In any given third-grade classroom, you can find a student who is reading at a level far beyond their age, and another who is still working on letter recognition. How does a traditional classroom teacher with 25-30 kids manage such a wide range of students? As a district leader, how do I support our teachers and ensure that they are challenging students who are at a higher level while providing struggling students with proper support?

These are the tough questions I asked myself when taking over as superintendent of Maury County Schools in Tennessee in August 2015. Within the first few months, we ditched the old literacy model to adopt a project-based focus; deployed instructional coaches (without hiring anyone); and launched a top-down, district-level approach that quickly gained bottom-up buy-in through school and community support. We also implemented a differentiated literacy program and digital library that measures reading with reading—not quiz scores and points.

Creating the Keys to Success

In my first days as superintendent, I did what I called a “22in22 Tour” where I traveled to all 22 schools in my district in 22 days. I know from experience that the best leaders are the best listeners, so I made sure to take the time to hear what school leaders and classroom teachers had to say about Maury’s administrative approach. I heard loud and clear that there were issues of trust, lack of resources, switching initiatives on a dime, and a need for truly aligned and supportive professional development. That’s when I knew I had to eliminate the top-down approach that the district had taken in the past (and many districts employ) and go through a process to determine our Keys to Success.

Over 10 weeks, my administrative team and I asked every school board member, administrator, teacher, staff member, and parent to answer one simple question: What should students know before leaving elementary school, middle school, and high school? After making my rounds inside our school community, we asked the same question to a wide variety of community organizations including the Rotary, Kiwanis, City Council, NAACP, retired teachers’ association, the County Commission, and over 20 more groups.

  • All students’ reading proficiency at or above grade level by the end of third grade
  • All students’ math proficiency at or above grade level by the end of the fourth grade
  • All students’ Math and English proficiency at or above grade level by the end of sixth grade
  • All students proficient in Algebra 1 by the end of eighth grade
  • All students scoring at or above ACT college readiness benchmarks by graduation
  • All students financially literate by graduation
  • All students participating in advanced placement, dual-enrollment, industry certification, work-based learning, or military prep by graduation.

By generating common goals as a community, we created a level of transparency that was new to Maury County. The Keys created a common vocabulary across the entire community, so everyone was well aware of our mission as a district. For the first time in a long time, this district shifted its focus from state test scores and data to the kids and what they should be able to do to be truly college and/or career ready—the way it should be.

Next page: Putting power in the principals’ hands