Inglewood Unified principal takes hands-on approach to education

imagePrincipal Richard Barter makes it his business to know the names of all 750 students at Oak Street Elementary School in Inglewood.

When Barter steps onto the playground, he’s welcomed by rousing choruses of “Hi, Mr. Barter!”

Smiling warmly under his bushy moustache, he replies, “Hi, Chris. Hi, Anthony. Hi, Fatima.”

He often joins the students outside for recess, during which he emerges wielding a boom box, hula hoops and jump ropes. On a recent morning, children ran toward Barter as he threw a yellow hoop over his head and began swirling to the music.

“I realized when I first became principal that I could not say, ‘Hey, you in the blue shirt.’ The children wouldn’t turn around,” said Barter, who recently began grading tests in his free time to get to know the students even better.

“It gives me a personal connection with the child. Because then I can say, ‘Hey, you passed the division test. I’m really proud of you.'”

Barter’s involvement would be appreciated at any school. But in the Inglewood Unified School District, which has experienced declining enrollment in part due to the increased presence of local charter schools, Barter’s good reputation has helped retain current students and recruit new ones.

“Mr. Barter is a one-of-a-kind principal,” said Xol Isaiah Gonzales, a fourth-grade student who transferred to Oak Street Elementary this year. “I never met any principal who has fun like that.”

Gonzales and his schoolmates were quick to add that Barter frequently makes them laugh, usually by dancing on stage during school events or dressing up for Halloween. They giggled when describing how Barter played basketball with students while dressed up as a cereal box one year.

“He’s just so involved with these kids, ever since I’ve known him,” said Rodtego Roth, a campus plant manager whose children were taught by Barter at Clyde Worthington Elementary. “And that’s the thing: keeping them busy in activities.”

In his 10 years at Oak Street Elementary, Barter has initiated dozens of student activities at the school, which runs from Kindergarten through sixth grade. Some of the activities include soccer, basketball, students vs. faculty athletic competitions, multiple levels of choir, glee club and a special group—the only in Inglewood Unified School District—that practices baile folklórico, a traditional form of Mexican dance.

“We’re always involved with the City of Inglewood through the different programs,” said Norma Rosales, a school clerk whose third-grade son dances in the baile folklórico group. “They’re always calling us to perform.”

School performance groups also regularly appear at city-sponsored events, nursing homes, local churches and parades, including the 2010 Westchester Christmas Parade.

“The more that you have for the children, the less discipline problems that you have,” said Barter, who doles out more certificates of achievement than detention slips.

imageBarter’s office hardly seems the place where students come when they get in trouble. Crayola-brand crayon memorabilia and art fill the shelves and cover the walls. A picture frame decorated with crayons displays the message: “It’s okay to color outside the lines.”

Barter puts creative philosophies to use, such as when he accepted a request to host a polling place for Election Day 2010 in the cafeteria. He simultaneously scheduled student body campaign speeches and elections to occur on stage while Inglewood residents voted on the floor. The student elections were a first for Oak Street Elementary, to his knowledge.

“It was kind of bizarre because they were having the mayor’s election. It was like as if they were there to vote for me,” said Paola Camacho, the sixth-grade student who was elected president. “I think he places an emphasis on having role models for the lower grades because they might not have any older brothers or sisters.”

Barter has implemented several mentoring programs, including pairing older students with younger ones for tutoring sessions during recess and lunch periods. He is currently developing a program that will invite reading tutors from Loyola Marymount University, where he received a master’s degree in educational administration.

“He’s just such a dedicated servant,” said the Rev. Kristian Johnson, pastor of First Lutheran Church in Inglewood. “He’s very relational with everyone and very proactive in making the school the best it can be.”

In 2010, Oak Street Elementary scored an Academic Performance Index score of 826, placing it third in California for an elementary school of that size. Students from economically disadvantaged families make up more than half of the school’s student population, according to the California Department of Education.

Last Thanksgiving, Johnson’s parish received a grant from Thrivent Financial for Lutherans to purchase turkeys, and Barter helped place them with school families that had difficulty affording a complete Thanksgiving meal. He has also been known to help parents pay for the school’s regulatory uniforms and laundering services.

In addition to his behind-the-scenes altruism, Barter regularly honors student achievements publicly, whether for academic, athletic or community service-based merits. He has forged partnerships with Inglewood businesses such as LAX Tacos and Shakey’s, which donate certificates and prizes to students.

“The children, I think, for the most part are happy. And when you have happy children, I think they go home with that happy feeling,” said Barter, who added that whenever he needs a pick-me-up, he just visits one of the kindergarten classrooms.

“They really do make me smile from ear to ear.”

Photo Credit: Lisa Rau

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