MeMe Ratliff

Teacher Engagement Guru

Jefferson County Public Schools

Louisville, KY

While many schools boast of providing a safe and inclusive learning environment that permeates each classroom, common area, nook and cranny, not as many actually follow through. Klondike Lane Elementary (KLE), in Louisville, Kentucky, qualifies as the latter. Each classroom is comprised of starry-eyed learners, with every color of the rainbow represented (55 percent of the student population is non-white). I recently visited the school to glean an insight into its “special sauce” I had heard so much about; the caring nature of Klondike Lane could be felt almost as soon as I entered the door. The front office staff met me with a smile and were more than happy to give me a some quick facts about KLE.

As I spent time in classrooms and spoke with students, it was obvious each felt loved and cared for, more like a family than merely a name on a class list. I first chatted with D’Nayla, a five-year-old in Sara Brock’s kindergarten classroom. D’Nayla mentioned she loved being in Mrs. Brock’s class “because Mrs. Brock lets us do fun things and she teaches us how to read and important things.” When asked to go deeper and define the term things, D’Nayla replied, “You have to be kind and respectful to your friends and your teachers. We take turns when we speak and she teaches us not to take other people’s stuff.”

In Carrie Mucker’s second-grade class, I spoke with Josh, a student new to Klondike Lane this year. “The best is we have a principal – he’s pretty nice. I like when he sends us special papers about things we get to do. The best thing about Klondike is being with others. When you fall down, people help you up. And they always give you nice directions here.”  Mrs. Mucker added that a student had recently been in an accident that left horrible cuts on her face and that before the student returned to school, she held a class meeting with her students about how to welcome her and not make the student feel self-conscious. Upon her return, the young lady was met with a desk full of notes, snacks, stuffed animals and handmade jewelry to welcome her.

Mrs. Carrie Mucker works with students during reading.

Moving about the school, I spoke with both students and staff. It was evident that compassion and caring were common threads. Levi, a student in Johanna Parr’s kindergarten class, mentioned that “even Miss Hollie the bus driver” is nice to him on his way to school. Katie Wolff, my tour guide for the visit, made sure to introduce me to Cafeteria Manager Mary Lynn Dontchos, lauding her staff initiatives to keep students healthy and happy in their time in the lunchroom setting. Jaime Fitch, Klondike’s counselor who is just a few months into her new role, said of the school’s culture, “There is nothing more inspiring than being a part of a school that incorporates respect and trust within everything they do. Klondike Lane’s dedication to creating and maintaining a caring environment allows our learners to grow in so many wonderful ways!” Rodney Borders, a physical education teacher, mentioned that even though the Klondike lane has much fewer students than his previous school, there were many more outreach opportunities for family and community engagement at KLE.

In addition to spending time in classes during my visit, I tasked each of the teachers with whom I met to reflect on a random question from a series I had created earlier that day. Many answers focused on the staff’s dedication to work collaboratively, ensuring that student relationships with staff are kept a priority. Jordan Royse, a fifth-grade teacher who partners with Rebecca Reynolds’ first-grade class for regular collaborative learning opportunities for their students said that the “buddy program” builds leadership skills in each of her students. “Even my academically lowest student can assist a kindergartener with his or her letter sounds and basic addition and subtraction. It allows my students to develop confidence. Our ‘little buddies’ love the one on one attention.” 

Fifth grade students help their first grade “buddy” write notes of thanks for staff members.

Sarah Brock heaped praise on the vertical planning process utilized by principal Mark Boyer and the KLE leadership team. “Vertical planning is important because it gives teachers ownership and investment in ALL students in the building, rather than just those in their individual classroom. It has also established common language and helped us implement the essential standards for each learner.” Johanna Parr gave kudos to the vital role Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) plays to improve the school’s behavioral climate. “The staff shares the same behavioral expectations, taught throughout multiple resources and a school wide behavior plan.” She also proudly added that Klondike had received the Gold Level Award for achieving PBIS implementation with fidelity the past two years from the Kentucky Center for Instructional Discipline. 

A sign reminds students to “do their best” as they walk into their classroom.

Interventionist Katie Wolff echoed the sentiments of her colleagues and added that social media, specifically Twitter, is utilized to share evidence student learning, especially pictures, as well as sending out reminders/announcements to all shareholders. “By sharing pictures and work samples, we are able to share our ideas and see what other teachers are trying and start conversations about how we could use what we saw in our Klondike classrooms. These tweets about what is happening in our classrooms and school are springboards for conversations within our building and throughout the district. By sharing pictures we are able to ‘see’ what others are trying and start conversations about how you could use what you ‘saw’ in your own classroom, and an expert is just down the hall if you have questions about how to incorporate it into your content/class. This also works across the district/state/country by following teachers of a common grade level/content and sharing ideas/resources.”

Rebecca Reynolds, first-grade teacher, provided tips that she might offer to educators and schools wanting to take a deeper dive into teaching empathy and compassion in classrooms and across entire schools. “Take it one step at a time! Students will understand empathy easier than you think! Practice scenarios, utilize resources (she suggested the Class Dojo series on empathy) and discuss questions together with your class. A morning meeting is the first step to getting students started. Show them unconditional love each day!”

Klondike Lane’s culture of compassion, inclusion and focus on the whole child starts at the top. Principal Mark Boyer brilliantly summarized what drives the adults in his building. “The staff at Klondike Elementary has developed a sense of family and continually pull together to support each other both inside and outside of the workplace. The commitment that our staff has made to each other has become a natural part of how they treat our students and families. Staff members are truly focused on developing the whole child and developing a sense of belonging in each classroom. We understand the urgency. However, there are things that we have to build that go beyond a test score. The entire staff takes the initiative to connect with students inside and outside of school. You can always find staff members building a culture within their rooms, taking their time to talk with students, or attending events with students outside of the school. In the eyes of staff, students truly come first.”

When asked to reflect on behavioral trends at KLE, Boyer commented, “In all, the most noticeable decline would be the number of incident referrals that make it to the office. Due to the classroom culture and consistency, the staff deals with the majority of issues (if any), in their classrooms. We do not have a lot of students with behavior incidents. We do, however, have a few students who find themselves having a lot of behavior incidents. These few students, less than five, have every resource made available that is available to them. The majority of our students will respond with a simple redirection. Students will work for people who genuinely care about them, and they don’t want to disappoint or disrespect them. Our students are still kids and will, on occasion, make a poor choice. These are remedied through conversations and the work surrounding our larger PBIS system. Staff members have moved beyond the mindset of punishment or giving a consequence. In years past, punishment and consequences have been ineffective. We have moved into the work of restorative practices and having conversations with students. These conversations further develop relationships and builds trust between the staff and students which sustains longer than prior discipline techniques.”

As I ended my visit to Klondike Lane, the attendance clerk asked if I had enjoyed my visit. With a huge smile on my face, I emphatically said what a success it had been. She smiled and told me I would have to “come back soon” and as we shook hands, I said that was a certainty. 🙂