Nystrom Magnet Elementary School – 2004 Winner

Gail Thompson of Nystrom Magnet Elementary School in Richmond is a refugee from the legal profession.  She graduated from college, got her law degree, and then got involved in municipal government.  For a number of years, she was in charge of the management of recreational and youth programs for the City of Richmond.  Then she got bitten by the teaching bug.  And she went to work initially as a kindergarten teacher in the Richmond schools.  When she went for her first job interview, the school had boards over the windows and she could hear machine gun fire in the background.  That would have deterred a lot of us but it didn’t deter Gail.  She persevered and took that job.  She now teaches intensive remedial literacy at Nystrom Magnet school.

The community that Gail’s school serves consists of families from a low socio-economic level and migrant workers.  She motivates her students not just to achieve the minimum but to aspire to excellence. And she does that by drawing on the students’ natural curiosity.

— She took the students on a field trip to the ocean, to learn about ecology;
— She took them to the UC Berkeley campus, so that they could see a college campus and meet young people who are planning a positive future.
— She has enlisted a drama coach to help her students understand fine arts and performance production, in preparation for a forthcoming field trip to see a performance of a Shakespeare play later in the school year.

Gail wants her students to know that the riches of our culture don’t just belong to other people from wealthy schools or wealthy communities.  They belong to her students, too.

Gail brings people into her classroom from different occupations to discuss the roles their jobs play in the community and what they had to do to obtain those jobs.  Gail’s message to these kids is this:  Your surroundings may be modest but your future is unlimited.  You have potential.  You can do what you set your mind to do.

At the same time, Gail is active in addressing some of the problems faced by the community where her students live.  She addresses drug and alcohol abuse, violence and apathy in her classroom.  She emphasizes the importance of taking responsibility for your own life and planning a future that includes change and the realization of dreams.

Gail is active in creating programs at her school for the remediation of academic deficiencies.  She organized weekend workshops for tutoring parents and their kids to enhance their skills.  And she founded an after-school tutoring program for the whole school and found a site and private donations to make it happen.

Some of Gail’s students don’t have adequate clothing to keep them warm.  She goes out and solicits donations of used clothing for them.  Her family bought Christmas toys for all the kids in the class – one for each student and one to take home to a brother or sister.