Real Schools – ECO Charter School

Real Schools – ECO Charter School

ECO Charter School – Innovation With Parent Engagement
By Rose Nisker




Founded by Antoinette C. Dendtler, Ed. D., the Environment Community Opportunity (ECO) Charter School opened its doors in September 2005 to 150 Camden, NJ elementary school students in grades K through 2. It currently serves 250 students in grades K through 5 housed in 2 school buildings. Dr. Dendtler started ECO Charter School after working for several years in private education as both a teacher and administrator, and volunteering in urban areas. Seeing the limited educational options for youth living in the environmentally-ravaged cities of the Rust Belt, Dr. Dendtler started ECO Charter School with a vision to both increase academic achievement in urban communities and encourage an interest in environmental fields. The school’s mission statement is a bold declaration of hope in the face of the difficult realities of its community; Camden has among the highest rates of poverty and violence in America. The statement reads: “Our students are the children of Camden – they will grow to become adept learners, community leaders and environmental stewards.”


Dendtler was first introduced to RULER at an Anchors training program at Yale in October 2013. Inspired by what she learned, she worked with her faculty and staff to set up a series of mini-pilot programs to introduce RULER concepts to a small group of families in her school community. Dendtler selected the families carefully, inviting those who had children with challenges– emotional, learning, behavioral. While Dendtler herself was bursting with excitement about RULER, she says “I wasn’t going to try and convince anyone. My strategy at that point was to just give them a little nugget and have a dialogue about how it might benefit our school community.” The sessions were a success and soon after, Dendtler found out about another Anchors training opportunity in the summer. “I couldn’t stop doing the happy dance,” she recalls with a laugh. Dendtler selected longtime ECO School teacher Tiffany Ballard Blair and Valerie Kemp, the school’s Director of Curriculum, to attend the training. When the two returned to ECO in the Fall of 2014, they brought their passion for RULER with them, eager to bring the emotion revolution to their school community.


At the school’s RULER kick-off assembly in late September, the School Charter was unveiled. Ballard Blair wore a t-shirt she designed for the occasion with a picture of the Mood Meter on the front and the words “RULER at ECO” on the back. The 5th graders presented a skit that showed students and teachers in a challenging scenario. They performed the scenario twice– the first version without using the RULER approach to regulate their emotions and the second version using the tools. Afterwards, the whole school discussed the difference between the two examples.

“This is it,” Kemp says emphatically. Her enthusiasm for RULER is palpable. An alumni of the first graduating class of the Summer Principals Academy (SPA) at Columbia University, Kemp has been involved in social emotional learning for years and has been instrumental in bringing it to ECO School. “This work is bigger than all of us– using these tools isn’t only benefiting our school, it’s a way for us to create positive change on a very large scale in our community.” 


It’s Wednesday night at ECO Charter School and the multipurpose room is buzzing with excitement and nervousness. Parents, grandparents, students and faculty are gathered for one of the school’s monthly “Home and School Alliance” family events. Tonight feels particularly special — for one thing, it’s the first time ECO is using its newly purchased karaoke machine. The students, some natural showboats and others needing more encouragement, take turns on the microphone while family members cheer them on and sing along. After an extensive list of songs ranging from “I Feel Good” by James Brown to “Let It Go” by Idina Menzel, Mr. Hak, the music teacher, quizzes the room on the unifying theme running through the evening’s music. After a moment of silence, someone yells out “emotions!” and the room bursts into delighted squeals of realization.

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Judging by the smiling faces and enthusiastic singing, ECO’s first “Feelin’ Family Karaoke Night” was a colossal success. “We’re constantly brainstorming new ways to make RULER fun for our students and families, to make it breathe, to make it alive and connected to everything we’re doing,” explains Dr. Antoinette Dendtler, the school’s founder. Dendtler and her colleagues came up with the karaoke idea while looking at their calendars to plan a family engagement night. “We noticed that March was National Music Month and April was National Poetry Month, so having an emotion-themed song night tied it all together with our desire to bring RULER concepts to the parents.” Dendtler adds with a laugh, “we also have a lot of hams at our school so it seemed to fit.”

For any school community, engaging families in RULER takes dedication and commitment. For ECO Charter School, the challenges are heightened by its location in Camden, a city with some of the country’s highest rates of poverty and crime. The former industrial boomtown and previous home to Campbell Soup and RCA Victor has made headlines frequently for its scores of open-air drug markets. Forty-two percent of its population lives at or below the poverty line, and just last year, two out five high school students in Camden didn’t graduate.

Tucked across the road from an office complex and just blocks away from the bleak realities of the city, ECO’s campus is an oasis of bright colors and friendly bulletin boards reflecting the school’s commitment to the RULER Approach. The School Charter is hanging prominently in every classroom, the words of the Charter surrounded by paintings of elaborate rainforest animals– each animal representing a different class. While ECO introduced RULER less than a year ago, it feels solidly integrated into the school culture not just in the lively picture collages lining the walls, but in how openly the students and teachers are discussing their emotions using RULER concepts and expressing themselves with measured self-awareness.


Dendtler is delighted by how quickly they’ve been able to introduce the concepts to the students and faculty but treads carefully when it comes to the parents. “Two words,” she says, “baby steps.” While she mentions RULER to parents every chance she gets, Dendtler says, “I don’t want to steamroller them.” Instead, her strategy is to “introduce small bits of information that are fun and interesting to get the parents to want to know more.” In the weekly school newsletter, she’ll include a piece about how emotions influence teaching and learning, or she’ll offer an explanation of the Mood Meter. Homework assignments almost always include a RULER-related question for students to share with their parents, and there are copies of the School Charter at every entrance so the parents can see it. Dendtler says she’s “always out and about during drop off and pick up talking to the parents about these ideas.”

“We get a lot of questions,” says Ballard-Blair. “Our parents aren’t just rushing to get onboard but they’re curious. It’s getting them to talk to us about the issues related to emotional intelligence; that in itself is already huge.” She looks forward to continuing to find creative ways to engage ECO parents. This summer, the school will host a “summer academy” for parents with the hopes that a core group of parents will go on to train other parents. For now, Ballard Blair explains that she’s been focusing on getting students excited as a direct way to bring the parents onboard.

The students at ECO seem just as enthusiastic about RULER as Dendtler, Ballard Bard, and Kemp. Ballard Blair’s 5th grade class recently put together a song based on the School Charter, together with music teacher, Michael Hak. In the heartfelt rap, students take turns describing the rollercoaster of emotions they feel throughout a typical day, making references to the Mood Meter. They all join in for the chorus– the words of their charter set to a beautiful melody. As they sing, the students seem remarkably confident and poised even as they reveal their vulnerabilities, comfortable with and united by their shared awareness of emotional states.

“This is precious time that we have with these kids,” Dendtler says. While she knows that integrating RULER into the whole school community and getting the parents onboard will take time, Dendtler still feels an incredible sense of urgency. “We only have 5 or 6 years with these kids and I want to ensure that before they walk out of our door they have a stronger sense of self, that they connect with people in a way that helps keep them safe, that they are empowered with these skills as they traverse the world.”