By Colleen Steelquist
Photos by Brooke Fitts
Sophia hunches over an iPad, brow furrowed as she methodically moves blocks in place with the cursor. It looks like a game, but it’s actually computer science. “Does anyone else at your home know how to code?” she’s asked. “My mom,” says the second-grader, and without missing a beat, adds, “I taught her.”
Sophia, and hundreds of young children like her, are tackling coding, chemistry, robotics, and more, thanks to the outsized ambitions of Camille Grigg Jones ’08, a small-town teacher with big dreams for every student. For her efforts, Jones was recently named Washington’s 2017 Teacher of the Year.
Jones’ daily mission? To inspire curiosity, create opportunity, and grow potential. No matter that nearly 90 percent of her Quincy (population 7,365) students live in poverty. No matter that the majority are English language learners whose families speak Spanish at home. To Jones, it’s fertile soil.
“The ‘achievement gap’ is one of the most common phrases in education, often cited as the biggest challenge our schools face. But I disagree,” she says. “My students have shown that achievement is not the same as ability. Achievement starts with opportunity.
“We need to teach them skills like creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking, which they need to compete in their complex, dynamic, integrated 21st-century world,” Jones says. “I want to open their eyes to a world much bigger than Quincy.”
At Pioneer Elementary, a kindergarten through third grade school, Jones serves as the schoolwide STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics) enrichment and highly capable teacher. Her classroom — known as the STEAM Lab — is a playground for young minds.
There’s a nearly audible hum of neurons firing as students work individually and in teams around the lab. They build with LEGO bricks, form marshmallow and dry spaghetti structures, and create virtual Minecraft cities. The students are surrounded by colorful posters reminding them to persevere: “Have grit.” “My brain is a muscle I can train.” “Do something hard on purpose every single day.”
At Pioneer, every student discovers and explores STEAM in Jones’ lab every two weeks. Advanced learners undertake projects in the lab daily. Students identified as highly capable also dive into self-directed challenging activities weekly — everything from sculpting to building and programming a computer — and receive extra classroom support.
“My position is really unique,” Jones says. “I’m specifically put here to look at students’ strengths — not only identifying them, but supporting them in whatever manner they show up. In our school system as a whole, we put so much emphasis on finding out where our students are lacking or falling behind, so we can close those gaps.”
Jones takes the opposite approach. “My job is to look at them from the other side of the spectrum and say, ‘OK, you might have these learning gaps, but I noticed you have this really impressive strength. Maybe we can use that to help build you up and give you a purpose for your learning so that you can look at those challenges in a different light.’”
Unlike most school districts, Quincy students are universally assessed for the highly capable program using a nonverbal test that isn’t biased by a child’s level of English language skills. Jones points out that gifted education is “one of the most segregated sectors in education.”
“I don’t see any way we can start to fix that until we give every kid a chance to show what they can do,” she says.
“A teacher of the year must be both an exceptional teacher and a leader who inspires greatness in others,” says Chris Reykdal, Washington state superintendent of public instruction. “Camille’s skill in the classroom has already impacted hundreds of children in Quincy. Now she is also emerging as an important and solutions-oriented education leader. Her messages about cultivating giftedness in all students and global education are relevant in every single classroom in Washington.”
It’s at the heart of how she nurtures her students’ potential, and it led her back to her hometown.
As a student at Seattle Pacific University, Jones knew that she loved kids and loved Spanish. But she was certain that she didn’t want to teach, and that she’d never move back to Quincy. She took Spanish classes at Seattle Pacific and became fascinated by the linguistic history of language. Soon, Jones was double majoring in Spanish and linguistics. She polished her Spanish skills and fed her wanderlust with study abroad experiences in Spain and Chile.
She says her professors and courses laid the groundwork for her belief in preparing students to learn with a global mindset.
“I was introduced to a new way of thinking about the world and how truly interconnected everything is.”
“My undergraduate degrees helped me have a better understanding of how my students are trying to learn a new language because I’ve gone through that process,” Jones says. “Because I understand the linguistic connections of words, I try to make those connections for kids.”
Jones graduated in the midst of the recession. She thought she might move to Spain or work for an airline. “I wanted to get out in the world and help people and do something that would make a difference,” she says, “but I had this inner conflict about who I am to go into these places and say I’m going to fix everything when I don’t understand the context and the culture?”
Unemployed and uncertain of her next steps, Jones moved back home temporarily. She was offered a job as a kindergarten summer school aide, and suddenly, her ambitions and skills found a home, back home.
Jones grew up on a Quincy farm, so she comes by agrarian maxims honestly. “Bloom where you are planted” is one of her favorites.
“It just kind of hit me that this was really what I was meant to do,” she says. “And I realized if I want to make the biggest difference, the place to do that is in the place I know best.”
It’s a lesson reinforced as she fulfills her teacher of the year responsibilities. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funds a full-time substitute for Jones for six months as she leaves Quincy and advocates in Olympia for school funding and other pressing educational issues, represents Washington at several national leadership conferences and in Washington, D.C., and travels throughout the state speaking to schools, teacher groups, and teacher-preparation programs. “I feel like I’ve changed careers mid-year,” she jokes.
She’s rising to the challenge, even as she misses being with her students every day. “I’m embracing this honor because I encourage teachers and kids to get outside their comfort zones and try something new, even if it feels like taking a risk,” she says. “That’s what our students need from us right now: To make sure we’re constantly adapting what we do to make sure they’re getting what they need.”
Jones helps her young students discover connections, just like she did in college. “I really want them to understand that engineers are artists as much as artists are engineers,” she says. “And I want them to know the roles of mathematicians and scientists well enough that they say, ‘I can do that!’”