The promotion of “Jancing”—when a group gathers to simultaneously jog and dance to individual music while wearing headphones—might not be the single most important thing that Brian Ricker accomplishes in his new role as principal of Isabella Bird Community School, but his embrace of it speaks to his leadership style.
“Jancing” started at the school last year, among teachers and staff, and groups of a dozen or more would gather around different locations in Denver to participate. Sort of like a flash mob, as Ricker described it. This year, he and his staff are bringing it to the students—a way for them to move and play during the long winter months when outside recreation isn’t possible.
This grassroots style—nonhierarchical, attentive to social-emotional needs, student-centered—suits the fledgling school, now in its third year in Stapleton. Its original administrative leaders, Sonny Zinn, Traci Bushnell and Jeff Bushnell, left their leadership positions at the end of last year, and Ricker, who had been working at “Izzi B” as a principal in training, took the helm this fall, along with two new assistant principals.
“One of the things that I’ve really appreciated and all of us in our community appreciate around our school is the ‘heart-centered approach,’” says Ricker. “Our five guiding principles … direct the work we do.” These five principles—summarized as compassion, collaboration, wellness, inclusion and global citizenship—give the school its unique culture, one that is embraced by its community and, increasingly, DPS. “It’s wonderful to see the district heading in that direction … building in that sense of equity and social-emotional focus,” he says.
Ricker also recognizes the importance of academics in elementary education, however, and is particularly keen to improve in that area. “In addition to focusing on the whole child … we’re also providing that rich, academic content in the classroom … deepening their critical thinking skills,” he says. While the school is not driven by test scores or SPF ratings, Ricker appreciates the importance of such data, “It is evidence that helps us understand where we’re going and where we might need to make adjustments.”
To bolster academics, the school has implemented a new teacher-leader model, hiring four teacher leaders to provide targeted support to teachers in the classroom, and new Assistant Principal Laura Glaab is leading a push to build data models to help in their analysis. They have adopted the Bridges math curriculum and are further developing their focus on units of inquiry, “diving deeply into authentic learning experiences, engaging with problems of the world and finding solutions to them,” he says.
Improving discipline is another area that Ricker is focused on this year. New assistant principal and dean of culture Kim Hundley is leading that endeavor. Izzi B employs a compassionate communication model called “Heart Talk,” which guides interpersonal communication at the school. In this model, a stepwise process of empathetic listening and response is used, and, as the school’s handbook holds, “punishment is not employed.”
This approach has, for some, meant that Izzi B became “a place to send kids if they’re not going to get responded to about behavior. If they’ve had trouble other places,” says Ricker, and it needed retooling. Ricker and his staff are focused on providing “a clear and more consistent behavior policy” that emphasizes increased accountability, while retaining compassionate communication. They are already seeing the results of this change, with fewer visits to the office, fewer outbursts, and improvements in teacher-student communication, he says.
One signature Izzi B program that Ricker is continuing to support and develop is the Newcomer Center. In this program, refugee students from around the world are welcomed into dedicated classrooms in grades K-2. The students learn English, American customs, and fill in learning gaps, helped along the way by student ambassadors from the mainstream track at Izzi B, who regularly visit and interact with the refugee children.
The presence of this program at Izzi B enriches the school, which recently hosted an “All Cultures Night,” where families from the Newcomer Center and the traditional classrooms shared dance, music and food from around the world. “One of the things we believe in is building a global perspective with kids,” says Ricker. By providing children in Stapleton the opportunity to engage with people of different backgrounds, “kids recognize the world is larger than their small community.” To learn more about Isabella Bird Community School, visit www.isabellabird.dpsk12.org.