Interview and Photos by Jan Osborn.
This spring United to Learn (U2L), a Dallas-based nonprofit that partners with Dallas ISD elementary schools to accelerate student achievement and grow purposeful leaders. The first of five weekends of its annual Community Campus Day event kicked off on February 26. The next Community Campus Day will be held Saturday, April 2.
During these five Saturday events, United to Learn will mobilize community volunteers from companies, schools, and other organizations to improve campus cultures across 45 elementary schools. The remaining events will occur on April 9 and April 23.
One of the participating schools is Burnet Elementary School. Dallas Doing Good interviewed its Principal Sonia Loskot to learn more about her journey in education and the impact of United to Learn’s Community Campus Day.
Would you share your story of why you decided to get into education? And, what inspires you to continue your journey?
I am originally from Belize, and at 18, I came to the United States as an international student. After graduating with my Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and a major in management at 20, I had a one-year work permit and worked in Corporate America. I had a colleague that encouraged me to get into education as he saw me as a good candidate for teaching. After lots of persistence, my colleague set up an appointment with an educational leader. He noticed that I loved helping anyone, and I was a lifelong learner.
I believe that education makes a difference. I knew that it would change the trajectory for so many. I always loved school and was very involved in leading school groups and committees as a child. After that appointment, the rest was history. I got hired on the spot.
In the beginning, teaching was challenging, and many times I felt like a failure as I wanted to do good for students but was still learning how to teach. I taught kindergarten and didn’t feel the connection to the profession right away. Over the holiday break, I went to visit my students. On the second home I entered, my life was changed. I saw this student that had no furniture in his home and had to use his oversized jacket as his blanket, but I also saw his joy when he saw me and how proud he was that his teacher was in his home. This experience propelled me. At that moment, I knew my purpose; I knew that I could give it my all every day to impact children.
Today, I am inspired by the challenges ahead. We live in the era of COVID and new technology. At the same time, the need to eliminate systemic racism is still present. And I believe through education, we can work to address all of these issues and create a better future.
What was your catalyst for becoming a Principal? Is there a specific story or event that propelled you to want to become a Principal?
Again, people believing in me and encouraging me led me to become a Principal.
I knew other great teachers helped me become a better educator, and I enjoyed having other teachers observe me, and I liked sharing what I learned with others. My principal noticed that my colleagues would listen to me, was inspired by my teaching and relationship with students, and enjoyed helping other teachers. And she encouraged me to look into becoming a principal. That principal would have me present on classroom management, motivate kids, and observe my teaching.
In the beginning, I wanted to stay in the classroom as I thought being a principal would be a political job. But she told me, “No, you can make a bigger impact.” And that is what sold me.
I credit many of my previous bosses for helping build me into a leader. I know everything doesn’t change overnight, but it’s life-transforming if we see consistent gains.
I am currently pursuing my Doctoral degree in Educational Leadership and Policy, Cooperative Superintendency Program, from UT in Austin. I am a lifelong learner and have joined many cohorts with principals across Texas and the nation, recently becoming an alumni of the Cahn Fellows Program for Distinguished Principal at Columbia University. In 2019, my campus performed 96 out of 100 in closing the achievement gap per TEA ratings, and we are officially a Leader in Me Lighthouse school. Our kids are performing. It exemplifies that our students are successful when passionate educators believe in them.
My current and former students continue to motivate and inspire me. A returning student came to Burnet to give me her invitation to her High School graduation. She was Valedictorian. She told me that I made a difference in her life as her teacher. She reminded me that I had told her, “You told me the sky is the limit, and I kept pushing for it.” And she did.
The work that we do never ends. The learning never ends. We are constantly finding a solution.
Tell us about United to Learn’s Community Campus Day project and how this project and this day impacts your learning community?
After I became a principal, United to Learn was one of the first organizations that supported my school. I realized that there was much work to be done to improve our school that fell outside the budget of what we had. I knew the power of resources and investment could positively impact our campus.
Through my experience volunteering with my school in Belize, I knew the impact that community partnerships could have on a school.
United to Learn immediately listened to the challenges we were facing and helped forge meaningful school partnerships to help us solve those challenges.
In 2014, as part of my Principal Impact Collaborative Project, I was charged with creating classrooms with human-centered design, and United to Learn helped donate materials needed to create flexible classrooms with standing desks to help students be more engaged.
Another challenge that United to Learn has helped us with is helping to ensure that students are getting medical needs met. We know that we can better educate our students when their health needs are also met. In 2019, through United to Learn, Hockaday students helped create a telehealth program with Children’s Health. The students also started a fund balance at Hockaday, so our parents never saw a bill. Students can receive health care, and their parents can join the call without disrupting their workdays. It has been transformational.
United to Learn has this way of listening and hearing what we need. They were very instrumental in helping us meet the needs of our families after the tornadoes impacted our community, giving us gift cards for families and the materials required. They helped us treat the whole child.
Last Community Campus Day, volunteers helped install areas for hopscotch, four square, and bowling and established soccer goals to make students’ outdoor experience more enjoyable.
This year for our Community Campus Day project, we will enhance our school garden. United to Learn will provide fertilizers, tools, plants, seeds, picnic tables, and the resources and labor to get the job done. We will also update our teacher’s lounge and create a mindfulness space for our staff.
Why do you feel like organizations like United to Learn are important for our local schools?
If we can enhance the health of our community, innovate the outdoor spaces, and improve teaching spaces, it will help students achieve success, and it will help teachers stay engaged. Having the support and resources that United to Learn brings has made an enormous impact on our Social and Emotional learning needs.
For example, United to Learn funded part of our Leader in Me program, which is a critical resource in helping us break the cycles of trauma. With the incredible volunteer resources, Burnet Elementary can receive needed upgrades without burdening our staff or other resources.
It’s partnerships like United to Learn helps keep staffing stable. Over the last four years, we have been able to retain our staff, which allows us to focus on learning and meeting children’s academic, social and emotional needs where they are.
What is your vision for Burnet Elementary School five years from today?
Five years from today, my goal is for Burnet Elementary School to be recognized as an Innovation and Transformation School with Dallas ISD. In addition, for our Elementary School to receive the Blue Ribbon status to continue to meet the needs of students and staff.
For more information about United to Learn, go to unitedtolearn.org.