The school smelled like cinnamon apples and pencil shavings. The halls were pristine, with students walking quietly and greeting us with shy smiles. Every classroom was a kaleidoscope of information with posters, word walls and student work covering every open space. As we popped into rooms, I saw two and even three educators in each room working with small groups of students on reading and math. Students were learning. Teachers were happy.
This is was what I saw when I recently visited one of the 76 Florida elementary and middle schools that made two or more school grade level improvements during the 2013-2014 school year. I wanted to understand how they did it. Many of the schools with the greatest student achievement improvements work with populations of kids with many obstacles to success, including low-income students or English language learners.
The fact that so many schools earned such improvements, combined with the 959 elementary and middle schools earning A letter grades, is great news for Florida’s students. These are more than just letter grades. These are improvements that mean a better chance for a successful future for kids. Since implementing student-centered policies like A-F school grading 15 years ago, Florida has reversed a generation of decline in education.
Some might say schools who serve high-needs students who achieve dramatic learning gains are defying the odds. But the success at these schools is not due to magic or luck. These are not isolated incidents. They can be replicated. There are themes that arise. One of the clearest similarities at these schools is that change begins with a strong leader.
When I asked school leaders – at two of these 76 schools – what he or she did, their first action wasn’t to implement a fancy new curriculum or secure more funding from the district. They all started with the idea of building a culture in which everyone believes in the potential of children to learn. It sounds simple and obvious yet it is not always the case. In order for students to learn you have to believe they can. And part of that, for these school leaders, meant not making excuses and focusing instead on what was in their control.
“We did not make excuses nor focus on how hard it would be,” said Stacey Merritt, principal at Pinar Elementary in Orange County, Fla., (which went from a D to a B). “We looked at our students’ diverse needs and asked what we had control over and what is was going to take to get student to their goals. We also put an emphasis on rigor – we weren’t just asking our students to do the basics, we set the bar higher.”
Once everyone in the building – from the groundskeeper to teachers, and the students themselves – believed that all children can learn and all children can be successful, the next step was to find out what success looked like. After all, ensuring students learn, Dr. Murphy-Obsorne at Palmetto Elementary also in Orange County (which went from an F to an A) stated, is the reason they all are there. The principals worked to bring the school community together to look at the new Florida Standards, which define what students should know and be able to do in math and English/language arts by the end of each grade. Everything the staff at these schools did centered on that idea. And every staff member was a critical part – administrators often participated in the classroom or in teacher planning sessions. But the teachers and staff didn’t stop there. They focused on making sure they were helping their students go above and beyond basic knowledge. They knew in order for their students to be successful in the long-term, they had to focus on rigor (difficulty) in addition to mastering the standards
This reveals another theme: team work. At Principal Merritt’s Pinar Elementary School, teachers collaborated to make their own common mini-assessments, based on the new standards, to help teachers know what students understood and didn’t understand at the end of the lesson. Then they worked together to create lesson plans that were fun and engaging.
These principals also worked to empower their staff. Teachers at Pinar showed unity but their individual personalities and teaching styles were allowed to shine. In some rooms, whole classes discussed a book with the teacher. In others, they used literary circles, talking in groups of four or five students. Like a basketball team, where each player may have a different style, they were working together as a team to win the game. Teachers walking the halls at Palmetto Elementary were filled with ideas as they headed into common planning sessions.
Imagine what Florida could look like if every school saw these kinds of transformations. Imagine what would be possible if everyone believed students could learn and changed the way they operated to put a laser focus on student-centered learning, making sure every student succeeded. Our children’s future prospects would change. Our state’s future economic outlook would appear bright. What these schools tell us is that it is possible and we know what it takes. Rather than calling these stories anomalies, we should learn and replicate them, making the dream of a high-quality education a reality for every student in Florida.