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What is an EL Education? An interview with Sheelarani Webster, Principal of World of Inquiry #58

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    April Hattori

Sheelarani Webster has been principal of World of Inquiry #58 (WOI), a K-12 school in Rochester, NY, since 2010. In total, she has been part of WOI family for more than 20 years, starting out as a K-2 teacher and taking on roles of increasing responsibility, including instructional coach and assistant principal. She was also a student teacher at WOI in 1992. She shares her thoughts on what it means to lead an EL Mentor and Credentialed School in a large urban district. Last year, WOI graduated its first senior class, 100% of whom were accepted to college.

Tell us how you became principal at WOI.
I view becoming a principal as a calling. My passion for education started after I became a parent volunteer in my daughter’s school (not WOI) and saw the important role that teachers had in her life. I could only become principal with the help and support of the many mentors and teachers I met along the way.

How did you hear about EL?
Our school was established in the early 1960s in the aftermath of the Rochester race riots. The mission of the school was integration and an inquiry-based approach, so much so that “inquiry” was incorporated in our name. From the 1960’s to the 1990’s, the city underwent a lot a change – the school that was once considered a jewel started to look like other failing schools. In 2002, when I was a teacher leader at WOI, our goal was to get back to our inquiry-based roots. We reviewed many school models and had an epiphany when we heard a presentation on EL by Steven Levy (a renowned EL school designer) who said “EL would help put the ‘inquiry’ back into World of Inquiry.” The Rochester School District would allow us to implement EL only if we had the support from our staff. Ninety-eight percent of our team approved the EL approach. Then and now, we couldn’t imagine partnering with anyone else.

What does it mean for you, your staff, and your students to be part of the EL network?
EL is who we are – it’s a part of our being. It’s as simple as that for us. People feel it when they walk into the building. We are a family. World of Inquiry is a place teachers, students, and parents want to be – a school in which high expectations for all and collaboration is the norm.

What does Crew mean to you and your school?
Crew always means you know you are never alone. We’re all in it together. It’s the power of a united set of people with a common vision. It is possible to achieve the impossible – World of Inquiry history is an example. We overcame the odds. We started off as a K-6 school in a large urban district and had to grow out one grade level per year for 6 years. During that time, we went from 300 to 900 kids and from staff under 50 to over 100 amid changes at the school and district. Just this year, we moved into our new building after being in temporary quarters for two and a half years. Not even a 20-degree below zero day in February was going to delay our move!

How involved are parents and the community at WOI?
World of Inquiry parents are EL parents who take Crew seriously. In fact, they call themselves our Parent Teacher Crew, not Parent Teacher Organization. Their interactions resemble what kids do in the classroom—when they gather,
they use EL structures and processes, including simple protocols, norms, opening circle and readings. They live “We are Crew, not passengers” and hold each other accountable. EL means something to them. In the 2013-14 school year, parents of EL schools in Rochester, especially WOI, were instrumental in advocating for the renewal of the EL partnership.

What advice do you share with new leaders and teachers?
What EL does is center us as leaders in knowing that our job is to serve our teacher community, who in turn empower our students to do more than they think possible. EL believes that teachers are the most important people in a student’s learning at school. They build teacher capacity – they liberate teachers to do their jobs and respect them as professionals.

Crew always means you know you are never alone. We’re all in it together. It’s the power of a united set of people with a common vision. ​Sheelarani Webster Principal of World of Inquiry #58