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A Turnaround Recipe

Teacher and students

Virginia elementary school administrators develop a way to increase student achievement in just one year

June, 2016 Daphne Keiser, Anna Isley, and Linda Humphries

Our students can and will be successful. Though seemingly a simple statement, it became our mantra. With 84 percent of our pre-k through fourth-grade students living in poverty, a history of performance on reading and math on the Virginia Standards of Learning assessments in the 50-60 percent range, the task of turning around the school, at times, seemed daunting.

However, with a clear vision for student success, targeted professional learning, strong collaboration and leadership, and specific feedback to staff members, we achieved significant success in just one year. We improved our reading pass rate at Clark Elementary School, in Charlottesville, Va., from 56 percent to 78 percent and our math pass rate from 63 percent to 82 percent on our Virginia Standards of Learning assessments, meeting all of our federal Annual Measurable Objectives (AMOs) for each of our subgroups and gap groups in just one year. Additionally, we became a fully accredited school. It can be done and this is how we did it.

Distributive leadership

In order to increase student achievement and maintain the academic success of Clark students, we surveyed the school environment, taking into account the strengths, weaknesses, and attributes of the staff. We made staffing changes to ensure we had strong teams, with a mix of novice and more experienced teachers on each team. We dispersed staff members with leadership skills throughout the school and built capacity within the building. We distributed school leadership between specialists and grade-level team leaders; and we discussed increasing students’ achievement in a collaborative team setting where teachers internally focused on what actions they could take to make improvements. We engaged in the following tasks to set the stage for distributive leadership:

  • Recruiting the right staff and leadership team;
  • Having a clear vision and overall focus for work, ensuring team members understood their role, and communicating a consistent message to staff regarding expectations for work, and specifically expectations for increasing student achievement;
  • Expecting continuous communication and collaboration of team members;
  • Holding team members accountable for following through on tasks delegated to them and following up on progress and completion of tasks;
  • Identifying teacher leaders and delegating more leadership responsibilities to capable teachers and staff; and
  • Recognizing staff for their hard work and efforts toward increasing student achievement.

We handpicked the entire leadership team. It was extremely important to hire individuals that had the content expertise and experiences to work with our population of students and staff. During the summer, the leadership team met to review the current state of affairs at Clark including student achievement, discipline, and attendance data. They also looked at the school schedule, staffing changes, implications from the previous year, and anticipated professional development needs for the beginning of the school year.

Right away, it was necessary for all team members to communicate frequently in order to be on the same page about where we were currently as a school and where we needed to take the school moving forward. For example, prior to pre-week, the leadership team met, discussed, and agreed upon criteria for the reading and math instructional diet. The reading and math specialists provided the training for staff during pre-week, but it was important for all leadership team members to understand the criteria and be able to clarify with staff in an effort to provide them support in carrying out the expectations.

The leadership team, consisting of the principal, assistant principal, instructional coach, reading, math, gifted, ESL, library and media, and special education specialists, met each week to explore curriculum and instructional issues, discuss and analyze walkthrough data to identify instructional areas needing improvement, and determine the professional development needs of staff.

We analyzed formative and summative assessment data to determine if students were making adequate progress, developed intervention plans for students not meeting expectations and created extension experiences for students exceeding expectations. The leadership team also discussed ways to acknowledge staff members and celebrate victories within the school.

Using Professional Learning Communities

Professional Learning Communities (PLC) provided a structure for collaboration among staff members and a vehicle for differentiated professional learning. In previous years, the administration put the structures and expectations for professional learning communities in place. For example, the principal previously designed the master schedule to include common planning times for grade level teams to meet so they could engage in the deep communication and collaboration needed to impact student achievement. The goal of PLCs was for teams to converse and collaborate with their colleagues about various curriculum and instructional issues.

During the 2014-15 school year, our school division introduced PLCs as an expectation for all schools. Training in the PLC format and the types of deep instructional work and discussions that should occur during such collaborative sessions allowed us to capitalize on the structures already in place. In addition, the division added an instructional coach at each elementary school. Though administration, specialists, and teachers were all part of these PLCs, the instructional coach was trained on how to push the team forward instructionally, to challenge practice, and to foster collaboration. This took our work deeper. It was with these supports that our vision for PLCs from previous years became a reality.

We used one of the weekly planning sessions as a formal PLC meeting where the teachers, administration, and specialists met as a team to discuss curriculum and pacing, construct formative assessments, review and track assessment data. They devised plans for intervening on students who were not meeting grade level expectations, provided extension activities and projects for students who had met and exceeded grade level expectations. Importantly, they actively engaged in a weekly platform where there was discussion and debate from team members to seek answers and “problem solve” to arrive at solutions needed to unlock the mysteries of students’ achievement. While these were the goals of PLCs at our school, until this year, they were not a complete reality.

Additional revisions

In that same year, we also revised other structures to better support our students. We developed a common lesson plan template using criteria from the Virginia Department of Education that provided guidance to teachers as they created lessons that fostered rigorous instruction aligned to the SOL frameworks and active engagement for all students. We also embedded data collection and analysis into our culture and, as team members, we created varied assessments and analyzed data to closely monitor student growth. When creating formative, summative, and performance-based assessments, teachers used the curriculum frameworks from the state standards to ensure alignment to the standards.

Each grade level developed digital data spreadsheets so everyone had access to their data. Targeted intervention plans provided support for students based on the data. That is, our teachers not only focused on interpreting the data, but also in determining the next instructional steps based on the data analysis. All team members had a part to play regarding the intervention, from the administration securing staffing and altering schedules, to specialists reorganizing groups to see students in the most need. Teachers determined which students were on track, which needed more support or extension, and thought creatively about how to meet the specific needs of individual students. We all worked together as a cohesive unit to ensure that our goals and objectives were met.

Classroom observations

In addition to targeted professional learning and a culture of collaboration through PLCs, both the principal and assistant principal did regular observations in classrooms in which we gave specific feedback on student engagement. Using the SURN Student Indicators of Engagement and Effective Teacher Pedagogy observation forms, we targeted feedback to the components, techniques, and structures for student engagement, which teachers learned about during their professional learning sessions. In this way, teachers saw connectivity between what our focus for their learning was and what we looked for during observations. We saw significant improvements in the amount of student engagement versus compliance during these observations.

We also conducted a variety of types of observations from walkthroughs, shorter, 20-minute observations, and full formal observations as well. Additionally, three times during the school year, central office personnel and our improvement contractor from the state observed with us to make sure that as a group, we were calibrated on our expectations and criteria. On those observation days, we conducted 20-minute observations throughout the day, across grade levels, including intervention lessons.

Following each observation we discussed the observation including visible elements of student engagement, areas for improvement, and missed opportunities. Again, this gave us specific, targeted feedback for teachers on student engagement, and ensured calibration across observers. Through these observations, we gained a sense of needs across the classrooms and grade levels, which informed our decisions for professional learning.

Increasing student engagement

Though professional learning took many forms at our school, it always focused on our identified needs and increasing student engagement. PLC meetings and individual professional development using a coaching model all provided professional learning focused on areas of need based on teacher input, observation data, and requirements by the state due to our focus school status. Using a unifying question, all professional learning for the 2014-15 school year focused on student engagement. The question guiding our work was, “How can we increase student engagement so students are actively involved in developing critical thinking skills in a rigorous environment?”

Additionally, we used our Wednesday after-school faculty meeting time as a whole group professional learning experience three weeks each month. During whole group professional learning sessions we addressed areas of need as observed during our classroom observations. For example, early in the year we found that teachers commonly used worksheets, and while students generally passively completed them, they were not fully engaged. Professional learning sessions on Wednesdays then focused on time in text, collaboration among students, and increasing choice.

We also developed common expectations for literacy and math instruction, learned new ways to actively engage students using total participation techniques, provided positive supports for students using the PBIS system, unpacked the standards to ensure our instruction was rigorous, started our work on growth and fixed mindsets, and started using specific learning targets for instruction. After observing teachers had incorporated many of these strategies into their classrooms, we noted the need for more student participation and student-initiated metacognition and reflection. These were goals of professional learning later in the school year and in the 2015-16 school year.

The professional learning from the whole group sessions rolled into the more focused and differentiated work during PLC meetings in which grade level teams worked with other staff members to revise their instruction to ensure that all students stayed engaged. Instructional coaching provided individualized support for teachers as they wrestled with the intricacies of their instruction. Engaged in classroom observations and feedback sessions, co-teaching, modeling, data analysis, and planning sessions the teachers and the coach worked together to develop lesson then analyze student work/data to ensure the lessons met the needs of students.

Recipe for success

While there is no single solution for turning around a school, we feel like we have a recipe for producing significant improvement and success in just one year. Assessing the needs and having common expectations among the leadership team was a critical first step. The focus and connectivity of our efforts proved essential in making our turnaround happen. Our observations led us to understanding the needs and our focus for professional learning. Teachers grew in their understanding of ways to effectively engage students in professional learning after school and during their professional learning communities, as well as in working with the instructional coach.

Through this collaboration and connectivity, teachers worked with specialists, special educators, and support personnel to maximize instructional efforts. Our story is significant in that turning around a school is a huge effort and often takes years. While we do not deny the positive instructional groundwork that was laid before this year and the work that lies ahead in sustaining our success, we do recognize that with these efforts our scores improved significantly in just one year.

Daphne Keiser

Daphne Keiser, Ph.D., is in her 13th year as a school administrator in Virginia’s Charlottesville City Schools. She was previously a classroom teacher and is the 2006 recipient of the Milken National Educator Award.

Anna Isley

Anna Isley, Ed.S., is serving in her second year as assistant principal at Clark Elementary School. Her previous experience includes classroom teaching in grades three through five in Virginia and Texas.

Linda Humphrie

Linda Humphries, M.Ed. is currently serving in her second year as the Instructional Coach at Clark Elementary School. Her previous experience includes work as a classroom teacher, gifted resource teacher, and elementary school principal.

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