PASADENA, Texas — With a soft voice, Fernando Rojas quickly rattled off a few of his favorite things about being a fourth-grader at Williams Elementary School.
He loves playing soccer during recess, and he always looks forward to mini-corn dog day at lunch. But he doesn’t hesitate when confidently sharing his favorite part of each school day.
“Math class,” Fernando said. “There are so many different ways to learn from math.”
That love of learning, he said, is a direct result of one special person in his life: Mrs. De Leon.
“If I’m feeling unhappy, she can always cheer me up,” Fernando said.
Martha De Leon is one of four fourth-grade teachers at Williams Elementary who have made a profound impact on their students during the 2021-22 school year. The tight-knit foursome of educators also includes Vera Kmeid, Marcella Ehrlich, and Rocio Nuncio.
“They’re an amazing team,” Williams Elementary Principal Christine Coppedge said. “They have all of these wonderful, very different qualities, and when they come together they make something so dynamic.”
Coppedge became the school’s leader in 2018, the same year the school partnered with Summit Learning for its fourth-grade classes. Williams Elementary, a K-4 school located 15 miles southeast of Houston, has since added a mentoring program to all grade levels and Coppedge has enjoyed seeing how forming close connections with teachers has helped her students thrive.
For the school’s efforts, Williams Elementary has received the Rise Award, a national honor given out by Gradient Learning that recognizes schools’ commitment to improving the quality of teaching and learning.
“I know it sounds cliché, but we’re truly a family here at Williams,” Coppedge said. “You see that throughout our building with our teachers and students. We love to have fun, we love to work hard, and we’re showing our kids that working hard can be fun.”
‘They have all impacted me’
Evidence of hard work and fun can be seen in each of the fourth-grade classrooms, which share a hallway at Williams Elementary. During a typical day, the doors are often open and sounds of celebratory bells ringing (by students when they complete an academic goal) and laughter can be heard.
Mrs. Kmeid, who has taught at the school for 15 years, said she brings as much joy as she can to her class each day—regardless of outside distractions—because of her own childhood memories.
“I can tell you the names of every teacher I had since kindergarten,” Kmeid said. “I know who’s impacted me positively, and who’s impacted me negatively. But the main takeaway here is they have all impacted me. So I wanted to be that teacher that impacts children positively because they will remember that. When they’re older, I want them to think, ‘You know, I had that teacher who was always positive and she made me feel good.’
“Our community here is a very tight-knit, working community and they need a lot of love. So this work is very intrinsically rewarding. I really feel like I am making a change.”
This year’s fourth-graders were in kindergarten in the fall of 2017, when Hurricane Harvey caused severe flooding throughout southeastern Texas and damaged several schools in the Pasadena Independent School District, including Williams Elementary. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic that temporarily closed the school building and disrupted the last three school years.
But through it all, Coppedge and her team have provided a steady, welcoming, and engaging learning environment for their students.
“I’ve worked with Christine since she was a teacher and she’s one of those people that gets an idea, stirs it around, and then can make magic happen,” said Dr. Karen Hickman, a Deputy Superintendent for PISD who was a Principal at an area school that Coppedge taught at. “I’m so proud of how she has helped Williams go from a good school to a great school. It’s very exciting for me to walk around and hear kids talk about their love of learning.”
‘I always believed in them’
De Leon, who has taught at the school for 14 years, is reminded of why the hard work is worth it each spring when the local high school’s graduating seniors walk the halls of Williams Elementary in their caps and gowns.
Along with offering high-fives to the elementary students, the seniors reconnect with former elementary teachers such as De Leon who still remember them as young children.
“It really makes me cry to see these grown students walking by and how they were able to believe in themselves to make it to their graduation year,” De Leon said. “Maybe some didn’t think they were ever going to make it, but I always believed in them.”
As De Leon prepares to say goodbye to her current fourth-graders, she’s already looking forward to reuniting with them eight years from now when they are the high school’s Class of 2030.
“It always means a lot to hear from them when they come back because it shows that we made that connection,” De Leon said. “I just feel so happy to see that I was able to make a difference in their lives.”
De Leon doesn’t have to wait to hear about the powerful impact she’s made on one of her fourth-grade students this past school year.
As math-loving Fernando looks ahead to attending a new school for fifth grade, he wants his favorite teacher to know one important message.
“Mrs. De Leon, hopefully you never leave that special place in my heart,” Fernando said. “Whenever I’m in a tough situation, I’ll be reminded of you, and hopefully that gets me out of any problems that I’m in.”
Watch this video to learn more about Williams Elementary School’s engaging learning environment.