It was not a typical afternoon for Chris Vraniak, principal of Dickinson East Elementary School in Hamtramck.
Both secretaries in the front office were AWOL. One was already scheduled to leave early, and the second had to rush a substitute teacher with a peanut allergy to the emergency room after she mistakenly consumed a dessert containing the allergen, and Benadryl and an epinephrine injection didn’t provide relief.
As such, Vraniak was thrust into doing three jobs at once. In the span of 15 minutes, he tended to two sick kids: “You feel better now, buddy.” And: “We’ll get you home soon honey, don’t worry.” He welcomed a newly hired kindergarten teacher and checked to make sure her paperwork was in order. He greeted a mom of a first-grader carrying two dozen Ninja turtle cupcakes and juice boxes for a birthday party, asking if she needed help carrying the treats to the classroom. He redirected another parent who was called to school too early: “I’m sorry about the miscommunication; he’s still taking a test.” And he helped a kindergartner who had had an accident maintain his dignity. “Don’t worry buddy, you sit right here on this plastic bag and we’ll get you a second set of clothes in no time.”
To say that Vraniak spun all those plates with aplomb and warmth would be an understatement. Then again, the 30-year-old principal of the largest elementary school in Hamtramck — there are more than 700 K-6 students here — is accustomed to dealing with challenges.
And we’re not just talking about the ripples inherent in a student body that speaks more than 22 languages.
“People assume that Hamtramck is mostly Polish,” Vraniak says. “But 50 percent of our students come from Yemen, about a third come from Bangladesh. Maybe 12 percent are African-American, and the rest is a mixture of Eastern Europeans from Poland, Bosnia and some are Ukranians.”
The most pressing challenge currently on Vraniak’s plate is the condition of this 104-year-old-building. It is in such a state of disrepair that holes in the roof cause dripping water when it rains. There are decaying ceiling tiles, eroding plaster walls and a buckling tile floor now sprouting deep crevices and cracks.
“Our maintenance department does a great job of keeping it up as best as possible,” Vrainiak says. “But even 100-year-old homes have issues, and this building has a thousand people walking through it every day.”
In part due to Hamtramck’s poverty level, Dickinson East Elementary has one of the lowest per pupil funding rate in the state. “So, we have building needs we just can’t purchase with our general fund dollars,” Vraniak says.
In addition, their library is sorely lacking in books that meet the instructional level of such a diverse group of kids.
“What we really want is for kids to be independently reading no matter what their level is,” Vraniak says. Because of the language barrier, “we have kids who come to us at below grade-level reading and we’re doing out best to help them catch up, but if we could create a real culture of reading here, they could really fulfill their potential.”
While it’s not uncommon for parents to contribute to their teachers’ requests for classroom supplies, it’s not every day that a community pitches in for building upgrades. When a group of staff and parents posted a Facebook appeal and started a gofundme.com campaign ($7,500 to replace the floor and $7,500 for reading books), the community has responded, giving what little they have to give. In five days, more than $800 has been raised in small donations.
“One woman called and said she didn’t have any money to donate, but she did have a lot of children’s books, so that’s great,” Vraniak says.
In spite of the building needs, Vraniak says he could not be prouder of the academic strides. Dickinson was just removed from the Michigan Department of Education Focus School list (Focus schools are the 10 percent of schools in the state with the largest gaps in achievement between the top 30 percent and bottom 30 percent of students) Also, their proficiency rates, (the rate at which kids are performing at their grade level), have steadily improved, both of which are impressive considering so many kids come to school not being able to speak English.
In that light, it’s easy to see why Vraniak takes the site of his building in disrepair so personally.
“I walk down this hall and get upset,” he says. “It’s embarrassing when I have to put a trash can out to catch the water or have parents see the plaster coming off the walls. We have the best students; they work so hard. And I really believe our teachers are world class. I’d like them all to be proud of our school. They deserve a first-class facility.”
Just then, a first-grade teacher popped her head out of a classroom. “Mr. Vraniak! Come join our birthday party! Would you like a Ninja turtle cupcake?”
Of course, Vraniak jumped at the invitation.
“I would LOVE a Ninja cupcake, but only if you have extra,” he said, stepping into the classroom and greeting many of the kids by name.
He was doing what came natural; never being too busy for a birthday party. It is the hallmark of an educator who only wants the best for his students.