At the Top of Her Class

By Turner, Randy | Winnipeg Free Press, February 7, 2013 | Go to article overview
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At the Top of Her Class

Turner, Randy, Winnipeg Free Press

North End school principal named one of Canada's best, for a good reason

Sharon Pekrul is watching her students dance in a room where natural light spills through a bay window and the kids are twirling and giggling to classical music.

Just another day at Isaac Newton Junior High.

"It's my dream," said Pekrul, the school principal, when asked about the scene. "Just look at those guys."

The boys and girls are members of teacher Peter Vanderhout's dance class -- from ballet to tap to hip hop. Down the hall, another three students are in the music room, where the school's original vocal jazz class, tutored by Angela Wasyluk, is practising. Two of them are also members of school bands -- which never even existed five years ago.

Without the performing-arts programs?

"It wouldn't be as special," said student Sarah Kohinski. Her friend, Queenie Ramos, threw an arm around Kohinski and added, "That's how we know each other."

Pekrul's dream is smiling. On Tuesday, she was one of three Manitoba educators named Canada's Outstanding Principals by the Learning Partnership, along with Neil Moffatt of Heritage School in St. James and Tom Gallant of West Lynn Heights in Lynn Lake.

The Manitoba principals were among the 51 educators selected by the national organization, which will be holding an awards gala in Toronto on Feb. 26.

Pekrul arrived at Isaac Newton seven years ago. After two years, she came to the realization the school was failing.

So if this is a school named after Newton, what was the apple that fell on Pekrul's head?

"It was data," she replied. "The apple for me was seeing report cards and seeing not enough students were passing and completing assignments."

Five years ago, teachers Stephanie Bourbonnais and Kelly DeKlerck attended a workshop and returned with the inspiration for creating a Professional Learning Community at Isaac Newton. It's another way of saying the staff began to stress learning over teaching. What did it matter what or how you taught, said Bourbonnais, if the kids never finished their assignments?

"A lot of people come back from conferences with good intentions," Bourbonnais said. "We didn't just have good intentions. We did it. All the teachers jumped on the bandwagon. It was amazing."

The apple that first alerted Pekrul to a problem, the data, is now the apple of her eye. Five years ago, only 27 per cent of Isaac Newton students had grades of 70 per cent or higher. Now it's 57 per cent.

In 2007, 22 per cent of students in the inner-city school were failing. That number has fallen to 10 per cent. Suspension rates dropped from more than 10 per cent to 3.5 per cent last year.

The number of students with marks of 80 per cent or higher has risen from 14 per cent to 36 per cent. "That says a lot about what our students are doing and what our teachers are teaching," Pekrul said.

In an era of stagnant growth in the North End region, the population of Isaac Newton continues to rise, now up to about 350 students (from about 310 five years ago).

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