have her.

Book Recommendations

The Morning Meeting by Roxann Kriete and Carol Davis

The Case Against Homework by Book by Nancy Kalish and Sara Bennett


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