At Evergreen Elementary School in Shelton, most students grow up in high-poverty environments. Many are English language learners who are the children of immigrants from Latin America.
In the face of adversity, however, Principal Adina Brito (MIT '96) is helping create a culture where all students believe they can succeed, for which she recently was honored as a member of the 2017 Class of National Distinguished Principals.
Long before becoming a principal, Brito was inspired to become a teacher through an experience she had conducting research in Mexico as an undergraduate. Working in a context where few people had opportunities for anything more than the most basic education, she discovered a passion for fostering equity in education.
After returning to the United States, Brito graduated from the University of Washington College of Education’s teacher preparation program before going on to teach elementary school and middle school math for the next 14 years. Following her career in teaching, she decided to go back to school to earn her principal credential.
As the principal of Evergreen, Brito has a unique opportunity to connect with students and their families on a personal level. Evergreen is a dual language school, in which students are taught in both Spanish and English. Being fluent in both languages enables Brito to build relationships with all of her students as well as their families.
Keeping her focus on building relationships, Brito introduced the Kids at Hope philosophy—inspired by a study of resilience in people who went on to succeed in life, despite having faced immense adversity—at Evergreen two years ago. This framework has transformed the school’s approach to discipline and fostered an environment that is both preventative and nurturing.
“These students had parents that were divorced, killed, uneducated or in poverty,” Brito said. “What enabled these students to succeed, despite their circumstances? They had someone who believed in them, an adult in their life who acted as a guide. They had the ability to see beyond their immediate needs to set goals and create dreams for their future. At our school, we call this practice ‘time traveling’.”
Guided by this philosophy, Brito and her staff show students how to make decisions that will help them reach their goals. As a result, students who were once despondent develop an outlook of hope. By focusing on future goals, Brito said, Kids at Hope helps all students believe that their dreams can become reality.
“We believe in every single student. This goal may sound easy, but sometimes it’s not. The attitude on our team is that we will try our best to figure it out and succeed in this goal.”
Through workshops and one-on-one conferencing, Brito developed a system in which the school is focused on every student having an adult mentor who they can trust. By getting to know students on a personal level, staff members become familiar with each student’s struggles and motivations in academics.
“We have examples of kids who used to threaten their teachers and set things on fire who have come to our school and completely turned around,” Brito said. “We have seen this philosophy at work now, as the kids start to actually improve, so the mindset sells itself.”
In addition to having adult mentors at school, Brito says that keeping an open line of communication with parents is crucial to student success. Monthly “Tea and Talk” meetings encourage all parents to hear about things going on at Evergreen and to provide their own feedback. These meetings employ simultaneous translation to include both Spanish and English speaking parents.
“I have noticed that no matter where people come from, no matter their level of education, parents are fiercely dedicated to seeing their kids succeed,” Brito said. “I’ve seen parents that have been in jail, parents who are in gangs, parents who are illiterate, yet they all come and want to help their kids. Parents do want to be involved. They ask questions that are thoughtful, important and are often things that I don’t think about because they see things from a different perspective.”
In the future, Brito desires to see her students not only believing in themselves but also being challenged in the classroom. Traditionally, the International Baccalaureate (IB) program has been used in high schools to push students academically and help them prepare for college.
Brito is hoping to implement the IB Primary Years Program at Evergreen, which is the elementary school equivalent to IB.
“We want to include summative projects that would have an impact on the local community,” she said. “I want students to know that the work they are doing in school should have an impact in the real world. Knowing that they can have an effect will help them to realize the power of education, to help them understand that power and seek to pursue it.”
Dustin Wunderlich, Director for Marketing and Communications