Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

January 1, 2009

Keeping The Dream

Keeping the Dream

Doreatha White
Doreatha White at the 2004 Milken National Education Conference It's early July, and the young students of Dreamkeepers Academy in Norfolk, Virginia, are at the last place one would expect children to be in the middle of summer.

They're in school — and they're loving it.

Dressed in requisite red tops and khaki bottoms, these students, ranging from kindergarteners through fifth graders, spend part of each day either working on subjects in which they need remediation or reinforcing skills they have already mastered during the school year. The rest of the day is devoted to what adults call enrichment — activities such as art, music, golf, tennis and swimming, to name a few. The students call it fun.

"It's wonderful to see kids excited about learning," said principal Doreatha White (VA '02). "They love coming to school and they hate leaving at the end of the day."

The atmosphere is quite a contrast from just five years ago, when the campus was known as J. J. Roberts Park Elementary School. At that time, it had been placed on academic warning for failing to meet state benchmarks. Achievement and morale were at an all-time low.

That was before Doreatha White came along.

In just one year, Doreatha turned the school around, instituting numerous reforms that increased test scores by as much as 70 percent.

Last year, she transformed the school once again, opening Dreamkeepers Academy at J. J. Roberts Park Elementary School, a unique educational model in which elements that are typically considered elective or voluntary — such as summer camp, enrichment activities, and uniforms — are an integral part of the educational fabric.

The concept stems from a philosophy of teaching the whole child that has its origins in Doreatha White's own childhood education.

Two Inspiring Teachers

Virginia Senator George Allen (R-VA), Doreatha White and Norfolk Public Schools Superintendent John O. Simpson with several Roberts Park Elementary students

Jacksonville, North Carolina, is a military town that serves as home to Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune. It was here that Doreatha Blount was born and raised, the daughter of a retired Marine and the sixth of seven children — the first generation in her family to attend college.

Education was obviously valued in her family: Of the seven children, four are educators. Two are still teaching, one is retired, and one is an administrator.

Look into the past of any good teacher, and you will usually find another teacher — often several — who inspired her. In Doreatha's case, it was her fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Williams, and her seventh grade history teacher, Mrs. Idol.

When Doreatha entered fifth grade, Jacksonville was still a segregated community, despite the civil rights triumphs of the mid-1960s. The student population at Bell Fork Elementary School was 100 percent African-American, mostly from low-income families. Though educational resources were more limited than at the more affluent white schools, Doreatha was fortunate to find in Mrs. Williams the most valuable resource of all: an outstanding teacher.

Doreatha White and Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction JoLynne DeMary

"She taught the whole child," said Doreatha.

"She emphasized good work, but not only academically. She involved us in drama, she was our chorus teacher, she had after-school activities. It was fun being in Mrs. Williams' class — the place you always wanted to be."

Years later, as principal of Dreamkeepers Academy, Dr. Doreatha White would adopt the same principle of teaching the whole child that she learned from Mrs. Williams.

"I've always been an advocate of teaching beyond the academics in order to enhance the academics," said Doreatha. "And that's because of what happened to me as a child."

In 1972 the public schools in Jacksonville finally became integrated — a mixed blessing for Doreatha. At Bell Fork she had been one of the top students, but when she moved to Jacksonville Junior High School, she was assigned to a remedial sixth grade class — for reasons that had nothing to do with skills and knowledge.

"The work was so easy," recalls Doreatha. "All I had to do for a whole year was copy out of a book and answer questions."

Fortunately, this predicament was short-lived. The following year, she enrolled in Mrs. Idol's history class. A white teacher who embraced diversity, Mrs. Idol discerned the prodigious intelligence behind Doreatha's shy demeanor and worked to help her young pupil recognize it in herself.

One day, Doreatha and her classmates were assigned to recite the Gettysburg Address before a racially integrated group of students. With Mrs. Idol's help, what could have been a nerve-wracking nightmare became a comfortable, positive experience.

After the presentation, as young Doreatha left to go to her next class, she heard someone shouting her name from the classroom window. It was Mrs. Idol.

"Doreatha!" she yelled. "Your presentation was the best!"

More than 30 years later, that moment remains a strong, clear memory for Doreatha White.

Transforming Roberts Park

After graduating with a B.S. in Education from East Carolina State University, Doreatha spent several years teaching elementary school, first in her hometown of Jacksonville. In her second year of teaching, she married Jerry White, an avionics technical representative for the Navy. They moved to Virginia Beach, where Doreatha began applying to several different school districts. She chose to teach in the Norfolk School District "because of the low socio-economic level of many of their schools. I thought I could make an impact."

For ten years, she taught at Willard Elementary School, where she was among the first classroom teachers in the state to effectively pilot computer-based learning units. When she became an assistant principal, she earned a life membership from the Virginia PTA for helping to initiate a new PTA group at an elementary school.

Superintendent Simpson, Superintendent DeMary, Virginia Governor Mark Warner, Norfolk Public Schools Board Chair-Elect Anna Dodson, Lowell Milken and Doreatha White

Soon thereafter, the principal position became available at J. J. Roberts Park Elementary School. Located on the outskirts of a public housing facility in Norfolk, Roberts Park and its environs were named after Joseph Jenkins Roberts, a Norfolk native who in 1842 became governor of Liberia and in 1848 became its first president.

But in 1999, the school displayed little of the pride and high accomplishment of its namesake. With a population of 400 students — all African-Americans on free or reduced lunch programs — the school was on academic warning for failing to meet state benchmarks. Turning the school around would not be an easy task. Doreatha White applied and got the job.

"A lot of people were surprised that this was my choice," she said. "But I felt like I could really make a difference. I wanted the challenge."

Having just earned a Certificate of Advanced Study in organizational leadership in education from Regent University, Doreatha began a thorough academic review of the school. Supported by state funds, she took a good look at what wasn't working, and how it could be improved.

She began with the parents. She created monthly "Chew and Chat" sessions, inviting parents to lunch, during which she spoke about best teaching practices and distributed hands-on activities to help reinforce students' learning. She also initiated weekly Standards of Learning Nights, teaching parents how to help their children increase their achievement on state tests.

"I knew I had to raise their expectation levels and get them to believe in the importance of education," said Doreatha.

Meanwhile, she made systemic changes as well. Since state testing occurs in grades three and five, Doreatha decided to see what kind of impact a much smaller class size would have in those two grades. Restructuring her Title I funding based on research she had conducted as a doctoral student at Regent University, she reduced class size at Roberts Park in grades three and five from 20-to-one to a six-to-one ratio.

The results were immediate — and huge. In the first year, Roberts Park's scores on the social studies portion of the Virginia Standards of Learning test shot up 70 percent. Significant improvement occurred at every grade level and in every subject, placing Roberts Park Elementary above even affluent schools on the state's accreditation ladder.

"I wasn't expecting the results to be so high until I got midway in the year and the monthly assessment tests indicated positive gains in all areas," she said.

October 2002: Lowell Milken surprises Doreatha White with a Milken Educator Award

Another important aspect of her strategy was recognition. Never having forgotten how loudly Mrs. Idol had trumpeted her accomplishments, Doreatha developed a system of monthly assessments, encouraging a friendly competition among grade levels and individual classrooms to achieve a passing score. Those that did were treated to a special celebration, the funding for which came from partnerships she developed within the community.

Thanks to these monthly assessments, students were well prepared by the time they took their state tests.

Even parents and community organizations received public accolades. Doreatha began posting the name of a parent volunteer or community organization each month on the school marquee, which sits alongside a busy, highly visible street. Once the first parent's name was posted on the sign, others began to ask what they had to do to get their names posted.

"It's all for the kids," she said. "And it works."

A Very Good Year

The 2001-2002 school year was a very good year for Doreatha White.

Within two years she had transformed a failing school into a center of academic achievement. Her accomplishments began to generate attention and praise from prestigious policy leaders. After visiting Roberts Park Elementary, U.S. Senator George Allen (R-VA) said on national TV, "The leadership at Roberts Park Elementary should be a model for the nation." He even asked to use Doreatha's dissertation findings on team teaching and classroom size reduction in his education reform platform.

"I owe a lot to Senator Allen," said Doreatha. "He was one of the first elected officials to celebrate our success. He really put us on the map."

Around the same time as Senator Allen's visit, Doreatha White received a Ph.D. in organizational leadership from Regent University, becoming the first person in her family to earn a doctoral degree.

"It was great for the students to see that their principal was going to school at the same time they were trying to improve their results," she said.

Roberts Park Elementary became the first Title I school in the state to be fully accredited. Soon thereafter, the school earned a Title I Distinguished School Award from the U.S. Department of Education and the National Association of State Title I Directors. Doreatha herself won the Governor's Award for Academic Excellence.

And then came the Milken Educator Award.

Doreatha White and a colleague present certificates of recognition to Dreamkeepers Academy students

When Lowell Milken surprised Doreatha with her Milken Educator Award in the fall of 2002, he invited Virginia Governor Mark Warner to help make the presentation. Recently the governor spoke about her during his remarks at the 2004 Milken National Education Conference in Washington, D.C.

"Too often there is the notion that the achievement gap is an inevitable result of poverty, poor family structure and social problems," said Governor Warner. "And indeed, those are often contributing factors. But in schools like Doreatha's, we see students from those backgrounds achieve remarkable results because of great leadership in principals and equally great leadership from teachers."

Ensuring Equal Access

Despite the enormous gains her students made in their first year, Doreatha was not content to rest on her laurels. She realized that concentrating her instructional resources in the two testing grades was doing a disservice to the students in the other grade levels. She saw that the best way to ensure strong performance in the later grades was to strengthen performance from the beginning: in other words, early intervention.

With this in mind, Doreatha took the Title I resources she had concentrated into the two testing grades and reallocated them to pre-kindergarten through the second grade. Naturally, this resulted in an initial drop in Standards of Learning test scores in grades three and five.

Those who knew and understood what Doreatha was doing supported her decision, including Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction JoLynne DeMary. However, when the Virginia Pilot printed an article with the headline, "Top-Listed SOL School Tumbles to the Bottom," it gave readers the wrong impression.

"The headline was misleading," said Doreatha. "I wanted to implement strategies that would be successful from year to year. I took a risk to do that. If you allocate your resources so that every six children have their own private teacher, what about the other children? I couldn't live with that as a human being. I had to make sure that all of our kids were receiving equal access."

Time has shown that she did the right thing. Since spreading her resource teachers equally across all grade levels, fifth grade math scores have increased by 47 percent, fifth grade history by 27 percent, third grade science by 26 percent and third grade English by 25 percent.

This year's third grade math scores are at a 93 percent pass rate, 23 percentage points above state standards. Test scores are now higher than the year in which the school was fully accredited.

Dreamkeepers Academy

For years Roberts Park Elementary School was located in the vicinity of a low-income housing project, from which many of the school's students came. When the city decided to revitalize the area by tearing down the housing projects and relocating the tenants, Dr. John O. Simpson, superintendent of Norfolk Public Schools, approached Doreatha to discuss the school's future in light of the revitalization effort.

A Dreamkeepers Academy student teaches an ederly friend how to use a computer

After attending a seminar by an organization that places at-risk students in an intensive, highly rigorous educational setting, Doreatha and Dr. Simpson met with members of the Norfolk School Board. Asked what she thought of the concept, Doreatha said that while she agreed with the idea of building a premier elementary school, there were certain things she would do differently.

Thus began Dreamkeepers Academy.

Working closely for two years with the district's central office, Doreatha developed a plan for a new school that would teach the whole child, preparing young people for college from a very early age. Extending the school day by two-and-a-half hours and requiring certain commitments from its constituents — such as student uniforms and parent volunteer time — Doreatha built what the Dreamkeepers Academy Web site calls a "unique school culture that encourages the ‘habits of the mind' (a mental discipline practiced so that it becomes a habit or natural process) and permeates every aspect of a child's life."

In addition to core subjects such as reading, math, science and social studies, Dreamkeepers Academy requires students to enroll in various enrichment activities. The school offers a chess club; a theatrical society; a lifetime fitness and wellness program; a civic awareness program; an economics class that teaches banking skills; sports such as swimming, tennis and golf; music; and foreign languages such as Spanish, Japanese and Chinese.

"We're trying to teach them all this early in their education, so it'll be innate as they get older," said Doreatha.

Dreamkeepers Academy at J. J. Roberts Park Elementary School was launched in September 2003, accepting students from throughout the city of Norfolk. In its first year, there were over 200 students on the waiting list.

The Gifts of Learning

Much has changed in the five years since Doreatha White took the helm at Roberts Park Elementary School. The school no longer exists in its original form, nor does the area surrounding the school. What hasn't changed is her commitment to the children in her community.

What advice would she give to other principals?

"First of all, you have to believe that you can make a difference," she said. "If you believe, you can get others to believe. Second, leadership: You have to be there for your staff and keep them abreast of the latest trends and best practices in education. Staff morale is number one. The kids have to know that these teachers believe in them, that their principal believes in them. And you must get your community involved."

Also important is "constant communication with your supervisors," particularly during challenging times. "And don't wait until the end of the year to reassess. If you have to make changes in September, you make changes in September. You don't wait until June."

Doreatha White is still receiving honors and accolades. She was invited to speak at the Virginia NAACP meeting in March 2003, where she was presented with a community recognition award. In the fall of 2003, she was one of two Virginia educators to receive the Excellence in Education Award from the Virginia Lottery.

Her greatest success, says Doreatha, has been raising her three daughters. Her two oldest are on full scholarship at the University of Maryland and the U.S. Naval Academy. Her youngest is an 11th grade honor student and a top athlete. All three ranked in the top 5 percent of their classes.

Education is like an endless relay race, and the gifts of learning that today's teachers bestow upon their students can be traced back to what they received from their teachers. In this light, Dreamkeepers Academy is not only Doreatha White's contribution to the world. It is in part the legacy of two outstanding teachers in Jacksonville, North Carolina, who imbued a shy young girl named Doreatha with pride and a sense of her importance in the world.

"That's what I've done and continue to do with my children," said Doreatha. "And now with Dreamkeepers Academy, I have the opportunity to do it on a much bigger scale."

Mrs. Williams and Mrs. Idol would have been proud. *


For more information, contact Doreatha White at

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