By Bija Gutoff, Writer & Editor
Creighton Helms brings a sailor’s perspective, steady-eyed and focused on the horizon, to his post as principal of Gervais Elementary. Though he’s admittedly “very prone to seasickness,” Helms – “with a Dramamine in one hand and a Red Bull in the other” – earned his chops as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Coast Guard. On voyages from U.S. ports including Boston, South Carolina, Key West, Seattle and Homer to foreign ones such as Canada, Ireland, France, the Cayman Islands, the Panama Canal and Mexico, he acquired a seaman’s solid work ethic.
Helms attained the rank of lieutenant through USCG posts in law enforcement and maritime intelligence. No, he didn’t love being seasick. But, he said, “there is something about being underway on a ship that teaches you about teamwork, grit, resilience, and duty to responsibilities that can be learned in few other places.”
Those qualities would make him a strong leader in any field. So why education? Helms wanted to settle his young family in one place while pursuing his passion for science and drive to help change the fate of others through the power of education.
Starting out as a high school science teacher in San Francisco, he valued his role. “Opening minds, helping students explore science to become more literate about the world around them – I loved that.”
But after a few years, Helms decided he could accomplish even more as an administrator. “I felt that itch that couldn’t be scratched,” he said, reflecting on his jump from classroom to head of school. “I had seen people who had the ability to shape a culture, a climate. They saw their role not as top-down folks giving orders, but working alongside and behind the people they served. That was a level of impact I revered.”
Helms earned a doctorate – he wrote his dissertation on servant leadership – and set his sights on guiding an entire school. Today, as principal of Gervais Elementary, he said, “I sit with my team and make sure every voice is heard.” It didn’t come easily, especially at first. “I’m a high-speed, low-drag, 100-mph person,” he conceded with a laugh. “But I have learned that ‘slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.’ If you take the time to include everyone, ultimately you can move forward quicker.”
Maybe that’s why the SMART program is moving along so well in its first year at Gervais Elementary. “When I came here, I hadn’t heard of it,” Helms recounted. “But as soon as my predecessor mentioned that they had tried to bring SMART to our school, I began reading about it. And I immediately decided our kids need this – and that I would make sure there would be no obstacle to starting it up.”
Gervais Office Manager Charlene Wiedemann agreed to add the role of SMART Coordinator to her regular duties, and they were off and running. “She didn’t hesitate an instant,” said Helms admiringly. “She’s been here for 25 years, and these are her kids. She wants them to succeed.”
Helms is thrilled to see the ways SMART is now changing his students’ lives through one-on-one reading with attentive adults – and encouraging more reading at home. Progress is everywhere. “Not long after we started the program,” he related, “we got a call from a mom who had opened her son’s backpack and found some brand new books that she thought maybe should not have made it in there. She was calling us to find out how to return them. I explained that the program includes bringing books home. She was so surprised! That mom told me how much she wanted to keep reading with her son. But they had already read the few books they had at home, and they didn’t have the resources to buy more. So for us to send home new books…. Well she was so appreciative. Charlene and I looked at each other and we said, SMART isn’t just helping kids learn to read, it’s building partnerships, because parents realize what works, and it’s bridging that gap between school and home.”
Principal Helms sees the value SMART can bring to an economically disadvantaged school like his. “We had incoming kindergartners who were behind where they should be. So we asked, ‘What can we do to expand the number of times these students are in front of a book, having someone read to them, hearing more words, so they can become stronger readers faster?’”
SMART is one powerful remedy. Having volunteers from the community regularly read to kids is a tangible expression of a new, positive adult relationship, one that supports and extends the relationships kids already have with their parents and teachers. And then, explained Helms, “being able to take books home….well, you can’t overstate how important that is.”
It’s still early days for SMART at Gervais. But Helms noticed right off how the school almost sparkles on SMART days. “You can see how excited the kindergartners are on the mornings we have SMART,” he said. “These kids have no filter! You get immediate feedback. If they are not enjoying something, they’re not going to pretend. When their readers come in, they’re so excited they skip to the next room. They’re attentive during the session. And when they get back to the classroom, they show off the books they got.”
The school is already seeing results. “Skills growth can happen quickly with kindergartners,” said Helms. “The kids in the program are taking reading more seriously in the classroom, they are more engaged in the early learning literacy skills – and most importantly, they think it’s fun and they want to be part of it.” He has no doubt that spring assessments will show gains among SMART readers.
As principal, he wants to see all his kindergartners served by SMART. “We need to grow our volunteer reader base,” he said. “We’re already reaching out to get more community members involved. We have signs outside the school, ‘Come read to our kids!’”
It’s all part of that sailor’s steady-eyed view to the horizon. “We want to meet that statewide goal of having all third graders reading at grade level by the end of that year,” said Helms. “It’s ambitious, because many kids did not attend preschool, or they entered school lacking some of the skills you would expect them to have. SMART is going to play a very important role in helping those kids who may not otherwise meet those literacy goals. And obviously, the benefits will last for their entire K-12 experience — and, I believe, far beyond that.”
SMART’s greatest superpower, said Helms, is the way it frames learning to read as a safe, welcoming, inviting experience. “Sometimes when kindergartners are new to a formal education setting,” he reflected, “it can be intimidating. Especially if their peers have more skills, and if they are struggling. Kids don’t want to have to say, ‘I can’t spell my name,’ or ‘I don’t have all the sight words,’ or ‘I’m not good at reading right now.’ So they might even regress a bit. What we want to do is help break down those obstacles. When you pair them with an adult who helps them feel safe, kids can explore learning freely. They can try words, and pause, and hear the words, and ask what they mean, without fear of judgment or failure. They know the adult is there for them, and will help them figure it out.”
To other principals considering a partnership with SMART, said Helms, “I want to share my belief how critically important it is that our young learners have the opportunity to grow their reading skills – and to provide them with diverse opportunities to do so. Not just the ‘sage on stage’ sort of choral response approach you see, where kids can seem to be actively participating when in fact they’re not. With SMART, the adult is right there. They know the kids. A kid can’t hide behind the group. And what our volunteers so brilliantly communicate is, ‘It’s OK if you don’t know! We expect that! And we are here to work with you.’ Week after week, we build that relationship. And down come the walls. It’s hard to replicate that in any other way.”
As for the practical aspects, program implementation at Gervais has been as calm as the kind of seas a queasy sailor dreams of. “We’ve had zero complications,” said Helms. “The set-up, the logistics, the site visit, the training – it has all been very friendly and welcoming. You know, sometimes you fear that setting up a new program is going to take too much time. That can scare you off. But the SMART people have been so responsive. It’s been a great experience.”