Reading is the foundation for success

Reading is fundamental is more than a slogan to Marissa Tavallaee, principal at Jesús Moroles Expressive Arts Vanguard. She has made literacy and reading—among students and team members—a central part of the school’s identity.

Not only do teachers in third through eighth grade incorporate novel studies into their TEKS-based lessons to encourage reading and schedule reading time, but Tavallaee sets aside between $7,000 and $8,000 of her school budget to buy each student a grade-appropriate book to take home.

“It’s a unifying feeling because no matter where you come from, you get to take a book home for yourself,” she said and pointed out that studies show children who have their own books at home read at higher levels. “The more kids read, the better off they are in every subject and better at communicating in general.”

She said teachers have embraced the novel studies and incorporate 15-20 minutes a week for independent reading time to the weekly learning schedule so students can read for pleasure, often in the school’s courtyard when the weather is nice. To make their reading time more fun, they are routinely joined by the school’s pet bearded dragon.

In her years as a teacher, assistant principal and principal, Tavallaee has confirmed that reading helps students develop critical thinking skills and helps them understand other people’s perceptions.

“It makes them well-rounded individuals and prepares them to face any challenges they may encounter,” she said.

In addition to reading, Tavallaee also has a passion for leading and working with teachers to help them help students succeed. She found her passion in pushing and supporting students and teachers as an AP chemistry teacher before coming to Dallas ISD. She then joined the district as an assistant principal at Raúl Quintanilla Sr. Middle School before becoming principal at Moroles.

“I think it’s a balance of being lovingly strict and warm and fuzzy while holding them to high expectations,” she said. “I want kids to be pushed and want them to be ready for the future.”

Because of the principal’s support of literacy, the school’s team members are also big into reading, so much so that Tavallaee started a book club for employees last year. With about 10 participating, it was so successful that they continued it this school year. Each person gets to pick a book to read, and the group meets monthly in the library to discuss them.

The book club, along with other activities, have created a sense of camaraderie and make team members excited to come to work, Tavallaee said. Seeing adults excited about reading also shows students that it’s an important activity.

“A mentor told me once, ‘If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to lead,’” she said. “It’s true. If you can’t read, you can’t do anything else. Reading in the book club has helped me be a better leader.”

The emphasis on reading throughout the school has paid off in many ways. Results for reading at the tested grade levels surpass those of the district and other schools in the vertical team at the approaches, meets and masters levels.

“We have seen a major decrease in bullying,” she said. “I think it has to do with students being more entertained by books than by social media. If you go to the cafeteria, you can see students reading during lunch. For them, going to the library is a big deal.”

In addition to fewer discipline issues, the school has seen an improvement in student surveys, especially in the areas of trust and enjoyment—70% of students have said they have someone on campus they can trust and feel comfortable to go to, Tavallaee said.

“My passion and my desire to want to help come through,” she said. “I want to make an impact on students and teachers and create an environment where people thrive, enjoy coming to work, and want to come to school.”