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June 1, 2005

School Improvement—Aligned!

By connecting district goal setting to school initiatives and classroom application, a Virginia school district makes accountability work.
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Hanover County Public Schools enjoy a reputation for excellence by almost all measures. We have a high school dropout rate of less than 1 percent, and in 1997 we were the first school district in Virginia to receive the U.S. Senate Award for Continuing Excellence. Located in a beautiful section of the state that includes rolling farmland, extensive tree-covered acreage, and suburban areas, Hanover County has always served its students well.
But in spring 1998, every school system in Virginia was faced with the challenge of meeting new accreditation standards as the state began implementation of the Standards of Learning (SOL) exams, the assessment portion of its accountability system. Hanover County Public Schools, a school system that had met other academic challenges with relative ease, found itself in an unfamiliar position: We failed to meet Virginia's new accreditation standard on the basis of our students' performance on the SOLs. In fact, only 1 of 17 schools in the district met the requirements to receive full state accreditation.
Concerned that the results of one measure could harm the reputation of our school district, we developed a plan that propelled 100 percent of our schools to full state accreditation in just three years. For the last two years, all 17 Hanover County schools have exceeded the state accountability standards for academic performance. The key to this improvement has been alignment of goals, curriculum, instructional practices, and professional development.

Aligning Goals

To build commitment to excellence at all levels—from the school board to the superintendent to principals to teachers to the larger school community—our district established a goal-alignment structure that begins with the school board and the long-range planning process. Representatives from every stakeholder group—students, parents, teachers, support staff, business leaders, administrators, central office personnel, the superintendent, and school board members—participate on the Long-Range Planning Team. Led by a skilled facilitator, team members collaborate to establish five basic elements: beliefs, mission, objectives, parameters, and strategies.
This long-range plan guides goal setting for all district personnel. The superintendent's goals parallel the board's, while directors' and principals' goals parallel the superintendent's.For example, the school board may suggest the following goal: “The board will promote the delivery of effective instructional services as the primary responsibility of the entire school community.” In alignment with this board goal, one of the superintendent's goals might be “to deliver the highest-quality education for each student while meeting and exceeding state (SOL) and national (NCLB) standards.” A school principal then analyzes demographic, achievement, and trend data for his or her school and translates the superintendent's goal into specific school goals—for example, “to increase performance by all subgroups on SOL tests and to meet adequate yearly progress in English (Reading and Writing) and mathematics (Algebra I and Geometry).” The principal's goals are shared with teachers and guide the School Improvement Planning Team as it establishes performance targets for the school year.

Aligning Curriculum

Hanover County Public Schools also instituted a multifaceted process to align our local curriculum with the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs), which identify specific knowledge, skills, and concepts that students must master in English, mathematics, science, and social studies. Students are assessed for proficiency in these standards in grades 3, 5, and 8. In addition, to receive an advanced or standard diploma, students must pass not only specific high school courses but also a number of related SOL tests.
  • Developing pacing charts (tools for planning and tracking the appropriate amount of instructional time dedicated to each element of the curriculum).
  • Identifying a scope and sequence for each course to align the curriculum in a logical, sequential manner.
  • Establishing curriculum guides that identify the appropriate content to teach.

Aligning Instructional Practices

At the school level, principals and teachers have taken steps to ensure that instructional improvement efforts are aligned with those of the Hanover County school board, the superintendent, and central office directors. When the superintendent challenged district schools to raise SOL scores, educators studied their instructional programs to identify areas for modification and improvement.
The activities of educators at Stonewall Jackson Middle School provide several examples of this focus on improved scores. Since the 1990s, the school has provided an extended learning block for 7th and 8th grade students called CORE. During the 90-minute CORE period, which is scheduled every other day, students' team teachers provide extra support in one of the core academic subjects of language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies. When Virginia's SOL program introduced a clear vision of learning standards and the accompanying testing program, the teachers who worked with CORE realized that they could use this instructional time to supplement SOL-tested academic instruction. These teachers created a nine-week academic rotation of math (probability and statistics); language arts (poetry); science (sound and oceanography); and social studies (economics). In this way, they extended their valuable instructional time by more than 30 hours.
The school also looked at the mathematics course choices for rising 6th grade students. Observing that 100 percent of 6th grade students who enrolled in above-grade-level mathematics passed the math SOL test, teachers decided to challenge more students to handle the advanced mathematics curriculum. We began contacting the parents of students who achieved high scores on the 5th grade mathematics SOL test and received As in 5th grade mathematics to discuss the option of selecting a higher-level 6th grade mathematics course. In 2002, we contacted the families of 47 students who met these criteria; 46 chose to challenge their children through a more advanced mathematics class that year. Every 6th grade student who elected to move to a more challenging mathematics class passed the state SOL assessment.
Stonewall Jackson Middle School's QUEST tutorial program provides additional support for SOL success for all students through three avenues—morning study sessions, afternoon “jam sessions,” and elective tutorial classes. Morning study sessions are designed to reteach academic skills and concepts according to individual student needs. Supplemental jam sessions take place in the weeks just before testing; any students interested in a quick and intense review of key pieces of the curriculum can attend these sessions to work in large and small groups on fun, fast-paced activities. Elective tutorial classes provide yearlong support in language arts and mathematics for students who need it; teachers of these classes purchase appropriate materials and receive a stipend through state SOL grant funding. The QUEST coordinator and participating teachers track student attendance and achievement, providing valuable data for program assessment and planning.

Aligning Professional Development

Enhanced learning for students depends on detailed, thoughtful professional development for adults. In Hanover County Public Schools, we studied and sought instructional strategies that promote higher student achievement and implemented staff development in those strategies. For example, we implemented Project CRISS (CReating Independence through Student-owned Strategies), a research-based staff development program, in each of the district's four middle schools. Project CRISS provides training for teachers in such instructional strategies as Think-Pair-Share, concept mapping, two-column notes, Power Notes, and word mapping.
We also began incorporating the philosophy and principles of Total Quality Management into classrooms to create a powerful learning environment by encouraging students to become better problem solvers and critical thinkers. We contracted with an education consultant to conduct professional development on the use of Quality Tools in classrooms. These tools enable students to brainstorm ideas, analyze cause-and-effect relationships, sort information by categories, and prioritize concepts through different kinds of graphic aids, such as fishbone, lotus and force-field diagrams. Thus, students become better thinkers and learners.
After principals and other key school leaders attended training on Project CRISS and Quality Tools, it was their task to introduce and facilitate the use of these initiatives with the instructional staff in their schools. The leadership team at Stonewall Jackson Middle School (including senior teachers, assistant principals, and the principal) planned specific activities.
For example, during the teacher work week before the beginning of the school year, several senior teachers planned a scavenger hunt in which teams of teachers went to interesting historical and cultural sites around Richmond, Virginia, to learn about the rich cultural offerings of the area. When each team arrived at its final location, a facilitator presented participants with a task that involved using one of the Project CRISS or Quality Tools strategies. The teachers used a KWL chart to brainstorm what they Know (K) about the historical site, generate questions about what they want (W) to know about the site, and then record what they learned (L) during the visit. Completing these tasks helped teachers in various instructional teams and departments get to know one another and introduced them to key Project CRISS and Quality Tools concepts. Participants enjoyed an active yet focused staff development day.
Follow-up Project CRISS and Quality Tools staff development included a day of rotating sessions taught by colleagues as well as faculty meeting minisessions. All teachers at Stonewall Jackson selected specific uses of Quality Tools for their annual goal setting. Students quickly caught on to these powerful, self-directed strategies, and soon the school's classrooms and halls boasted related student work displays. When the Hanover County school board enjoyed its annual tour of Stonewall Jackson, 6th grade students made presentations about their Project CRISS and Quality Tools learning experiences, demonstrated their successes, and taught attendees a related lesson.

District and School Efforts Combined

It is unfair to expect individual schools or teachers, working alone, to effect long-term improvements in student achievement. The improvement efforts in Hanover County Public Schools demonstrate that student achievement gains and school improvement depend on strategic planning and goal-setting at the district level as well as a commitment to district goals at the school level. Through Hanover County's focus on student learning and alignment of curriculum and instruction with district objectives, we are meeting accountability mandates and moving toward the goal of leaving no child behind.
End Notes

1 More information about Project CRISS is available at

2 Wicks, C., Peregoy, J., & Wheeler, J. (2001). Plugged in! A teacher's handbook for using total quality tools to help kids conquer the curriculum. New Bern, NC: Class Action.

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