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June 1, 2015
Vol. 72
No. 9

To Find Solutions, Look Inward

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Improving Schools from Within- thumbnail
Every underperforming high school wants to improve. But too often, school leaders search outside the school for solutions, adopting ready-made programs before looking inside at the systems that are affecting student performance and teacher development. And more often than not, these outside solutions fail to produce the desired results.
In the past nine years, I have been principal at two public high schools in Pennsylvania that significantly increased student success by looking inward and using a collaborative process to improve systems in need of repair. SciTech High School in Harrisburg is a 400-student urban math and science magnet school that opened its doors in 2003. Williamsport Area High School is a 1,700-student comprehensive school that in 2010 was in its fifth year of corrective action under No Child Left Behind and was eligible for state takeover.
Although these two schools were distinctly different, they shared characteristics that are often blamed for low performance: Both had strong teachers unions, challenging faculty contracts, budgetary constraints, and a majority of students living below the poverty line. Yet both schools attained extraordinary results in just a few years (see figs. 1 and 2), earning state and national attention for achievement growth.

Figure 1. Improved Achievement at SciTech High School

Figure 2. Improved Achievement at Williamsport Area High School

Note: When the Pennsylvania Department of Education restructured the state exams, they combined the reading and writing skills into one reading and literature exam.
The transformation model we implemented at SciTech High and Williamsport is replicable in nearly every high school. We established a culture of collaboration and high expectations, used data to make all decisions, and strengthened the systems that were affecting student development. We sustained an unwavering focus on increasing both student and adult learning. If an initiative did not match our strategic focus, it was taken off the teachers' workload. Here are three areas in which we examined and repaired our existing systems.

Communicating to Collaborate

The root cause of many leadership problems is poor communication, including the failure to listen to stakeholders. In contrast, listening while suspending judgment empowers team members, creates empathy, and enables innovation to emerge. Effective communication helps leaders develop a deep understanding of the school's values, strengths, and areas in need of improvement. To increase communication and collaboration, we implemented the following strategies.

Coffee and Conversations

We scheduled informal, quarterly collaboration sessions we called Coffee and Conversations. These forums gave teachers and support staff an opportunity to share their views with the principal. The voluntary sessions were held during the school day in a neutral conference room away from the main office. During planning periods that day, teachers were welcome to stop by the conference room, have a cup of coffee, talk about what they believed was working and not working, and provide ideas for improvement.
It was common for 5–10 teachers to stop by each period throughout the day. More often than not, the meeting became a collaborative brainstorming session with teachers from many different content areas. The teachers built stronger bonds with one another, and I received important information about school challenges.
The process helped to create trust and transparency, and it showed that I valued the teachers' input. Common themes were then shared with the entire faculty. One idea that emerged through Coffee and Conversations at Williamsport was to create a streamlined mentoring program for our high-risk students. We had no extra financial resources, and all adults had busy schedules, so we developed a simplified program in which adult volunteers selected and checked in with one high-risk student for one minute each day. Because the time commitment was small, almost half of the faculty signed up to be mentors. The cohort of students who were paired with mentors had a significant decrease in behavior problems and an overall improvement in academic performance.
We used a similar Coffee and Conversations approach with parents before parent-teacher organization meetings, with community leaders at scheduled breakfast meetings, and with student representatives over lunch. In these meetings, practical ideas emerged to better connect our school with the community.
When students were given a voice, many of them wanted to help improve perceptions of their school. They put together work groups to help the community following a devastating flood, provided after-school tutoring at elementary schools, helped at senior centers, and completed other service projects. Students also took a more active role in promoting the school; they shared how they were working to improve the community on a local radio show, communicated through social media, and wrote columns for the local newspaper.
One year at Williamsport we had to reduce faculty and make significant budget cuts. Before school board approval, we had a parental Coffee and Conversations meeting to explain the budgetary constraints, challenges, and why the cuts and reductions were being recommended. According to one parent, the transparency increased community understanding and trust. It also eliminated a great deal of public tension at the subsequent school board meeting where the challenging final decisions were made.

Voluntary Faculty Meetings

We rarely held mandatory faculty meetings; instead, we held weekly 20- to 30-minute voluntary sessions. Making the meetings voluntary forced me to ensure they were relevant, and it also discouraged the attendence of faculty members whose negative attitudes might have infected the dialogue. During these voluntary faculty meetings, we shared school challenges and discussed ideas.
One idea that emerged from such a meeting was a change in the master schedule that would provide common planning time for teachers and extended support time for students without increasing cost. We eventually moved from a seven-period day to an eight-period, A/B day. Under the new schedule, teachers have a common planning period every other day, and students have designated time to receive extra support in mastering a more rigorous curriculum.

Teacher Leader Meetings

About once every three weeks, I met with teacher leaders to review data, discuss areas of needed growth, and monitor implementation of our strategic plan. Teacher leaders shared what they were working on in their departments, and they took responsibility for sharing what we discussed at the leader meeting with their colleagues. Leaders were also empowered to create and lead work teams that aligned to our strategic plan.

Brief Electronic Surveys

When ideas emerged for system changes and we had vetted them at our various communication forums, we proceeded to collect feedback from all stakeholders through electronic surveys. These short surveys gave me everyone's opinions, not just those of the most vocal or involved people. We shared results with all faculty members, and we implemented only those changes that received significant faculty support.
Parents and students were also treated as important stakeholders. We routinely collected electronic survey feedback from our parents during open house and parent-teacher conferences. For example, when a proposal emerged to change graduation venues, we surveyed students and parents and followed their recommendations.

Analyzing and Using Data

Data show strengths and deficiencies and take the guesswork out of determing what practices to improve. The principal's responsibility is to communicate data in a user-friendly, easy-to-understand format and to facilitate collaborative discussions to explore how systems are affecting results.
We continually shared how our grade levels were performing on each academic standard compared with other schools across the state. But instead of just forwarding the comprehensive reports from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, we created basic visual charts from the most important data.
Once teachers understood the data and were able to pinpoint what was causing our gaps, we worked together to rethink our school. Our first step was to eliminate basic-level classes and replace them with more rigorous coursework, at the same time providing more time, support, and guided practice. After that first year, we made more than 50 teaching assignment changes to match teacher strengths with student needs. The teachers union agreed to extend instructional time by 20 minutes each day.
Because the data revealed major deficits in our students' ability to read and analyze texts, we decided to implement a comprehensive literacy model, significantly increasing the amount of time that students were reading and writing throughout the day in all courses, not just English. Teachers and administrators collaborated to set expectations about how many times per week each department would be responsible for embedding writing and reading processes. We adopted the Collins Writing program for daily writing, and we taught teachers through professional development and instructional coaching how to most effectively use grade-level text. As we increased daily reading and writing throughout the school, we watched our achievement gaps close rapidly. After three years, we consistently exceeded growth projections in literacy as measured on state assessments.
These changes were possible because teachers and administrators worked closely with one another, teachers had an active role in decision making, and everyone understood the significance of the data. We all felt a sense of urgency and purpose. And our students responded by making double-digit growth.

Building Faculty Capacity

Learning Walks

Every teacher and administrator has strengths and areas of needed growth. To learn more about one another and to build on strengths within the school, we implemented a voluntary learning walk protocol. During a planning period, small groups of teachers would visit a few classrooms to browse, borrow, and build on effective instructional practices. The process was non-evaluative and was facilitated by a teacher leader or an instructional coach.
The learning walk group would search for strategies that increased engagement and learning, and then debrief with the facilitator about what they observed and what practices they could implement in their own classrooms. The facilitator would then e-mail a message to the entire faculty identifying the effective strategies that teachers had found during the learning walk. All teachers were encouraged to participate in a learning walk, and they had to notify the principal directly if they did not want colleagues to visit their classroom.

Instructional Coaching

When we rebuilt Williamsport's master schedule, we created time for a few of our master teachers to be instructional coaches. For a portion of the school day, these coaches worked directly with teachers to help implement the comprehensive literacy model. They modeled and cotaught lessons to show how to imbed different literacy practices. Following the lessons, the coaches facilitated a collaborative reflective process with teachers. (What worked, why, what would you like to do differently next time?) In addition, they helped teachers make sense of their student data and provided short sessions on specific instructional strategies, such as formative assessment, shared reading, summary writing, and using technology to increase conceptual understanding.
Through a grant, we were able to provide both SciTech and Williamsport with full-time coaching for a three-year period. When the grants expired, coaching was still implemented, but on a part-time basis.

Common Assessments

Observations during our learning walks and daily administrative walk-throughs quickly told us that there were major content discrepancies among teachers teaching the same course. To address these inconsistencies, when we rebuilt the master schedule, we gave small teams of teachers who taught the same subjects a common period in which to plan and realign the curriculum together.
We used the common planning periods and most of our professional development time for these small groups to write common unit assessments aligned to the state standards. The same small groups analyzed and shared student data results after each six-week unit exam. Because we built a trusting culture, teachers found this process to be meaningful, and it created a friendly competition among most teachers. When a teacher was particularly strong in an area, we attempted to learn more about his or her approach so we could replicate the success.

From the Inside Out

It was only after we examined our existing practices, committed to using a comprehensive literacy model to increase reading and writing throughout our school, and established our expectations for instructional coaching to build our capacity that we reached out for external support. Rather than relying on prescriptive programs, we sought out organizations that could provide additional learning in a framework of continual improvement. The Pennsylvania Institute of Instructional Coaching (PIIC) was instrumental in helping us maximize our coaching support; the University of Pennsylvania's Penn Literacy Network and the John Collins writing program provided relevant training, support, and coursework to continually build our teaching and learning skills.
We had to look deep within ourselves and learn to work with one another. We had to take time to communicate and collaborate to ensure that everyone understood our plans. We had to embrace our strengths and confront our realities through data assessments. We had to address our system issues and find our focus. Once we had looked at our internal systems, we were able to find and embrace the external supports that accelerated our transformation.

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