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Can you love a child on his worst day?

Every prospective teacher who has interviewed with Karen Collier-Brown has heard a variation of this question. To Collier-Brown, the principal of Atlanta’s Dunbar Elementary School — a once-troubled academic institution that has experienced a renaissance under her tutelage — the ability of an educator to love, nurture, and encourage a child is just as important as the skills to teach science and reading.

 So, can you love a child on his worst day?

A “no” to this question is an automatic deal-breaker; hesitation sounds as loudly as alarm bells in Collier-Brown’s mind.

“Academics are important, but if you don’t have the social and emotional aspects in place, you’ll never reach them academically,” says Collier-Brown.

(RELATED: Growing Healthy Kids)

At a time when public-school funding nationwide is largely dependent on test scores, this “whole-child” mission may sound unconventional — especially for a public school once deemed one of Atlanta’s poorest-performing schools in one of the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods.

“This community has a high poverty rate and is in a somewhat crime-ridden area,” Collier-Brown says. “There are a lot of families raised by young, single mothers.”

In order for children to thrive in this setting, she says, they need a balance of receiving compassion from others, such as teachers and community leaders, and the ability to show compassion in return.

To this end, Dunbar participates in four to five service projects each year, which allow the students to take responsibility for the world around them and to feel like they are part of the community instead of a product of it. It also combats any sense of entitlement resulting from government assistance and other aid the students may receive.

“Our kids get a lot,” Collier-Brown says. “They are provided with the basic things they need, and we teach them that it’s okay for people to give you things. But you have to be able to give back.

“Always have an attitude of giving,” she continues, summing up the lesson she hopes to impart on all 396 of her students.

Recent projects have included assembling Thanksgiving baskets and organizing a clothing collection for the needy . This year, the students worked with former NBA star and philanthropist Dikembe Mutombo on a “shoebox” donation project, collecting school supplies to benefit children in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The school also works with the Dikembe Mutumbo Foundation to develop pen-pal relationships between Dunbar students and children in the Congo, and to sponsor families in need. (Read more about Dikembe Mutombo and his foundation in our cover story at”)

“Children can be a little bit selfish,” Collier-Brown says with a laugh. “But we make it an expectation. A habit. They eventually expect to give back.”

She recalls the day when one of her youngest students brought in three of his used crayons and begged to be able to donate them. “It was all he had to give,” she says.

There are plans to expand the program next year by giving the older students — the third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders — ownership of their projects. “We want the children, not the faculty, to drive the planning and execution. We want to involve the parents.”

Collier-Brown says it’s a blessing that the school system encourages service projects, acknowledging that many public schools across the country have no choice but to focus on academic performance and test scores, big factors in securing funding.

“When you talk about nurturing a child, you can’t pick and choose the parts you want to nurture,” she says. “You can’t only support them academically. The academics, the social, the emotional — it all connects. If one piece is missing, the whole child is not complete.”

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