Jefferson principal leading a cultural shift

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Of all the people in Cape Girardeau who wield influence -- from politicians to media personnel, police and law figures to business and economic leaders -- few have more potential to shape Cape Girardeau's future for the better than an energetic school principal named Leigh Ragsdale.

Newly positioned in a leadership role at Cape Girardeau's most susceptible public elementary school, Ragsdale is the energy and leader behind the new STREAM initiative there. STREAM curriculum (Science, Technology, Research, Engineering, Art and Mathematics) is using a hands-on approach to all kinds of learning and lessons.

It's an ambitious plan rolled out by the Cape Girardeau School District a year ago, and Ragsdale is in charge of its implementation. And its energy.

"We will actually, as Jefferson Elementary, develop our own framework of project-based learning and make sure the STREAM acronym are all embedded into our projects," she told reporter Tyler Graef recently. So far, in the first year of transition, teachers are layering the STREAM approach on top of more traditional methods.

But perhaps just as important as the curriculum is the energy at Jefferson. Her enthusiasm is being noted in places beyond just the school. Others -- public officials and civic leaders for example -- are singing her praises for bringing a new culture to the struggling school, which is having positive ripple effects throughout the South side of Cape Girardeau.

Ragsdale and the teachers at Jefferson are redoubling efforts for community involvement at the school, welcoming not just parental involvement, but any mentor or guardian in a child's life who has influence on the students. More so than at other schools in Cape Giradeau, the students at Jefferson are more likely to live with grandparents or another non-parent caregiver; they're more likely to be poor and disadvantaged.

Among the cultural shifts at Jefferson is mindfulness exercises to help start the day off right; maintaining a positive atmosphere for which the students want to come to school every day. They've also started livestreaming teacher conferences so the students' parents/guardians can attend on a break at work, for example.

The results so far have been outstanding. The school saw a 94 percent parent-teacher conference participation rate in October.

It will take some time for the culture and curriculum to work its way through to examine whether the changes result in an educational payoff.

But as is almost always the case, change begins with the people who are in the trenches working with people where they are. As such, Ragsdale and all the teachers at Jefferson seem to be embracing the challenge of turning Jefferson around, starting one small detail, one small child at a time.

Here's to Jefferson School, the leaders and teachers, and all those parents, family, community members and mentors working with the children on the South side to offer hope and encouragement through education. God bless you all.

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