Fifty years ago the doors to Walter Douglas Elementary School opened to its first batch of students.

Those boys and girls filed into the round red brick buildings topped with white roofs that bear a striking resemblance to wavy tostada shells. They sat at their desks and learned to read, write and figure. When recess finally came, they ran on the playground or giggled with friends.

Just as the kids of Walter Douglas do today.

Walter Douglas Elementary School, on Flowing Wells Road a few blocks north of Miracle Mile, will celebrate its golden anniversary with a free community carnival on its campus Friday evening. The shindig has been months in the making, as the school raised money, asked for donations and saved to make sure they do it up right.

The school has been a constant in a neighborhood where rentals outnumber owner-occupied homes. It’s been a place for families to gather for a free meal on Read and Eat nights in the cafeteria — a connection between neighbors and generations.

The school has changed over the past five decades. Classroom buildings have been added as enrollment has increased. Flowing Wells has always been a working-class neighborhood, but the problems too many kids face today are entwined in the puzzle of poverty, drug use and crime.

So how do you measure an anniversary of an institution that runs on the talent, stamina and hope of the grownups who lead its classrooms, cook its lunches, drive its buses?

Or is the better measure the accomplishments — some seemingly simple, like simply getting from home to school every morning, others more grand — of its students?

Maybe it’s the lives those students go on to lead in the years ahead — the futures they begin to build sitting at those tiny desks.

Those things matter. But the best measure of an elementary school is alive in every student, every day.

It’s the success a teacher has, not in dispersing information to memorize, but in guiding a student to learn, to absorb something new, to be engaged in the world that opens up with the discovery of letters, words, math, science, music. The sense of belonging to something bigger.

Last spring, I spent about six weeks at Walter Douglas Elementary School. My goal was to let readers behind the school fence and into the classroom, so they could better understand how poverty, and its often associated problems, affects education and kids. We hear a lot about schools, but we don’t often hear the voices from within schools — that’s what I wanted to share.

I worked with kids, attended PTA meetings and parent conferences, did whatever the teachers and administrators asked. I wrote about the experience over the summer, and the response and the generosity of Star readers has been heartening. Some donated money for school supplies, others for field trips. People brought new clothing and shoes for kids who need them, or classroom supplies like notebooks and pens.

I found myself missing Walter Douglas — it’s easy to get hooked on the feeling of hope that bubbles up every time a child’s expression moves from a furrowed brow to a smile, the visible moment of understanding spreading across her face.

So I’m back in first grade once a week. Teachers assign students for one-on-one reading, and we sit together at a small table in the common space between classrooms.

One student has already moved away, and I haven’t seen another for a couple of weeks. The in-and-out nature of attendance is common in many schools that serve low-income neighborhoods. Frequent moves, often to keep a step ahead of eviction or to keep from wearing out the welcome from a friend or family member, is a hallmark of economic stress.

Some of the students I got to know last spring have left Walter Douglas, too. Custody changes, a parent’s search for work, a cheaper apartment — teachers, administrators and staff often don’t know why a kid leaves. It weighs on them, wondering if that child is OK and hoping for the best.

A boy I wrote about over the summer, the sweet kid with a chaotic family, who was so excited about getting new shoes on a shopping trip with the Elks Lodge, didn’t come back to Walter Douglas when school began in August. It’s impossible to not worry about him.

This knowledge of the temporary drives home the urgency of filling every moment with every child with as much learning and caring as can be crammed into it. It’s the mission of every person on campus.

Kids blossom at Walter Douglas. It’s humbling to see up close — and it doesn’t always happen with a big light bulb aha moment. Learning is making connections where they didn’t exist before.

One of my readers is a girl who watches everyone closely. She makes mental notes, files things away. She notices details. She saved up to buy a fancy headband and, if it’s not perched on her head, it’s in her hand or wrapped around her wrist. The flower is pretty floppy now and the stretched elastic shows evidence of it being well-loved. But it is first-grade glamorous.

We sat at a small table, a chart of letters between us. The teachers have made a chart for each of the students, based on the sounds and letters that the child needs to practice. Most are the usual suspects: l p q b d o a u v.

Each child is supposed to identify the letter and say its sound and a word that begins with that letter — bat, dad, apple, quiet, dog. Familiar words.

We look at the chart. She points to “u.”

“You. Uh. …. YOU-vula.” She beams. I ask her what a uvula is. She opens her mouth and points to the dangly bit. She’s right.

Another couple of letters.

We get to “y.”

“Why. Yyyuh.” She pauses.

She looks down at the letter. Looks at me.


It makes perfect kid logic. We talk about how uvula is a word, but y-vula is not.

She finds another word.


She smiles.

And her light continues to shine.

Sarah Garrecht Gassen writes opinion for the Arizona Daily Star. Email her at and follow her on Facebook.