Story and Photos by Jan Osborn.
United to Learn (U2L), a Dallas-based nonprofit that partners with Dallas ISD elementary schools to accelerate student achievement and grow purposeful leaders, is helping 49 Dallas ISD elementary schools gear up for the new school year by fulfilling teachers’ supply requests through their annual Learning Launch program. The program, which is Dallas’ only back-to-school supply drive that provides schools with teacher-requested learning resources and tools, alleviates the financial and time burden of teachers and administrators who typically spend an average of $600 of their own money annually! Learning Launch equips Dallas elementary schools and classrooms for the first day of school and beyond.
One of the elementary schools that will receive support from United to Learn is Nancy Jane Cochran Elementary School. We spoke with Cochran Principal, Dr. Sandra Fernandez, about her journey and education and how United to Learn helps support her vision for her school.
Would you share your story of why you decided to get into education? And, what inspires you to continue your journey?
While I was told by previous teachers that I would be a great teacher, I did not have the typical pathway to becoming an educator. After college, where I studied economics and Italian, I thought I’d be in international business and really had not planned on becoming a teacher. However, while working for DART on statistical analysis, I took the alternative certification program to become a teacher.
In 1996, I was placed in my first classroom as a fourth grade bilingual teacher. I really enjoyed being in the classroom and I loved seeing kids learn and grow.
It was not the most traditional route, but I quickly fell in love with the profession.
What was your catalyst for becoming a Principal? Is there a specific story or event that propelled you to want to become a Principal?
While I was teaching elementary school at the first school I ever taught, I decided to pursue a masters degree. I really wanted to try education administration. At the time I was serving as a lead teacher, I was leading committees and I was helping mentor newer teachers. I really enjoyed serving in these roles. I also really enjoyed the course work of my Masters program.
I had the opportunity to join the administration at my school. And I was lucky enough to be part of the first learning centers in Dallas as an administrator. It was very innovative at the time. I was able to lead different teams with different initiatives. I became an assistant principal in 2003 and then in 2007 I became a Principal at Bonham Elementary. In the five years that I was there, I was able to help Bonham become a Blue Ribbon School. Then in 2012, I helped open Callejo Elementary and was there for eight years before joining the ACE family and becoming Principal at Cochran.
I really aspired to be a principal because I wanted to make an even bigger impact on students and teachers.
Tell us about your United to Learn Learning Launch project and how this project impacts your learning community?
For this year’s Learning Launch, we made a few requests to United to Learn. Our first request was to help us further develop our established house system. The house system gives students the opportunity to connect with students across classes and grades that they may not normally have a chance to interact with. This helps students gain more friendships and create a family-like culture at our school. The enhancements include banners and pennants to engage students with our teachers. And it encourages friendly competitions between the houses.
Additionally, we have requested items for a community care closet. The closet would help meet all student needs throughout the day, housing such items as underwear, socks, dental hygiene items, deodorant, and extra uniforms. It provides essential items to help a child recover quickly and return to the classroom feeling comfortable and ready to learn.
And we also asked for a greenhouse to help expand our outdoor classroom. Our teachers are always looking for ways to increase science instruction and the greenhouse will help enhance this instruction.
Why do you feel organizations like United to Learn are important for our local schools?
I love U2L! We are super grateful for Learning Launch. I really appreciate how United to Learn takes a different angle to meet our emotional well being and helps with the beautification of our campus. Improving the school environment helps students feel pride and gets them excited about learning and going to school everyday.
United to Learn looks at what teachers and students need to achieve success from a holistic perspective. United to Learn truly listens to our needs and nothing is ever off the table. United to Learn helps us think outside the box and they never say no! In addition they make things simple for us.
United to Learn is a partner that really listens and sees what we are looking for and asking for.
What is your vision for your Elementary School five years from today?
I tell this to my team all of the time: I want to put Cochran back on the map! We want to create a school environment that our students and community can be proud of – a school of excellence.
This means we want to excel at sports, academics, and community service. As principal, I want us to accept help graciously and give back to the community.
It is truly a family mission for me. It means a lot to my whole family. My husband went here, his cousin and oldest daughter went here and our daughter goes here.
This is our community. We are all Colts!
For more information about United to Learn, go to unitedtolearn.org.