PARKLAND- It was national news when last January, James Sales Elementary won $100,000 from the Ellen Degeneres Show and Target. This gift led to the school being chosen as a Washington state school of distinction. But principal Kristen Schroeder was giving gifts long before the big payday.
Years earlier, in the winter of 2010, Schroeder wanted to give her school’s students a holiday gift. One hundred percent of James Sales’ students receive a free or reduced lunch. Schroeder constantly saw children without proper school supplies or winter clothing. Inspired by the Ellen Degeneres Show’s “12 Days of Giving,” Schroeder decided to surprise each of her 400 students with a pair of socks for Christmas. She asked her staff and her Facebook friends to help her find the socks. Within a few days the quota was met.
Schroeder was so moved by the students’ reactions that she and her staff collected 11 more days’ worth of gifts. They repeated the giveaway the following year. That second year, the students crafted their own gifts for others in the area.
“There’s been this fictitious view of Parkland youth,” explained Schroeder, “we wanted to battle that and really show them that we have great kids that have wonderful hearts.”
It was at this time that the school was visited by a camera crew, though no one knew the Ellen Show had already selected James Sales as its big winner. The James Sales staff was told the cameras were from Warner Brothers, but knew nothing about a grant prize.
Schroeder was flown to LA when the camera crew offered her a seat in Ellen’s audience. Ellen had asked her viewers to send in nominations for schools that were in financial trouble. Schroeder had nominated her school, but knew it was one of 10,000 submissions. It wasn’t until a few minutes before Schroeder appeared on stage that she learned that James Sales was selected for the grant.
Once Schroeder got back to Parkland, she assembled groups of staff members, parents and students to help decide how the money should be spent.
That money was spent on a new auditorium sound system, new cafeteria tables, updated library books, new shoes and new playground equipment.
“Part of the grant we wanted to keep in reserve so we could keep the 12 days of hope going for a number of years,” explained Schroeder. “I think the bigger deal than the stuff that we were buying is the hope that [the grant has] created within our community… that’s priceless.”
She said the shift in how the kids felt about themselves sparked a huge change at James Sales. Volunteers began pouring in to help with recess duties and building the new playground. More than 120 students now stay after school so they can better prepare themselves for standardized tests.
“Those sorts of things are just magical,” Schroeder said. “They see the hope and potential in themselves.”
Schroeder credits this change of mindset, as well as the hard-working teachers, when it comes to the students’ academic accomplishments. Before the $100,000 win, James Sales was consistently labeled an “at risk” or “failing” school by the federal government, meaning students could choose a different public school.
The students’ new-found motivation helped the school rise to 2012’s school of distinction, an award given to the top five percent of Washington state schools.
At the end of her explanation of the school’s success, Schroeder discloses that this will be her last year as principal of James Sales elementary. Schroeder was asked to help Fir Grove Elementary in Puyallup because of its economic and academic problems.
“It’s been a difficult choice, but I’m confident in the abilities for this [success] to carry on,” said Schroeder. “I think a true test of leadership is to empower the people that are working with you, and to make sure that they are able to carry on… [My staff] is at the point where they can do it.”
James Sales’ “12 Days of Giving” will continue on. This program is made possible through the grant money as well as community support. One child’s grandmother and a Puyallup woman each knitted 400 hats for next year’s students. Companies and churches are already volunteering their goods and services for next year. A photographer donated his time so the students could have their school pictures taken for free.
Schroeder said there will always be a need for socks, jackets, and books. Her goal for next year is to give every student pajamas and board games, gifts often not thought of for children from this neighborhood.
Though Schroeder is excited to help Fir Grove elementary, she admits leaving James Sales will be hard. With a tearful smile, she simply explained, “It’s a very special place to be.”