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Melissa Fink

by Lara Hightower | July 2, 2017 at 1:00 a.m.
Melissa Fink is principal of Jones Elementary School in Springdale, a school with a high percentage of ESL students and students who live in poverty. Tuesday, June 13, 2017.

When walking past the front doors of Jones Elementary in Springdale -- where Melissa Fink is celebrating her tenth year as principal -- it's immediately obvious that the school does things a little differently. The clinic located just inside the school -- one of only three in the district -- has been offering free mental and physical health care to Jones' students, families and community members since 2010. Though school is out for the year, there are signs posted outside the main office advertising the free lunches offered throughout the summer as well as a schedule for the mobile dental clinic, which offers free services to Jones students.

A culture of caring permeates this modest building on Powell Avenue. This is a school that takes care of its community.

Through Others’ Eyes

Melissa Fink

“The work that she and the staff are doing today in terms of working with children of need and certainly with the families of those children, in my view, is certainly some of the very best in the country today.” — Springdale Superintendent Jim D. Rollins

“It’s a hard school — it’s not always easy. Some of the things that we’re dealing with because of the poverty … she’s a sounding board for us. I had one year where I had three open court cases at once, and it was refreshing that I could go in to her and say, ‘I need to talk to you about this. I can’t take this home every day.’ And she listened and talked to me about it.” — Jones Elementary teacher Jennifer Batson

“Melissa is an an amazing school leader who puts children first in every decision she makes. She understands that in order to serve children at the highest level, it is important to meet the needs of families. She nurtures families with community information and, most importantly, with respect.” — Bernice Young Elementary principal Debbie Flora

“I’ve seen her find a way to provide transportation for a family whose child was going to the Children’s Hospital in Little Rock for leukemia treatment. They didn’t have a way to get there, and Mrs. Fink found someone to donate a vehicle to take their child to the hospital. You’ll find her on Thanksgiving day in this neighborhood, handing out food for families who don’t have enough to eat. Every single year I see more and more of what she’s done.” — Jones Elementary teacher Cindy Flores

Next Week

Mike Gilbert


"Jones is a family, and we treat our students and their parents as our family," says fifth-grade teacher Cindy Flores, who has been teaching at Jones for 10 years. Conversations with Flores and a few of her fellow teachers reveal a faculty deeply committed to their pupils, 84 percent of whom have limited English proficiency and 98 percent of whom are living at or below the federal poverty level.

That commitment also includes coming up with innovative ways to improve the children's lives, both inside and outside of the school walls. Inspired by a dilapidated tennis court on the Jones Elementary School campus, Flores started a United States Tennis Association Club -- one of only two in the district at the elementary level -- that nearly 80 Jones students tried out for this year. Justin Minkel, an Arkansas State Teacher of the Year who has taught at Jones since 2004, created the Home Library Effect -- a program to increase reading at home by creating home libraries for high-poverty students. After Minkel noted radical gains in reading scores on standardized tests as a result of implementing the program in his classroom, the program expanded throughout Jones. It is now being implemented in three other Springdale elementary schools and has gained national recognition. Minkel continues to seek funding to expand it even further.

Jones Elementary teachers are empowered by Fink to create such innovative programs, says Minkel, who has worked with her since her first day as assistant principal at Jones in 2004.

"I expected the support but not also being challenged," says Minkel of Fink's first year in the principal's seat. "I think that's what she balances really well -- she pushes us to get better every year.

"There is the perception that public education is under attack right now. It's hard to be a principal in a high-need school. But public education is not only for the easy kids, it's for all kids. Our students have intense needs that make the job harder. Melissa is so focused on making this job a collective team effort -- she doesn't want to be this lone, heroic person. In reality, it's a team -- everyone from the principal to the vice principal to the teachers to the custodians to the lunch ladies. I think she's really focused on that team effort."

Such accolades help to explain why Jones Elementary has virtually a zero percent turnover rate on its staff -- almost unheard of in a school that has such a high percentage of poverty-stricken students.

"When she took over as principal, the school environment slowly started to switch to a more teacher-driven environment," says Jennifer Mills, who has taught at Jones for 11 years. "Melissa allowed us a lot of input into what we would study as a faculty, our mission statement and vision [and] our PLC agendas. She helped us form teacher-led committees that discussed things such as lesson plans, parental involvement opportunities and after school student opportunities."

"She's very invested in her school," says Springdale's Assistant Superintendent Kathy Morledge. "So are her teachers -- and it shows. She is quite a leader, not only among her teachers but also among the other principals in the district. They look to her for innovation."

Springdale is home

Born in Wagoner, Okla., Fink's family relocated to Springdale when she was only 2 years old. Fink's father, a K-Mart manager, was accustomed to being moved from town to town after a spending only a few years in each location. But when Fink's younger sister was born with special needs, the family decided to stay put: The Springdale schools had good programs for her.

"I grew up in Springdale," says Fink. "I'm a proud product of the Springdale School District. This is home to me."

Fink was always a good student, and she is still in touch with some of her elementary and secondary teachers.

"My mom passed away in August, and my third grade teacher read about it in the paper," says Fink. "She stopped by Jones to see me. I said, 'How in the world did you track me down?' because I know she's not on Facebook. She said, 'I keep up with you! I know where you are!'"

Fink's desire to help others appeared early -- she mentored a younger girl in high school and had her sights set on becoming a social worker -- which she attributes to a strong faith in God and the support of a like-minded family. Her sophomore year in college, Fink made some momentous life decisions: she married her husband, Dewayne, and switched her major from social work to teaching.

"We were driving back from our honeymoon, and my husband and I were talking about the direction I wanted to go in," says Fink. "I decided that I've always enjoyed being around children. I come from a long line of educators -- I have several relatives who are teachers and principals and athletic directors -- and it just made sense. When I got back to school, I changed my major and enrolled in the education program and never looked back."

Fink taught for just five years at Parson Hills Elementary before returning to school for an administration degree. Ascending to management was a familiar path for the responsible, pragmatic Fink.

"When I worked as a teenager, I was always quickly promoted to fields where I supervised other people," she says, smiling. "I was check-out supervisor at K-Mart, head cashier at Lowe's.

"As a teacher, you're touching the lives of 25 kids, but as a principal, you have the opportunity to touch the lives of 650. That's just who I am. I'm just driven by that. I love working with the teachers and collaborating with them, and creating a team and getting results. That's very motivating to me."

Hired as assistant principal at Jones in 2004, she would take the reins as principal just three years later.

"As a new administrator serving as an assistant principal, Melissa had a strong vision of what an ideal learning environment should be, and had the determination to work countless hours to make it happen," says Debbie Flora, Fink's predecessor at Jones.

The whole family

Fink says she used her five years in the classroom at Parson Hills -- where the 94 percent free or reduced lunch rate approaches the level of that at Jones -- to guide her in her role as administrator.

"Even as a teacher, I was trying to remove some of those barriers, trying to build relationships with them to see them succeed," says Fink. "It's really fun now, because the kids that I had back then are adults now, and I keep in contact with so many of them." It is a joy, says Fink, to see so many of them leading productive, successful lives. "I had a student who had a single mom [and] did not have a very good home life. She has gone to college, and she is a teacher. The last time I checked with her, she was teaching at a college in Kansas and has done really well. So that cycle of poverty was broken for her."

Breaking the cycle of poverty became a focus for Fink, and she quickly realized that the "whole child approach" -- which eschews a focus on purely academic areas of a child's development and expands to include a child's needs outside of school -- was certainly helpful, but not sufficient.

"I think she was the first person I ever heard say, 'Really, it's the whole family,'" says Morledge. "She pointed out that we need to think about how we approach teaching and learning through the family. It's a family event."

"The majority of our students live in poverty, and it would be easy for teachers to blame academic performance on that part of their lives," says Mills. "However, Melissa always has us focus on things that we as teachers can change in order to help our students continue to succeed and grow."

"We don't let poverty determine our students' destiny," says Fink firmly. "We just don't do that here.

"We've shifted to servicing the whole family, because we know if we want our children to be happy, healthy and educated, we have to wrap ourselves around our families to help them so that they can make better decisions for their families. We really want this school to be a place where parents can come and get all of their needs met, so that they can be better parents for their children. With poverty, there's such a stigma that exists, and I am always trying to break that stigma. People from poverty are happy. They love their children. Sometimes, they just need some resources or tools to do what they need to do for their families."

Health first

Fink's first big tool in expanding Jones' outreach to the family level was the school-based health and wellness center that opened in her school in 2010.

"Inadequate health care is a big barrier for a lot of our kids," says Fink. "I really saw this as one of the biggest things that we could do to remove the barriers, to get their physical and mental health needs met. This includes well child checks, as well as chronic and acute care [for] strep throat, ear infections -- all those childhood illnesses that kids get. We can also meet their emotional needs immediately, so if they've had trauma in their lives, we can go ahead and get those services started."

Fink says absenteeism dropped dramatically soon after the clinic opened.

"Prior to the clinic, we would have a kid who would have blisters on the throat or the ears were hurting, and we would call the parents and say, 'They really need to go to the doctor,'" says Fink. "Three or four days would go by, and we still wouldn't see the kids. So we would have to load into our cars and go to the house and knock on the door, and the family would be there with the child. 'Have you taken the child to the doctor?' 'No, we don't have a doctor,' or 'We don't have the money,' or 'We don't have a car.' Those were the three things we would hear from our families. So it was not uncommon for us to load these children and their families up and drive them to the emergency room, which I always felt bad about, because I know that wasn't a good use of the hospital resources, but what else are we going to do? Strep can grow very dangerous very quickly.

"Since we got our clinic, it has not been an issue at all."

There is a priority structure in place -- Jones' students are always served first -- but the clinic is also free to families of the students, as well as community members who live in the neighborhood.

Jones' Parent University, now in its third year, is perhaps its most ambitious initiative to date, one that Fink calls "the highlight of my career thus far."

"That need arose out of a conversation I was having with a mom one day," Fink remembers. "I had been here for years, and I had always just assumed that parents knew what it meant when we told them that they need to read at home with their children. I was talking to her because her child was struggling, and it occurred to me in the middle of this conversation that she had no idea what it looked like. Having to step back and teach something that was so innate in me really led me to believe that our parents needed a lot from us."

At Parent University, parents choose from two or three class offerings -- recent choices have included Internet safety, pathways to graduation and parenting skills -- and attend class once a week from 5 to 6 p.m. To bring a wide range of information and resources to their parents, Jones partners with area organizations, such as the Springdale Police Department. Dinner is served after each class.

Fink says that the school has been able to fully address subjects that are important to their families through Parent University.

"I gave a survey back in 2007 and one of the questions on the survey was, 'Will your child graduate from high school?'" remembers Fink. "It was shocking to me that 70 percent of the parents said they didn't know. It's not that they don't care about their children, it's because they come from countries where high school was not an option for them -- it's more for the elite and upper societies. I thought, 'Wow, we have work to do.'"

Earning all As

The work they're doing has been phenomenally successful. Classes have had as many as 90 families in attendance, and, on an average night, 40 or 50 families will come.

"I'm looking at outside funding sources to try and keep the momentum going, because I'm not going to be able to afford it much longer," says Fink.

Such innovative programming has become the norm at the school -- in addition to the clinic, Minkel's Home Library Effect and Parent University, Jones has helped to pioneer breakfast in a classroom setting, a routine that helps take the stigma out of free and reduced meals and ensures the majority of their students are getting fed in the mornings.

There is also the Family Literacy Program.

"I had worked with a committee to acquire the first Toyota grant to develop a Family Literacy program at Jones," notes Flora. "When Melissa became principal, she carried the responsibility of implementing the family program, which she did at the highest level."

"That's where we have moms and dads that come to school every day, and they're learning English based on what their children are doing in class," explains Fink. "Part of the day they get to come into the classroom and become a student in their child's room and practice their English skills. I'm pretty sure we have the largest family literacy program in the nation in Springdale." Jones partners with Northwest Technical Institute, which provides teachers for the adults. Jones is hosting the first ever summer family literacy program this year, with 14 families participating.

Fink's model of "whole family" education is clearly working. Under her leadership, standardized test scores continue to rise to levels unusual for a school with such high poverty and LEP populations, and Fink and her school are receiving state and national recognition. Fink was named Arkansas Principal of the Year in 2015. That same year, Jones' teachers and students were filmed for a U.S. Department of Education film that highlighted elementary schools that had implemented initiatives that were making positive changes within the school.

Fink firmly passes all credit on to her faculty and staff.

"It's not what I'm doing, but what our school is doing," says Fink. "This is nothing that I have done. This is something that we have built together. And when I say 'we', I mean the teachers, the families, the assistant principal and the staff -- we have all been a huge part of this. This isn't always an easy place to work, but our hearts are here. I think that people who work at Jones are here for the very same reason I'm here."

For Fink, that reason is that it's important for her community that she contributes.

"I think your community is only as good as your schools," she says. "By supporting these families, by wrapping around them when we need to, they're going to be more productive in their communities.

"I consider this job to be my mission field. I sit in church and I think about, when they're talking about missionaries going abroad, and I think, 'My mission field is across town, and I get to drive there every single day.'"

NAN Profiles on 07/02/2017

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