Blog: Frank Nardelli

Frank Nardelli II, son of a Plattsburgh, N.Y., educator and businessman, calls himself a servant leader. Principal of Detroit's Dove Academy, a tuition-free charter public school, Nardelli is a gentle giant among the nearly 500 K-7 children in his midst, doing whatever it takes to ensure each is nurtured to excellence.  

Under Nardelli's leadership, the North Central Association-accredited Dove has become Michigan's first No Excuses University school.  As such, it is part of a national network of schools emphasizing college and universal achievement.  In a culture that stresses traits such as trust, respect and responsibility, even Dove kindergartners proudly proclaim the year they'll graduate … from college.  While more than 70 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged, the school has won awards, grants, and recognition for academic achievement.

Nardelli began by teaching first grade at Dove when it opened in 1997.  He also taught third grade before becoming assistant principal, and five years ago was named leader. Nardelli this fall was recognized by Phi Delta Kappa, the national education organization, as one of 24 "Emerging Leaders" across the country.

He is working to complete his education specialist degree in administration and supervision at Wayne State University.  His master's degree in literacy education is from the University of Michigan, and his bachelor's degree is from the State University of New York College at Geneseo.  His mother taught at the college level and often took young Frank into her classroom so students could test different methods of reading instruction.  His father, a car salesman with a sharp intellect and endearing character, was a respected figure in the upstate New York business community.  

Nardelli lives in Livonia with his wife, Shana, and two daughters, Annalin Ruth and Callie Francessa.
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Post 3: Inspiring Great Thinkers, Great Citizens

Let's go beyond reading, writing, and arithmetic, not to mention technology, social studies and science.  There's another vital subject: character education.  

I'm talking true character education — the kind that makes a good school great and is felt in every classroom, every hallway, every day.  The kind that's a way of life, for students, parents and the entire staff.

Picture a couple hundred students a month trekking to the school office.  They've been "caught" by teachers or peers modeling one of the six pillars of character: trust, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship.  

They place their positive referral in a box.  At a monthly assembly, "Mission Impossible" blares as the CIA (Character in Action) agents emerge — teachers dressed in black clothing and sunglasses.  They draw one name, read the summary of his or her good deed, and that student wins a hat, t-shirt, and sweatshirt from the university adopted by his or her classroom.

Likewise, picture 6th graders, knowing that they alone are responsible for their futures, meeting one-on-one with the principal to discuss careers, college majors, and universities with strong programs in their chosen fields.

Picture kindergartners creating a video that summarizes a year's worth of character education.  In one skit, a student basks in the glow of his teacher's praise after turning in a dollar found on the floor.

Picture groups of students voluntarily asking to coordinate fund-raisers for community needs.

At Detroit's Dove Academy, a K-7 charter public school serving nearly 500 students, we build on a national "Character Counts" program and speak a distinct language:

"Make no excuses; accept no excuses…"  

"I am important.  I am smart…"  

"Don't just say something, act on it…"  

We recite a character pledge four mornings a week.  The fifth day is reserved for a college-bound pledge.

We don't have discipline referrals, we have character violations.  Instead of issuing punishments, we plan how to act with good character in the future.

Every day, every classroom has two junior CIA members, stealthily watching their peers for model behavior.

Two or three Fridays a month, we end the week with Character Club, multi-age groups doing activities to support that month's designated character.  A teacher and a 7th-grade assistant lead each group.

The first Friday in December, for example, our Character Clubs made decorations and placemats for an upcoming community dinner.  It's free for parents and the surrounding neighborhood, though guests may bring a blanket, book or stuffed animal for "Project Night-Night," to brighten the lives of children in area homeless shelters.

Why all of this, you ask?  Isn't character the job of families?  Don't our teachers have enough to do?  The answer is that great schools shape great thinkers and great citizens … and they do so in partnership with parents.  

In a five-year study of the Character Counts program, researchers at South Dakota State University survey as many as 8,419 students and teachers a year.  The results are extensive, including a 50 percent decline among students breaking into another's property, a 32 percent drop in usage of illegal drugs, and a 33 percent fall in the issue of physical force after being insulted.  Cheating on tests fell 30 percent.

I make it a point to tell our 7th-graders that they're the best, the brightest, the oldest, and they're expected to lead the entire campus.  Recently, they all signed a card for me, placing their signatures under the heading, "Your School Leaders."

Students love to live up to expectations.  

Post 2: Empower the Disempowered Parents

Parents often take the blame for academic failure and are criticized for not being involved, not supporting their children, and not making education a priority.

We may as well say, "You, Ms. Parent, don't love your child enough.  You don't care about his future like you should."  

That's ludicrous.  I've met thousands of parents in our city, and they all love their children.  They want the best for their "babies", and they'll sacrifice to find it. They don't always know the best ways to help, but they're willing to learn when we're willing to teach.

The question is whether parents are respected partners and welcome in our schools. Do they receive clear, timely information about their children's strengths and issues?  Do principals and teachers make time for them and value their input?  Are they graciously coached on how to guide their children?

If our schools are to work, we must re-empower our disempowered parents.  That doesn't mean having one event, recording 10% participation and then saying they didn't respond.  Rather, we must engage our parents and grow their participation over time.

A Michigan Department of Education summary of the nation's parental involvement research reports family participation in education is twice as predictive of student success as socioeconomic status.  Intensive parent participation programs can have 10 times the positive impact on achievement that other factors have.

At Detroit's Dove Academy, a tuition-free charter public school, many parents are surprised and relieved when we ask to talk about their child.  Communication is frequent, starting with a discussion of their child's strengths during the first two weeks of school.

Parents must sign their child's planner nightly after reviewing the day's homework, and many parents and teachers use the planner to write notes back and forth to each other.

We have two mandatory conferences each year.  While we can't force anyone to show up, setting the expectation fuels a participation rate greater than 80 percent.  Teachers follow up with the remaining families to schedule subsequent meetings.

Further, if a child is achieving less than 70% by late January in reading, writing and/or math, the teacher, parent and student plot a detailed Student Improvement Plan together.  Everyone walks away knowing what lessons and help will occur in school, parents have strategies for at home, and students know what actions they'll take.  

We also started a Parent University last year, with periodic workshops and guest speakers who help parents explore educational, community, and family issues.  Last year, we averaged 15 to 20 participants per session.  In October this year, we had 30.  That's not enough, but we'll keep going, and the numbers will grow.

As principal, it's my job to be available.  I'm in the halls, talking with students, parents and teachers.  Sometimes I'm down the street, meeting with a home bound parent.  Sometimes I'm in the lunchroom, or giving a tour, or on the playground … because that's where I find the students, parents and staff I serve.

All of us here are mentors, coaches, counselors, and sounding boards.  I've had parents, frustrated by the same behavior at home that we see in school, ask me for help.  That tells me our efforts are working and progress is imminent. It's rare I find a parent who won't talk about his child, and rare to find a parent who won't help create strategies to help her child excel.

These parents say our talking and working with them is like a miracle, and they thank us for caring about their children as much as they do.  

Don't blame the parents.  Join me.  Make no excuses.  Accept none either.   Respect parents as partners and see what happens.

Post 1: Shifting Gears - Focus on Sending Our Kids to College

Imagine the power of inspiring every child in the city of Detroit to believe in college as a real option just waiting to be pursued.  

Stop right there if you're already thinking it will never happen, can't happen, won't happen.  Walk away from the excuses.

Teach one young, bright-eyed, eager child what year she'll graduate, not from kindergarten, middle school, or high school — but from college! — and you've changed her entire perspective.  Teach all the students in a class, and then throughout the school, what year they'll graduate from college, and you've changed the game.

That's exactly what we do at Dove Academy, a tuition-free charter public school authorized by Oakland University.  When someone on our staff says, "We are...," the nearly 500 kindergarten through seventh-grade children who surround us shout their response: "College-bound!"

Ask one of our kindergartners what year he'll graduate, and the answer will be "2026!"  You do the math.

Each of our classes adopts a college or university and a banner from that school hangs in the hallway above each classroom door.  Each class cheers for its school every Friday, and we all wear shirts in the schools' colors that day.  Our students know the college mascots, and study the universities' locations.  Our honor roll bulletin board, decorated with a graduation cap, builds pride in academic victory … and college is the goal.

It's not that we use expensive programs.  With an educational cost of $7,172 per student — much less than what's spent elsewhere — we focus on the basics and talk about college every day.

It's also not that we serve elite families.  To the contrary, nearly 70% of our children, who live throughout the city, qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch.  

And yet, eight in 10 have passed the state MEAP math test.  Seventy percent have passed the MEAP English Language Arts test.  They soar above the traditional district average, defying the "inner-city, under-privileged" moniker all-too-often assigned to them.

Few of our parents have college degrees, and some lack high school diplomas.  When they first hear us speak of college, many have tears in their eyes.  It's a dream they've had for their children, but they didn't know how to make it happen.

If you fall into the camp whose next argument is that these families can't afford college, know this:

We talk about cost, hard work, what scholarships are, and how you earn them.  We talk about never giving up, no matter how long it takes to achieve your dreams.

Dove's emphasis on college is just two years old, and there's little research on such efforts nationally. Yet, considering Detroit's dropout rate exceeds 70 percent, inspiring children to embrace higher education can be nothing but beneficial.

An estimated 90 percent of the fastest-growing careers by 2014 will require at least some post-secondary education.  Further, a college degree increases the chance of employment by nearly 50 percent. Thus, it makes sense that a school's culture, starting in kindergarten, includes setting educational goals, exploring careers, and beginning to plan academically and financially for college.  

A teacher and I met recently with some parents, planning collaboratively to help their son expand his potential.  We asked what their greatest hopes were for him, and they talked about his skill in basketball and video games.  

That answer isn't wrong.  It's what they know.  They haven't considered business, or international law, or medical school, or bioinformatics, because such careers aren't in their realm.  Their response will change once we teach them about possibilities they haven't yet considered.

For us, making the effort to emphasize higher education is like we tell our students:  Make no excuses.  Accept none, either.  If we want more students to graduate from college, we have to make it happen.

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