Garfield Elementary

Garfield Elementary, a K–6 public school, began its Responsive Classroom initiative in 2005. Located in Fairfax County, the sixth-largest public school district in the U.S., Garfield is a Title I school with 360 students and 40 staff members. 53% of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch and breakfast, and 46% have limited English proficiency.

Responsive Classroom “grew from the inside out” at Garfield after Debbie Leisenring joined the teaching staff. Right away, teachers noticed something different about Debbie’s way of teaching—how she spoke to the children, how they related to her, and how she managed her classroom without using rewards.

Debbie was using strategies she’d acquired in the process of becoming a certified Responsive Classroom teacher/presenter. She welcomed her new colleagues to spend time in her classroom, observe, and ask questions.

In the meantime, principal Maureen Marshall attended a few meetings with principals whose schools were implementing the RC approach to teaching. Those meetings convinced her that the approach could do much for Garfield—especially since teachers really wanted to try it!

Garfield’s Journey

Garfield staff began by thinking together about where they wanted their school to be in five years—and how Responsive Classroom practices could help them get there. They structured their implementation according to that plan, establishing a leadership team that supports staff in learning to use these practices one at a time. Here are some significant milestones in Garfield’s journey:


A group of teachers read The Morning Meeting Book together and begin holding Morning Meetings in their classrooms.


Teachers and the principal take the Elementary Core Course over the summer.

When school starts again, the schedule is reconfigured so the first parent conferences take place earlier, and each class has time for a daily Morning Meeting.


Weekly professional development sessions are reworked to focus on teachers’ hopes and goals: they’re now teacher-led and focus on specific Responsive Classroom topics.


By now school-based study groups have read books like The First Six Weeks of School and The Power of Our Words.

Most teachers and the principal have taken the Elementary Advanced Course.


Rewards have gradually been phased out. Year-end awards are replaced with a new tradition called Success Day, a celebration of all students’ accomplishments.


Garfield holds a Constitutional Convention to engage students in creating school-wide rules.

All staff get an additional full day of on-site training.

Principal Maureen Marshall says: “The children like being at school—they want to be here and they want to learn. And visitors—including parents—notice something special. They see positive interactions among students and adults, and they feel the climate of friendliness and respect. The Responsive Classroom approach has become part of who we are.”

Tags: Building Schoolwide Community, Professional Community, Professional Development