Last Friday morning—the last day of the first week of school—I spent some time with Principal Erik Olson at Hamline Elementary. Before the day began, he greeted students, parents and even a graduate dropping off a younger sib—all with a mix of “Hi” and “Hola.”
Hamline’s official start time is 7:45, but morning breakfast allows latecomers a 10-minute grace period before they have to stop for a tardy pass. During this window, Olson was unfailingly kind and welcoming to arriving students—no “Why are you late!?” comments. He collected sports permission forms from a few young men.
One graduate in a car with his family, dropping off a younger sibling, cheerfully called “Hi, Mr. Lane!!” to the school’s security guard. The two chatted briefly before the car departed.
“He told me he never wanted to go to high school,” due to extreme social anxiety. Olson told me later. “I’m glad he did.”
Today, all the students are in uniform and almost all have masks. But one young boy’s face is bare.
Olson asked him gently, “You’ve got your mask?”
“Oh yeah,” the boy answered confidently, but when he put a hand in his pockets, his eyebrows flew up in surprise. “Oh, no! I forgot it!”
Olson quickly reassured him. “No worries, we have some in the office.” Mr. Lane walked the boy to the office so he could pick up a mask.
At Hamline, mask-wearing has started off strong. “Even at recess most kids just keep them on,” Olson observed. “They don’t lose them that way, and I’m all about that.” Attendance kicked off with a strong start, too; Olson said Hamline’s first week attendance averaged 94%, very close to typical pre-pandemic early attendance percentages across the district.
But the biggest challenge is yet to come: determining where students stand and how best to help them get and stay on track for lifetime success as high school and college graduates. Olson espouses an evidence-based strategy to tackle the problem; he wants to accelerate, not remediate his students. This year he plans to have students access grade-level (or higher) curriculum while supplementing to fill gaps with after-school programming and a Saturday Academy. This summer, about a quarter of Hamline’s 550 students attended a monthlong Summer Academy with academics, sports and clubs.
The district’s decision to revamp testing just as all students are returning to school will allow everyone to see where kids stand in a lower-stakes environment. “I’m excited,” Olson says of the changes. While there’s less of the traditional pressure than there was with the NWEA MAP, which was used for everything from tracking student progress to promotion and selective enrollment admissions, he stresses that tests this year are not “no-stakes in terms of our children.”
At the same time, social and emotional learning and support—the school’s central focus last year—will continue to be a priority. Per district recommendation, all classes, including the upper grades, launch their day with a morning circle time. In the gym, a class of eighth-graders were asked to journal on two topics: one thing they like about school and one thing they would like to change at school.
Five years ago, Hamline was a very different place. After longtime principal Valerie Brown retired, the school went through a tough period of leadership transition. But since Olson’s arrival in 2016, consistent and caring school leadership has helped the school bounce back and has strengthened its local reputation. “We have a lot of people outside our attendance boundaries who want to enroll,” he says. At the same time, there’s still room for the school to improve–as of 2019 it had a middle rating in the district’s accountability system.
Hamline serves an oft-neglected corner of an oft-neglected neighborhood—Back of the Yards— and tragedy has been a part of that history. Across the street from Hamline’s main building, neighbors planted a garden in 2004 to honor the memory of a seventh-grader who had been shot and killed two blocks away after a city-sponsored clean-and-green event. After all these years, the garden now needs some TLC, and Olson has his eye on sprucing it up.
But first, he’s been working on the 140-year-old main building itself. Central office has pledged that a new roof is on its way, Olson said. In the meantime, he has personally been painting some of the interior walls. The week before school reopened, a crew painted the entry doors with the school mascot, a hawk. Inside, the building now boasts a renovated science lab and a maker space is under construction.
Olson told me the shift to remote learning last year encouraged some students to start emailing him. Recently, he heard from an eighth-grader who had struggled to stay connected with her class and her assignments during remote learning. “I’m here,” she wrote. “I’m going to be here.”