Nanette Light, Staff Writer Dallas Morning News
In the mornings after she makes her classroom rounds, Onjaleke Brown parks her mobile office on a sofa in a school hallway.
From her eagle perch, she watches over the roughly 160 students she leads as principal at Dallas ISD’s N.W. Harllee Early Childhood Center for pre-K and kindergarten students.
Through one-way windows into classrooms, she spots when students act off-base. Like when an energetic 5-year-old boy climbs on furniture and a little girl across the hall won’t put on her shoes.
It’s an unconventional way to work, but few things about Brown — a self-proclaimed “rule-breaker” — are average. She’s nothing like the principals you grew up with.
She stresses social and emotional learning — teaching the district’s youngest students how to tap into and manage their feelings, rather than punishing them.
That means trampolines to help kids release bursts of energy and special breathing techniques to help them calm down. It means hallway lines that aren’t straight and silent. It’s letting kids be kids.
“You want that positive memory that school is a happy place,” Brown said.
And it starts with the glittery green flats she wears most days of the week. Think Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz but sparkly emerald ones instead.
It’s why students call her “the girl with the green shoes.”
“With little kids, when they come in, they’re looking down first. So when you get something that catches their attention right there, it makes an instant connection,” said Brown, 40, who has expanded her collection to include pearl-studded Converse shoes and a pair with glittery stars.
“In almost every room I go in, the kids say, ‘I like your shoes.'”
A new way to teach
Brown’s unconventional philosophy comes at a time when Dallas ISD is pushing to expand and improve pre-K programs. Derek Little, assistant superintendent of early learning for Dallas ISD, readily admits Brown’s philosophy isn’t the norm.
But DISD officials say more attractive pre-K programs can be an important part of plans to close achievement gaps and boost the district’s overall dwindling enrollment.
Little said Brown’s approach would be harder to replicate for Dallas ISD elementary schools. Harllee doesn’t have standardized testing, which has been criticized for the way it requires a huge emphasis on test-taking.
The district sees Harllee as a laboratory to test new education ideas that can be passed on to other schools, Little said.
“We can make adjustments in other schools, which ultimately is the purpose of Harllee. It’s for us to learn how we do things really well, and how we translate that to other locations,” he said.
Brown’s mother, Dolores Seamster, was principal at Harllee in the late 1990s when it included students through sixth grade. Long after Seamster left, the Oak Cliff school was closed in 2012 due to low enrollment.
But Brown had become familiar with the school. She could see downtown’s skyscrapers from its front doors while she was a teacher-in-training there during college.
Back then, she had rules. So many rules for kids: Stay seated on your carpet squares. Be silent in the hallways with pointer fingers over your lips. And she, like many teachers, had a behavior chart that let kids know by their assigned color whether they were acting “good” or “bad” that day.
“You hear learning is all around us, but we don’t let them touch, we don’t let them feel, we don’t let them look. Keep your head straight. Don’t turn around,” Brown said.
But she knows this isn’t natural for children or adults. “When you hear a noise, you turn and look.”
A different kind of school
Brown’s first principal post was at J.W. Ray Elementary School near Cityplace in Old East Dallas. There, she began to re-evaluate this traditional way of thinking.
Two years ago, when she heard about Dallas ISD’s plans to reopen the nearly century-old Harllee, she seized the chance to start her own school from scratch.
This school would become something different.
“Everything is not going to be in this perfect order in your classroom. It’s just the nature of working with little kids,” she said.
At Harllee, she doesn’t worry whether hallway lines are straight or kids are quiet. And her teachers don’t either. She doesn’t hire the ones who do.
She dared Harllee teachers to join her, persuading them to ditch their behavior charts — a “nail-biting” move for some that initially brought skepticism. Slowly, teachers embraced her way and the freedom to try different things.
“I feel like I can breathe,” said fine arts teacher Audry Rider, who followed Brown to Harllee from Ray. At Harllee — under Brown’s coaching to “just be you” — Rider swapped out desks for tables and let kids choose their own art projects, meaning they don’t all have to paint with watercolors.
“It creates this environment that no matter where I’m at, I can grow. It’s safe to make mistakes because she’s going to help guide us to wherever we need to be,” Rider said. “And it opens up a lot for transformation.”
But there’s a fine line between a little rowdiness and losing control. Brown said loosening the reins only works if teachers still keep a routine.
“I have some teacher friends who think it’s fluff. They don’t like it,” Brown admitted of her philosophy that stresses flexibility. “But it really does do well for the kids.”
Though still in its infancy, Harllee — where nearly 96 percent of students came from low-income families last school year — is a success story.
With a little freedom, Brown says, kids are happier and enjoy school more. And they’re learning. In Harllee’s first year, 60 percent of 4-year-old students ranked proficient in rapid letter naming. This year, the 4-year-olds scored 81 percent.
Since the school opened, Brown said, there have been zero suspensions.
In February, Dallas’ board of trustees adopted a policy prohibiting pre-K through second-graders from being kicked out of school for minor issues like classroom disruptions and talking back. The Legislature is considering a bill that would expand that to the whole state.
“A lot of times we move to suspension really quickly without getting a real solution,” Brown said. “It doesn’t solve the problem.”
Be a teacher
Brown didn’t dream of being a principal. But she knew she’d be a teacher.
“I get to see when the light bulb comes on finally for the kids,” said Brown, a graduate of Dallas ISD’s Kimball High School.
When she was 3, her dolls — one named after her favorite teacher’s daughter — were her students.
Later when she was a freshman at the University of Texas at Austin, advisers tried to persuade her to choose a different path because of her high math and science scores.
Be a doctor, an engineer, they said. A teacher isn’t a “real job,” they told her.
But Brown was steadfast. She comes from a family of educators. Her brother also followed their mother’s path. He is principal of a charter school — International Leadership of Texas Arlington-Grand Prairie High School.
During summers growing up, Brown tagged along with her mother to run errands and sharpen pencils while Seamster taught summer school.
“I’m an educator because there is a need, and I wanted to make a difference in the lives of our children,” Seamster said. “I’d have been disappointed if she had not seen that in me.”
Now at Harllee, Brown occupies the principal’s office her mom once held. Though rarely used during the days, she’s filled it with children’s artwork, photos of her three kids, beanbag chairs and books for students.
How do you feel today?
Brown cut her teeth in education as a third-grade teacher for four years before moving to assistant principal.
But when she was assigned her first administration post at W.H. Atwell Middle School, she thought it was a mistake.
“You talk about stress,” she said. “I hadn’t been in a middle school since I was in middle school.”
From there, she moved to Edward H. Cary Middle School and later Sunset High School. She credits her unplanned stint in secondary education for some of her unorthodox practices like the mobile office, which she started as a middle school assistant principal at Atwell.”I had to. I had to be visible because if the kids don’t see you, they’re going to do whatever,” she said. “I learned about interactions at high school. They’re just big little kids.”
So when she saw a high school student melt down in a hallway, she thought, “How did we get to this point?”
It’s why, at Harllee, she advocates teaching kids at 3 years old how to understand their emotions and cope. “How are you feeling?” is a common question.
It’s what she asked 5-year-old A’lijah Pleasant on a recent Thursday.
Brown suspected something was wrong after spotting him wandering from his classmates on the floor through the one-way window.
She cracked open the door, telling him to join her in the hallway.
A’lijah shook his head. “Bring a book,” Brown said to sweeten the deal.
Grabbing a photo album of his kids in his class, A’lijah climbed up on the squishy, olive green love seat that serves as Brown’s mobile office, scooting next to her and dangling his legs. Turning the album’s pages, he chatted about his class’ holiday party in December and gleefully pointed to his face when he spotted his photo.
Then, he motioned to Brown’s sparkly green flats, telling her he liked her shoes and proudly wiggling his feet to show off his light-up sneakers.
“I see, I see,” Brown said enthusiastically, taking the chance to segue and ask him how he was feeling.
“Not good,” he told her matter-of-factly.
“Do you want to take a deep breath?” she asked, coaching A’lijah through five slow inhales and exhales to help calm him down.
“Now, give me five hops on the trampoline, and then we’ll go back,” Brown said, pointing to a trampoline tucked in a hallway corner. It’s one of several nestled throughout the school — a Christmas gift off Brown’s wish list to help kids release bursts of energy.
“Five good hops. Let’s go.”
“One, two, three, four, five,” A’lijah chanted, repeating the cycle five times before Brown told him to jump off.
She held out her hand for him to grab. “Ready to go back?”
Opening the classroom door, she whispered encouragement: “Remember, we’re going to re-enter with a different perspective.” A’lijah nodded, running back to his friends still on the floor.
From the window, Brown watched, holding her breath like a mom sending her son off to his first day of school.
“See, he’s more focused, more calm,” she said. “We all get antsy.”
Onjaleke Brown on being an early childhood principal:
- Hallways don’t have to be quiet, and lines don’t have to be straight.
- Five hops on a trampoline will help kids release bursts of energy and return to class more focused.
- A few deep inhales and exhales can calm down rambunctious students.
- Teaching Pre-K students to understand their emotions will help them later in life as teenagers and adults.
- Knowing all 160 kids’ names and at least one thing about them builds a connection so they trust her and enjoy coming to school.