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June 1, 2015
Vol. 72
No. 9

A School on the Move

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Four practices led to a Boston elementary school's dramatic turnaround.

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Five years ago at William Monroe Trotter Innovation School, some teacher leaders were voicing doubts about their decision to work in a school in the midst of a turnaround. Trotter, as most call it, was steps away from a state takeover. Facing seemingly insurmountable discipline problems, inexperienced teachers, and their own greenness as leaders, teacher leaders had reason to worry.
Today, leaders and staff voice a different, uplifting narrative, and there is day-to-day evidence of the school's impressive turnaround.

High Hurdles

High hurdles have always confronted W. M. Trotter, a K–6 public school in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood. Ninety percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Poor attendance was and still is one challenge: One 2nd grader had a record of 198 absences in two-and-one-half years, and a 6th grader had 300 absences in her school career. Approximately 15 percent of students receive special education services, 11 percent are English language learners, and many students enter kindergarten already academically behind, not even able to identify the letters in their names.
With so many challenges to overcome, how did Trotter go in three years from near takeover to shedding its turnaround status and, in 2014, receiving the School on the Move Award from the EdVestors change organization? How did students make impressive gains on state tests? Between 2008 and 2013, the percentage of Trotter students scoring as failing the English language arts test decreased from 41 to 10, and 39 percent of kids scored either proficient or advanced in 2013. In math, the percentage of kids failing state tests moved from 57 to 5, and the percentage scoring proficient or advanced moved from 9 to 37.
During Trotter's turnaround years, I worked as the national director of teacher leader development with a nonprofit organization, through which I supported teacher leaders, including Karen Loughran, now the school's instructional coach. Currently, as an independent consultant, I sometimes revisit the school, conducting interviews and observations to learn more about the key practices that transformed Trotter so rapidly. Talking with principal Mairead T. Nolan, school leaders, teachers, and students about Trotter's success, I've seen that the school has evolved into a place of clear direction and great pride.
Nolan credits teachers for the rapid gains. Their leadership toward establishing a peaceful school climate, eagerness to collaborate, and commitment to teaching higher-order thinking, she says, transformed the school. Other administrators, teachers, and students voiced the same key practices and added a fourth: leaders they can believe in.

Four Key Practices

1. Getting to Credible Coleadership

Nolan works in close partnership with Romaine Mills-Teque (more a coprincipal than an assistant) and instructional coach Karen Loughran; they function as a leadership team. They hold high expectations for staff, students, and themselves. Nolan voices her deep concern about the effects of the poverty her students wrestle with and expresses her resolve to ensure those kids succeed. Nolan, according to one colleague, "has always believed the way to improve our school was to ensure that every student has a rich, academically demanding curriculum."
The focus on academic demand is evident, from curriculum planning to classroom instruction. Teachers at every grade level must submit lesson plans weekly, using a template. Nolan and Mills-Teque provide timely, specific feedback on these plans, which they say is easy to do because teachers take such care in the details of planning.
Some teachers were initially frustrated by this mandate. They now see that it gives them a reason to collaborate with colleagues and fosters shared responsibility for success and failure. Most important, they see increased rigor in their lessons. No matter which classroom students are in, they have access to demanding instruction.
School leaders place the same attention on classroom practice. For example, when administrators observe teachers, they record the questions each teacher asks of students and where each question falls on Bloom's taxonomy. They then debrief with the teacher, together scripting higher-order questions for subsequent lessons.
Although outsiders might perceive this level of leadership as too much "in the weeds," Trotter's teachers have developed high respect for their leaders' instructional expertise, and they welcome the clear direction. Third grade teacher Joanne Douglas says, "A principal has to show that he or she has ideas that can make our students and school successful. We buy into the guidance because we see the success that comes from those ideas." Leaders' high expectations are backed by support. When Nolan recommends a literacy strategy, she enters the classroom and models it. School leaders read current education books, try instructional strategies in the classroom, and learn with teachers.
In addition, many teachers assume leadership. Teachers lead in areas that match their strengths and align to the school vision. For instance, teacher Georgie Chavez recently modeled a lesson with math manipulatives for Trotter's instructional leadership team, and kindergarten teacher Calla Freeman facilitated a behavioral student support team meeting. Kelly Majmudar, a 2nd grade teacher, led her team through revisions of the reading curriculum that maximized student engagement. Majmudar and colleagues created themed literature-based units. She wrote a scope and sequence at the beginning of the year and—with input from her colleagues in weekly grade-level team meetings—tweaked lesson plans on the basis of what the teachers found in implementing the curriculum. Teachers also helped craft weekly assessments.

2. Creating a Peaceful School

Trotter teachers' efforts at improving student behavior were initially characterized by interchanges like this: "What if a student has a cell phone in class?" "That should be a demerit." "No, it should be a detention." The staff, 65 percent of whom were new to the school, learned after their first year of the turnaround process that focusing on infractions and consequences as laid out in the code of discipline wasn't the solution. Building a peaceful school climate was. As Nolan explains, "One of the biggest mistakes turnaround schools make is singularly focusing on improving behavior. You have to show kids that you believe they are capable … through instruction."
In the summer after the school's first year as a turnaround, Mills-Teque and eight teachers integrated ideas from various programs with their own expertise to develop a peaceful school climate initiative. The initiative's goals are to improve student attendance, reduce the number of discipline incidents, and improve the focus on learning with the practice of core virtues. From providing teachers with a scope and sequence to organizing monthly award ceremonies, to thoughtfully selecting monthly virtues—such as generosity for December and perseverance for March (standardized testing time!)—the peaceful school climate committee jumped in to help teachers implement the curriculum.
Committee members lead grade-level team meetings and model lessons. In an early childhood meeting, teachers seemed stalled at picking activities they could do with students to reinforce virtues. They didn't want to trivialize virtues, but they were concerned about the amount of preparation needed to lead activities that would address a virtue more meaningfully.
Kindergarten teacher Calla Freeman offered to model a lesson on compassion. In her lesson, she passed out one small paper heart to every kindergartner, explaining, "Every time the character in this book does something that's hurtful, not compassionate, tear a piece off your paper heart." At various points in her read-aloud, she paused to say, "I noticed some students ripped their heart. Can you tell me what you heard in the story that caused you to do that?"
Following the story, and some 5-year-olds' requests to glue their hearts back together, she led a conversation about the impact of compassion on one's real heart. She ended by inviting the children to place a heart sticker on a poster each time they showed, or saw someone else show, compassion throughout the year.
Observing teachers later enthusiastically commented on the high student engagement and depth of understanding—depth they hadn't thought was possible in one lesson. They saw that with minimal preparation, a teacher could teach a virtue using a reading activity, simply and powerfully. In the following weeks, teachers implemented the same lesson.

3. Striving for Collaboration

When I asked what was behind Trotter's success, every adult responded, "collaboration." Teachers attend two mandatory team meetings a week: a progress-monitoring meeting and a grade-level meeting. Teachers collaborate in additional ways as they see fit, often opting to work together on units of study, jointly craft or analyze assessments, and discuss what is and isn't working.
Teams at Trotter are what I call in my book The Skillful Team Leader "high functioning, high impact." Team members not only get along well and get things done (high functioning), but also produce desired learning results for students (high impact).
Let's look at one progress-monitoring team I observed. This team, in its third year together, consists of four 2nd grade teachers, an aide, and the principal. Their meetings reveal characteristics of a high-functioning team: delegation of roles, learned routines, adherence to agenda and norms, evidence of preparation, and collegiality and productivity. In every meeting, teachers take turns presenting a student who is receiving Tier 2 support (literacy support beyond whole-class instruction) or Tier 3 support (the most intensive literacy support). Teachers determine which students they'll discuss in advance and come prepared with recent assessment data, entered on a school-developed progress-monitoring template.
In one meeting, teacher Sylvaine Lestrade shared the results of assessments she'd administered that morning. Her focus student, Marcus, started the school year reading independently at reading level D, with a speed of 15 words correct per minute (WCPM). Now, midyear, Marcus was at level F for independent reading and G for guided reading, with a speed of 35 WCPM. He knew the initial and final consonant of CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant)words, but he struggled with short vowels. He knew all the digraphs he was tested on and half of the blends, and he recognized 87 of the first 100 sight words on the Fry Sight Word list. Although these data showed progress, by this time of year, teachers noted, Marcus should be at a guided reading level of K or higher, with a speed of 68 WCPM.
Most puzzling was Marcus's drop in recognizing sight words. "He started out knowing 70 out of 100 sight words," Lestrade told the team, "then moved up to 96, then 97, and now he's down to 87." Marcus, she noted, sounded out sight words with much difficulty. When reading aloud, he substituted words that change the meaning of the sentence (like boot for boat). However, he could retell a story after a teacher read it aloud.
Lestrade shared additional relevant data: Marcus's absences were down to 11 in this school year—an improvement from previous years. In writing, he usually got very few words on the page, and his printing was illegible. According to Marcus's mother, he was reading books in the Magic Tree House series every night—yet those books are harder than the highest-level text he could read independently in the classroom. The data seemed to conflict.
As the team dug deep to understand Marcus's strengths and challenges, they considered causes for his struggles on the basis of the evidence. "He reads every night, so he likely doesn't need practice," one teacher noted.
"I might disagree with that given the level of the books," another replied, "I think Ms. Lestrade needs to hear him read an excerpt before we conclude what he can do."
One team member posited that Marcus's challenge in recognizing sight words might be a memory issue. A colleague responded, "but he also has decoding issues, coupled with good comprehension. It might be dyslexia."
As team members deepened their understanding of the problems and likely causes, a goal emerged: to have Marcus master two sight words a week (working up to 10 a week) on the Fry Sight Word list, reaching 100 words by April. The team agreed to refer Marcus for dyslexia testing.
Lestrade decided to stop sending words home on a worksheet and instead have Marcus practice with a word ring. To build his endurance, she would provide a timer during independent reading. To improve his confidence, Marcus would practice reading books at and below level G to a teaching intern. The intern would read aloud G- and H-level books so Marcus could hear a fluent reader, and Lestrade committed to sending home books at a challenge level for Marcus's mother to read aloud. This would expose him to grade-level content that he wouldn't get reading level-F books. After these interventions were tried, Marcus moved to independent reading level G and accurately read 99 of the first 100 words on the Fry list.
In its 40-minute meeting, this team reviewed three more students. The group clearly knew how to work together and get things done. And—although teams could go through this process without spurring academic gains—data make clear that what teams like this accomplish does influence students' performance. At the start of the 2014–15 school year, 33 percent of this progress-monitoring team's students were receiving Tier 3 instruction for literacy (with only 39 percent at Tier 1). By the year's end, only 18 percent of the students were still in Tier 3, and 56 percent were at Tier 1, as Figure 1 shows. Other teams saw similar growth.

Figure 1. Data for Students Served by Grade 2 Progress Monitoring Team

A School on the Move-table

Instructional Tier

Beginning of Year 2014–15

Middle of Year 2014–15

End of Year 2014–15

Students at Tier 1 Instruction33 of 85 39%43 of 85 51%48 of 85 56%
Students at Tier 2 Instruction24 of 85 28%19 of 85 22%22 of 85 26%
Students at Tier 3 Instruction28 of 85 33%23 of 85 27%15* of 85 18%
*Although 15 of these 2nd graders didn't move out of Tier 3, all 15 made significant progress, many nearing 1.5 grade levels of growth. One reason they didn't move into Tier 2 is because of Trotter's rigorous criteria: To be moved to Tier 2, Trotter students must move up in both Fountas and Pinnell Instructional levels and increase their words correct per minute (WCPM). Targets become more rigorous by middle of the year and even more so by the end: To qualify for Tier 2 status at the beginning of the year, a student must read at level F, G, or H, with 26–43 WCPM. To qualify for Tier 2 status at the end of the year, however, a student must read at level J, K, or L, with 70–89 WCPM.
In my observations at Trotter, I saw indicators that its teacher teams are high impact as well as high functioning. Members consistently
  • Introduce dilemmas to which they don't have answers. In one meeting, teachers wrestled with understanding why Tatiana could complete her graphic organizer but couldn't transfer those ideas to full sentences in a draft.
  • Use formative data as the basis for discourse. Grade-level teams analyze student responses on teacher-created assessments, saying things like, "16 out of 22 students got question 9 wrong. Let's do the problem, look at students' responses, and figure out why."
  • Skillfully facilitate. Like teams in all schools, Trotter's teams encounter hurdles that could slow their impact, but facilitators are learning how to overcome them. One team identified low attendance as a contributing factor to a student's low performance. The facilitator noticed the team was discouraged; proposed an action that might help (contacting the school attendance officer); then pivoted the conversation back toward academic, evidence-based causes by asking, "So is it comprehension, decoding, or both?"
  • Seek help from colleagues. When a new teacher noticed that a group of his 6th graders couldn't multiply mixed fractions, he asked a teammate for help. Through weekly observations, the two uncovered this pattern: Many kids couldn't do the problems on their own, so during independent practice time, more students were calling for help than this new teacher could get to. After observing his colleague's approach of measuring the same standard through differentiated tasks, the newer teacher tried the same.
  • Gently push one another's thinking. When a teacher in a progress-monitoring meeting presented a student who had advanced to an independent reading level of O and proposed as the student's next target reading at level P, one member inquired, "What do you see as barriers to achieving level Q or R?"
  • Set strategic action steps. One 4th grade pretest showed disparities in how well different students had mastered working with data sets. The 4th grade teachers shared responsibility for all students' mastery. They put students in three groups: those needing intense support on this skill, those needing practice, and those needing extension activities—and creatively scheduled three adults to help the lowest-performing group. The strategy paid off: Those students progressed at the same rate as other groups.

4. Fostering Thinking

Some educators in high-poverty schools seem to believe that "skill and drill" brings about higher test scores. At Trotter, however, educators are committed to teaching students to think critically. Through study groups led by Karen Loughran and retired professor Curt Dudley-Marling, teachers learn how to lead students in evidence-based text discussions and what Cathy O'Connor calls "accountable talk." For example, a team of 1st grade teachers in one group discussed William Steig's book Brave Irene, prompted by the model question, "Is Irene brave or reckless?" After experiencing accountable talk in the discussion, they raised concerns about doing this with students, wondering, for instance, how nonreaders would find evidence in the text. One teacher offered to pilot the lesson as colleagues observed.
The school's focus on higher-order thinking skills is having a visible impact. Teachers are developing criteria for selecting texts that lend themselves to accountable talk. They're beginning to generate higher-order thinking prompts. Most exciting is that even the lowest-performing readers are beginning to engage in text-based discussions.

The Essential Key

These practices contribute to Trotter's continuing improvement but would be insufficient without one other factor—something not written up in any school improvement plan. Underlying everything that Trotter's educators do is a belief that each person lives out each day—a belief that teacher Mary Sheehan sums up as, "Every kid has to succeed. Everyone feels a responsibility to push the cart up the hill." With this mind-set, any school can be on the move.
Author's note: All student names are pseudonyms.
End Notes

1 MacDonald, E. (2013). The skillful team leader: Overcoming hurdles to professional learning for student advancement. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

2 O'Connor, C., & Chapin, S. (2012). Project Challenge: Using challenging curriculum and mathematical discourse to help all students learn. In C. Dudley-Marling & S. Michaels (Eds.), High expectations curricula: helping all students engage in powerful learning (pp. 113–128). New York: Teachers College Press.

Elisa B. MacDonald (www.elisamacdonald.com), has nearly 30 years of combined experience teaching, leading and consulting in schools. She is a bestselling author with a new book, Intentional Moves: How Skillful Team Leaders Impact Learning.

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