Building a great school is about building relationships, and Gina Naccarato-Keele has done both at Linwood Elementary School.
Folks have noticed.
Next weekend, Naccarato-Keele plans to be in Washington, D.C., for an awards banquet that will honor her and 61 other principals from around the nation.
That will be nice, but it probably won’t compare to last March 23 – her birthday, no less – when Naccarato-Keele walked into the Linwood gym for an all-school assembly and was greeted with the news that she’d been named the state’s Elementary School Principal of the Year.
“I had no idea what they were doing. … I was so honored,” Naccarato-Keele said this week. “I know there are so many hard-working principals in Spokane and around the state.”
There’s no secret formula, said Naccarato-Keele, who said she tries to “advocate for kids and what they need, build relationships and hire really well.”
The results have been extraordinary during her 11 years as principal. Located in a middle-class neighborhood just off Monroe a few blocks north of Francis Avenue, Linwood draws much of its enrollment from lower-income neighborhoods to the east. More than 70 percent of its 510 students receive free and reduced-price lunches.
And then there’s the building, which dates from 1952 and is showing its age. A new building, approved by Spokane voters in 2015, is going up next door and will be ready in the spring.
“It’s going to be wonderful,” Naccarato-Keele said as she walked past the construction site.
A practitioner in the systems of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, or PBIS, and Restorative Practices, Naccarato-Keele has tried to create an atmosphere that offers differentiated support for struggling students.
Linwood also has implemented a character-building program to boost emotional and social skills.
Linwood students are outperforming schools with similar demographics 72 percent of the time in language arts and 67 percent of the time in math.
In addition, Naccarato-Keele’s partnership with a local food bank and Gonzaga University’s business school has ensured that students in need can access a free bag of food to bring home each weekend.
The halls of Linwood are lined with posters and other signs of achievement from her students, some of whom Naccarato-Keele greets on the way to gym class.
Naccarato-Keele pauses at the entrance to what’s become known as the “gym-a-cafetorium,” a place that serves up two meals a day along with P.E. classes and school events.
As children filed in, teacher Fiona Zweisler was waiting a bit breathlessly after setting up cones and labels for fitness class.
“After I teach the class, I’ll have about two minutes to tear it down,” Zweisler, who credits Naccarato-Keele for making the job easier.
“She’s very encouraging,” Zweisler said. “Anything you want to do she supports you, and if you have a mistake, she’ll help you correct it and become a better teacher.”
The daughter of teachers in Spokane Valley, Naccarato-Keele became one herself after earning a degree at Eastern Washington University.
She taught in Spokane Valley and continued a fulfilling career in Spokane before other principals challenged her.
“They told me to step up, that what I was doing in a class, I could do for 500 kids,” Naccarato-Keele said.
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