Local elementary school beats the odds, earns national recognition

AUBURN, Wash. -- Across the country, statistics show that students from high-poverty, high-minority schools are less likely to succeed in the classroom and in life. A school in Auburn is bucking that trend.

At Gildo Rey Elementary School, each day starts with a handshake.

"I can get a quick sense on how their day is starting, I can see if the students are tired, I can see if they're sad, I can see if they're happy," Principal Lenny Holloman said.

Holloman said it is a school-wide practice to have two personal connections with each student before they even enter the classroom.

"It’s good to make that good eye contact and it’s also a good way for them to know that they’re coming to a place where they have trusted adults looking out for them," he said. 

This is just one way the school takes care of its kids before the start of the day. The other is with free breakfast to fill their bellies. Holloman said hunger is the easiest hurdle to overcome.

"If a student is sitting in the classroom and they're hungry, they're thinking about being hungry, they're not thinking about the learning target and success criteria," he explained. 

For Gildo Rey, there's not one individual thing that attributes to its success. Holloman said it's an overarching belief that every student can achieve.

In a school like Gildo Rey, where about four out of every five kids is from a low-income household and more than half enter speaking a language other than English, students are often left behind. That's not the case at this nationally recognized elementary school.

"When I think of the term, 'statistic,' I think about what’s going wrong," Holloman said. "I think what we need to really think about and focus on is what’s going right."

In Carly Foster's kindergarten class, her energy for learning is infectious and students, sitting on pockets and criss-cross applesauce, are all eyes and ears.

"Our success is because the teachers are successful and they're very focused," Holloman said. 

The collective belief in kids is seen from kindergarten on up. The teachers, staff and administrators seem keenly aware that they are responsible for giving these students a chance to beat the statistics.

"For so many of our students, we are their shot, we are the opportunity to be successful in life," Holloman said. "It's kind of our paramount duty to make sure that we're doing everything we can to make sure that they're successful."

That mindset has put Gildo Rey on the national stage. Last year, it was ranked a nationally distinguished school, one of just two in the state.

It also turns heads in the Puget Sound region. The Puget Sound Business Journal's latest school rankings have Gildo Rey fifth in the region.

"When you work with kids and families that don't necessarily have all the things that you would want or hope for a student to have, it just makes our work more important," Holloman said, explaining his 'why,' the reason he's so driven to help this school and students succeed. "I want to make sure that every one of our kids, every one of our students, has an opportunity and someone that believes in them and someone that pushes them."

And that, in Auburn and around the country, is a recipe for success.