BF Day School Pride Month

10-20-2020

On May 10, 1994, Carole Williams, then principal of BF Day Elementary School, was named Washington State’s Distinguished Principal of The Year, and for good reason.   

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When Carole assumed her principalship in 1985, BF Day was wrought with conflict, poverty, and defeat. It was ranked #65 out of 65 Seattle Public Schools. Of the 350 children enrolled, 175 were from single-parent families; 140 were classified as low income; 100 were living in housing projects, transitional housing (motels), or emergency shelters; 50 children were at high risk of failure; and 25 were being monitored for abuse and neglect by Seattle’s Department of Social and Health Services. Sixteen foreign languages were spoken by the children, and 60% of their families were at or below the poverty level. Over a period of 18 months, three children tried to kill themselves at school, and several others threatened to do so.  

 

In that same year Carole started at BF Day, the Seattle School Board had announced the decision to close the dilapidated building and rebuild at the Lincoln High site in Wallingford and rename it “Latona”. But the Fremont community pushed back. Led by Fremont land owner / business woman Suzie Burke and Carole Williams, the community rallied together to fight the decision until the School Board finally agreed to halt the plan to move, committing instead to a $5 million renovation of the school (1989-1991).  

Once the historic BF Day building was saved, Carole set forth to rally and inspire teachers, parents, community volunteers and corporate executives to do what her heart insisted - to now save the kids.  This undertaking is no better articulated than by Carole herself:

"As a black woman who has seen more pain in the faces of neglected and abused children than I can bear to think about, I believe there is no purpose to schooling if it does not focus upon and strongly affect the cold, stark, everyday realities of little human beings ensnared in a poverty from which there is an obscured chance of escape. As the principal of B. F. Day, I choose not to be concerned with the established societal standards and bureaucratic dictates of “doing things right.” Rather, I choose to illuminate a compelling direction of “doing the right thing.” I want teachers who are willing to go the 200 yards when it comes to letting children know we will never give up on them. If that translates into hugging and holding a psychologically beaten child, if it means walking down the street and buying him a hamburger, or washing that child’s face and combing his hair—whatever—I expect it. To those who say, “Schools are for educating children,” I say, “We can educate children as to the meaning of love, trust, respect, and hope, or we can educate them as to the meaning of desperate cries that fall upon deaf ears and a disregard for human pain.”… All you need is a sense of purpose, a sense of direction, a passionate belief that you can make a difference in the life of an innocent child. If you accept nothing short of that, then your personal integrity and uncompromising sentiments will empower you to excel and breathe life into your daily, moment-to-moment decisions and actions within and beyond the school setting"… "If this school was going to change its course and assume more than academic responsibility for its students, it would require a collaboration of minds, hearts, and hands. Of this, I was sure.” ~ Carole Williams

Under Carole’s creative, compassionate and dynamic leadership, the BF Day community began transforming from a failing educational system to a family school - assisting parents in finding jobs, finding a place to live, finding dignity. She gave (insisted) the homeless parents a $200/month stipend to spend the entire day at school. These parents rode in with their children on the buses in the morning, and served as monitors during breakfast, lunch and recesses, which in turn freed up the teachers to work with the students more. They were welcomed with recognition and praise by the staff. These jobs helped parents to provide a ‘working model’ for their children, and also gave them a reference to use for future job applications. All of this was privately funded with grants.  

Staff met weekly, watching films about prejudice and bias, stretching their comfort zones and visiting students in shelters. They learned to shift from exclusionary consequences for student behavior, to giving out more hugs.

"I realized that before we could teach these children academics, we had to reach them emotionally. . . I have found very few things that can resolve conflict, encourage creativity and empower growth as effectively as human touch.” ~ Carole Williams

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So impressive was the work Carole did at BF Day, that in 1994 New York author Sharon Quint wrote a book about it titled “Schooling Homeless Children - A working Model for America’s Public Schools". The book is a thought provoking and heart wrenching reflection on the impressive work Carole Williams and others did to transform the BF Day community. Near the end of the book in chapter 11, Quint wrote of her experiences and observations during a visit to the newly renovated and revitalized BF Day (just 2 years before Carole retired). In the chapter, Quint runs into a formerly homeless 9-year-old who happened to be watering plants on a windowsill and who beautifully articulated this about his experience at BF Day:

"I used to push and shove a lot. And I used to throw chairs and tables at the other kids. But I don’t make bad choices so much no more. If you make a bad choice, then you need to think about what you done and what the consequences be. Then a big person will help you to figure out why you made a bad choice. Then tomorrow is a new day, and you got a new chance to make a good choice. Anyway, I want to get a coupon for a free hug from my teacher or the principal. If I make a good choice, I get a good consequence. I can get a hug and maybe a kiss on my cheek. 1 could save up my hug coupons and get lots and lots and lots of hugs on the same day. That be real good. If you make a bad choice, that don’t mean you be a bad person. Everyone makes a bad choice sometimes. You ought to listen to Mrs. Williams. She the principal of this whole big school and she make bad choices sometimes, but that don’t mean she be a bad person. ’Cause she feel sorry, and she try her best not to do the same bad choice again. The principal, Mrs. Williams, say she no different from me. She got good days, and she got bad days. I got good days, and I got bad days. She make a bad choice sometimes, and so do I. Mrs. Williams say we the same because we both good people and we both make mistakes. But the next day we could make a good choice…. You in charge of your own self. You in charge of your own choices, and you in charge of your own consequences. If you be unhappy with your own consequences, then you better make good choices tomorrow."

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Later in the book the author observes the following:

"We can talk about healthy schools in much the same way we talk about healthy people. Schools are like living organisms, with characteristics that can be described in varying degrees as healthy or unhealthy. Schools, as culture, must assume responsibility for their health and be held accountable. This, in fact, is the case at B. F. Day. There is a sense of health and wholeness that pervades every aspect of school life. Teachers, students, and parents have a sense of belonging to a special place. To this end, B. F. Day offers an extraordinary educative environment, in a place often called “The Family School.”

Here we are, 24 years later and this Family School continues to thrive today thanks to the heartfelt work of an extraordinary woman named Carole Williams. Her legacy of love, compassion, and social justice are permanently embedded in the bricks of that old BF Day building, as well as the hearts of all who know her story.