By Alisha Torres
Five years ago, Whitsitt Elementary School was categorized under priority status as one of the lowest performing schools in Tennessee. Fast forward to the present day, this school has experienced major growth under Principal Justin Uppinghouse’s leadership and turnaround team and ever since joining the Metro Nashville Public Schools District-led Community Achieves Initiative. Prevailing through all the community’s ups and downs lies Community Achieves Site Manager Chris Echegaray.
This award-winning reporter, turned Community School Coordinator, has leveraged his evaluative, investigative, and analytical skills to actively support and advocate for public education systemic reform. Chris continuously campaigns for more effective communication, planning sessions, and monthly events to sustain the Community Achieves standards-based framework. The common programming for Metro Nashville Public Schools centers on family engagement, college and career readiness, health and wellness, and social services. These pillars of support used at Whitsitt ES provide key templates for yearly strategic plans where Chris can present the school’s shared goals, student data, and needs assessments to all the school stakeholders of the community.
“In journalism, our motto was ‘comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.’” Chris says. As a community school coordinator, Chris still lives by this quote because it reminds him why he and many others do this work. He has amplified the voice of the voiceless in this community and is dedicated to making sure they are heard. His relationships and interactions with parents, students, staff, and partners are founded on trust, respect, appreciation, and upfront communication. Examples of these experiences take place in family focus groups where parents are surveyed on the needs and expectations for the school. Chris consistently and transparently uses student data and the shared goals with school faculty, key partners, and parents to collaboratively make decisions.
Other strong values and mission-centered strategies that Whitsitt established with Community Achieves are shared leadership and community integration. This is exhibited through Power Monday, an enriching event that’s held every third Monday of the month. During Power Monday, school stakeholders can publicly declare what they do and why they do it for their students and community. During the morning, the school partners with over 40 local organizations to provide additional learning experiences. Some of these experiences include mentoring English Language Learning students and providing extracurricular programs such as yoga, chess club, Lego robotics, and many more.
While the students are collaboratively working with local organizations, Community Achieves also emphasizes the importance of leadership responsibilities by providing training such as long-range planning, school-improvement coordination, and professional development to teachers and staff members. Most importantly, Power Mondays are where successful achievements and high-level goals for the future are expressed.
Although the school culture continues to focus on collective impact, chronic absenteeism is still an underlying issue, even after Whitsitt Elementary School rose out of priority status. When working to combat this issue, Chris ensures that all educational resources and learning opportunities such as enrichment programs are equitably distributed to all students. He emphasized the value of case management and processing one case at a time, because every situation is unique.