Q&A with Dr. Doris Lee: Part 2
Dr. Doris Lee is the founding Principal of Village Academy located in Far Rockaway, Queens, NY. As a tribute to Women's History Month, we asked Dr. Lee for an interview to learn more about her personal journey and the work she's doing both as a woman leader in her community and a changemaker in the education space. We're incredibly excited to share the final part of her responses, a look her school's unique culture. We hope you enjoy!
1. The mission of Village Academy focuses on educating the entire family. Why is this so critical, and what strategies have you made use of in engaging not just the student, but also the family as a whole, beyond school hours?
Parents are key to the success of any child. I truly believe that every parent wants what is best for their child. There are so many ways for parents to be involved and we have to broaden our mindset on what parental involvement looks like in a school. I encourage my students' parents to advocate for their children and to hold me accountable as well as my entire school community. I listen to what they want for their children and I see their concerns as an opportunity to grow. I want to empower my parents and make sure they are aware of the standards, the curriculum, the budget, and programs. I want them to understand how they can support their child in addition to meetings and open school conferences. We have an open door policy for parents. They are allowed to come in at any time to visit a classroom, sit-in and see what is happening. We also support our families on a case-by-case basis. We help former students with the college application process, we support parents with finding employment, including writing resumes and providing interview clothes. We also visit our students at home and go out into the community to host events for our families. We provide book clubs, parent support groups, and sometimes just a shoulder to cry on and a listening ear. We provide workshops on immigration and parenting. We also support our families in healthy life including exercise classes and healthy eating workshops. We provide whatever is needed to improve the quality of life for our families—this, in turn, supports our students.
2. You utilize a shared leadership model and highly empower your School Leadership Team. How does this shared decision-making model impact your staff culture?
I believe the role of a leader is to inspire their staff to believe in the mission and vision and then support in ensuring it comes to fruition. Everyone has something great to offer whether it is a passion, skill or expertise. A leader must find this in each person and trust them to use their greatness to benefit the entire school community. An old English proverb says it best: “Two heads are greater than one”.
In education we need every available mind working together to support our students. There is no way that one person can have all of the answers. The shared decision-making model cultivates collaboration among teacher teams by grade, subject area and across staff. Teachers collaborate in their respective subject areas and grade teams to develop instructional plans, engage in professional learning communities and address the social and emotional needs of students. Our teacher leaders are a part of several DOE leadership programs to build capacity. I encourage staff to implement and share their own ideas if those ideas have been proven to improve student learning outcomes, enhance instructional practices and are in alignment with our school’s vision and mission. The shared leadership model results in a school community where everyone takes ownership of our students’ success.
3. Your school culture is truly exceptional. With that said, you frequently repeat particular phrases to your students that lead to real change in their behavior and self-perception. What are some of the phrases that you use consistently at your school? Why did you choose these phrases, and how do they impact your students?
I believe there are three core values in life that can be applied in almost any situation to result in success: respect, responsibility, and excellence. I encourage my students to be respectful and treat others the way you want to be treated. Empathy is an important factor in any school community. Teachers, parents, and students all have to try and understand how their actions affect others. Respect is earned through your actions and this is an important life lesson. I encourage my students to be respectful even when it is the most challenging. I also encourage them to be responsible even when no one is looking.
At Village Academy our students support with the hiring process, making school rules, adjusting and developing school policy, selecting trips, and making suggestions for clubs and activities. They are taught they are responsible for the quality of their education and that they should advocate for themselves. They are taught how to advocate in respectful ways such as scheduling meetings with myself, a counselor, or my assistant principal. They are also taught to advocate by writing letters. I also tell them to be excellent and to do their best at all times. Most importantly, I tell my students each day, “You are the best. No one is better than you. The only thing that can make someone better than you is if they are willing to work harder than you.” I truly believe that every student is born with a gift—a purpose in life—and that they will be the best at fulfilling their purpose if they are willing to work for it and if they are respectful, responsible and excellent.
I also let them know that they deserve the best. If they see something happening at another school and they want it, they should advocate for it because they deserve everything as long as they are willing to work to get it and work at it once they receive it. At first, my students did not believe they were the best. They noted past failures as reasons why they could not possibly be the best. However, over time they do believe when they advocate and we listen; when they have new experiences, such as college tours; when they lead their own clubs; and when they see the same teachers they interviewed join our classrooms. The words are nothing without action: my students can clearly see if what you do matches what you say.
I put my own children at Village Academy because I want them to experience the best. I also make sure that my students have access to every program and opportunity I can possibly provide. I want them to see and feel that I see greatness in each of them. My students are leaders; they come back each year to express how prepared they were for high school. One student came back to tell me that she met with her high school principal to get an “out to lunch” program started. She had to advocate, because if they are responsible enough to go out to lunch in middle school, why shouldn’t they be trusted to do so in high school? I believe there is a lasting effect to unlocking the potential in each student and teaching them to advocate for themselves. It is the only way to improve society.
4. You believe in tracking student’s progress by maintaining a detailed data folder, but each folder contains the student’s picture and a log of how many teachers are fostering a relationship with that child. What correlation do you notice between a student’s academic growth and the relationships they have with adults?
I know each of my students by first name, which I believe is crucial in maintaining a school culture where each student is valued and made to feel special. I believe that our students thrive academically when they trust and have a positive relationship with adults in their school community. At Village Academy, we cultivate a family-like environment where each child has a personal connection with one or more adults. Our student-adult relationships are not just limited to teachers and counselors, they also include office staff, the custodians, school safety agents and cafeteria staff. All adults in our school building mentor, encourage and build personal connections with our students. We also have mentoring and leadership programs such as the VIP School Safety club, Ladies with Purpose and the Gentlemen’s Club, advisory classes, and mastery clubs, where our teachers share a passion or hobby with students. Many of our students and parents visit us after graduation to express the meaningful impact that the Village Academy community has had on their lives. Our first graduating classes are now graduating high school and being accepted into competitive colleges and universities.
The importance of knowing every child and building relationships is very important which is why we developed the individual student folders. I wanted us to see each child as a person, not just a test score or data, which is why I added the picture. When we are talking about students I want us to talk about them like they are in the room. When we get to a student who doesn’t have a lot of adult relationships we stop and take a good look at that student and several of us make a conscious effort to get to know that child. The folders help us to look at each child holistically and focus on things they are doing well, who they are as a person, their interests, strengths, and abilities. Data and accountability are important, but I want us to see each child as a person and to value them for what they have to offer. I also want us to identify where we are falling short so that no one falls between the cracks. When we are talking about a student I want us to be able to look into their eyes. We can proudly say that each child is known well by multiple adults and every child is going to leave Village Academy better than they came in; knowing they have the world at their fingertips.
Did you miss Part 1 of our Q&A with Dr. Doris Lee? No worries—read it here!