By Kyra Worthy
Dr. Sylvia Greenwood often remembers a quote her father kept on his desk as a teacher, principal and later interim superintendent of West Contra Costa Unified School District: “It is better to build children than to repair men.”
It’s a phrase that the longtime Richmond educator carries with her when she is motivating other teachers as principal of DeJean Middle School or checking in with students who consider her a mentor and trusted advisor.
And it’s a saying that sums up her own teaching philosophy as an educator in Richmond who has earned a reputation as an advocate for mental health services in Richmond schools.
“I am the cousin, friend, grandma, auntie all rolled into one for some of my students,” Greenwood said.
“I have kids that come and check on me, too. If they don’t see me outside for lunch, they come to my office to make sure I am OK.”
Born and raised in Richmond to a family of well-known educators, Greenwood always knew she wanted to work with children in some capacity.
She watched her father Sylvester Greenwood transform Richmond schools during his long career as a teacher and later as first African American interim superintendent in Richmond, touching the lives of the children and teachers he worked with.
“My dad, he listened to people,” she said. “He would take the time to hear their situation and their story when most people would shuffle them on.”
While finishing her teaching degree, she became an aide at Harbor Way, a behavior modification program in Richmond that was known as one of the toughest schools in the district. Greenwood worked with other teachers to devise plans for student success, building systems to help students earn points and earn their way into a mainstream classroom.
But she noticed that many students would purposely relapse so that they could stay at Harbor Way – and remain in the supportive, nurturing environment they had grown comfortable with.
“That resonated with me,” she said. “I now try to put supports in place so that students continue moving forward. These supports might include somebody neutral to talk to, mentor services or just some added support outside the classroom.”
As a principal, she makes an extra effort to listen to teachers, who she said also need support.
And as a principal at DeJean, Richmond’s only public middle school, Greenwood has placed an additional emphasis on mental health services. This year she helped implement a restorative justice program where students are able to really talk through their issues and the underlying motives behind their behavior problems. Student punishments are determined by peers.
“It has given us another layer of how we listen to kids,” she said, pointing out that the program has resulted in a 79 percent drop in suspensions.
Her progressive style has drawn the attention of numerous services providers and community partners who have signed on to support DeJean and work directly with the students.
Greenwood said she’s always looking for new programs that bring mentors into the district and help students develop meaningful relationships with successful adults.
She is looking forward to working with For Richmond, a new, Richmond-based community-service organization to implement additional programming at DeJean.
On Saturday, May 17, For Richmond will organize the Chabot Space & Science Center’s Chabot-to-go event in the school auditorium, featuring a hands-on traveling science fair with activities for children of all ages.
“We’re so excited about this event because it will get the kids sparked about science and all the possibilities available to them,” she said.