With 212 suspensions in one school year and students preforming at only eight percent proficiency on district standardized tests, being a teacher at Stanton Elementary School located in one of Washington, DC’s, toughest areas would not be easy. Sheryl Ellsworth accepted the challenge as part of the Teach for America program and became part of team that revamped the school.
“I didn’t plan on becoming a teacher. I served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Cape Town, South Africa Mission. After I came back, I had a paradigm shift in what I thought was important. One thing led to another, and I realized I had a passion for education, which most likely came because I found out I was the happiest when I was teaching someone as a missionary,” Ellsworth said. “So that transferred into feeling like I would like to help more people learn. I’d like to help, in particular our [areas of] highest needs. This led me to apply for Teach for America, and I got placed in the Washington, DC, area.”
Stanton Elementary School was the 71st-lowest performing school out of 72 schools in Washington, DC. An estimated two or three students were passing from each grade level.
“The first year was really tough. I was stabbed with pencils and pens [and] kicked and punched. My kids were only eight years old,” Ellsworth said. “They were frustrated. A lot couldn’t read, a lot couldn’t access the knowledge, so they would just get frustrated and they would take it out on me or other teachers or other students. It was a crazy, crazy situation.”
Ellsworth was part of the new staff that came in to revamp the school. Over the course of five years of hard and dedicated work, the students’ proficiency on district standardized tests went from eight percent to 42 percent. Suspensions went down from 212 to 20.
“When you look at any form of turnaround, it takes around five to seven years. You have to live, breathe, and eat the mission of the school, and that’s what I did,” Ellsworth shared. “I felt like I was part of a mission that made the impossible seem possible. The trauma, the poverty, all of the things my kids went through, they’re still going through. The community hasn’t made this shift, but Stanton Elementary School really became the neighborhood school that really could work with virtually any student we got.”
After five years, Ellsworth left the school in good hands and moved back to Utah, where she joined the State Board of Education. There, she oversees the Senate Bill 234, the turnaround school bill, and works with the bottom three percent of schools in the state of Utah.
“I worked with the most fabulous school leaders and I realized . . . that I like the bigger change I’m able to make, but I’d potentially one day love to make change at a school level or even a district level,” Ellsworth said.
With that mindset, Ellsworth joined the McKay School’s licensure only program to earn her administrative license. Participants in the program are already working professionals with master’s degrees.
“We’re just going to school for the next 16 months to get that certificate and take the test, so if we want to be school leaders, we can,” said Ellsworth.
However, being part of the program hasn’t been an easy experience. It has been challenging for Ellsworth to come from a different background than her peers. She is African American, and the only other participant of color in the program is Polynesian.
“It’s just too bad that there are only two people of color in my whole program. I would love there to be more diversity going through the university. When people talk about their experiences in my class so far, it’s just so different from mine. It’s been kind of hard because I just feel like, ‘I wish someone knew what I was talking about,’” Ellsworth explained. “I reached out to Dr. Boren about it, and he encouraged me to look at a quote from Clay Christensen that talks about how you really can learn from everybody. I definitely have tried to be more open-minded and to learn more from everyone.”
When looking at the future, Ellsworth is uncertain what direction she will pursue in her career. No matter what direction she takes, she hopes to be able to help students in one way or another.
“BYU is giving me the tools to be an innovative school leader and to think how I can best fill the needs of students. The goal is to impact students in some way, whether on a school level, consultation, or policy changes,” Ellsworth said.
Ellsworth was born in Washington, DC, and grew up in the Richmond, Virginia, area. She graduated from BYU with a bachelor’s in communications and a minor in sociology in 2007. Ellsworth continued on to earn her master’s in early childhood education from George Mason University. She currently resides in Salt Lake City, Utah, with her husband, Matt.
Writer: Janine Swart
Contact: Cynthia Glad, (801) 422-1922