In the summer of 2016, I decided to take on a fresh new challenge and, to be honest, I was a little intimidated at the start. The opportunity had come up to serve as principal at Lake Park Elementary, a Title 1 school where just one quarter of students were proficient in literacy and the school was on the state’s list of the 300 lowest-performing schools—the need for an elementary school turnaround was clear. I wondered, “Do I have what it takes to effect meaningful change at this school?”
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My hiring supervisor was quick to point out that I was already doing the same type of work over the past 19 years, primarily at the secondary level. Being principal at Lake Park would give me a chance to make a difference for students much earlier on. The fact that my own children were in elementary school at the time helped me realize that perhaps I was meant to do this job.
Driving an elementary school turnaround
All students need to be able to access a high-quality education delivered by well-trained teachers, and it would be my mission to make that happen. Together with my administration team and teachers, here are four actions we took to enable an elementary school turnaround.
1. Listen and learn
In the first few weeks in my new role, I spent a lot of time listening and learning before taking action. I met with the school and district leadership teams and held a series of meetings with teachers both in large groups and with grade-level teams to learn more about our students, one-third of whom were classified as English language learners. I kept hearing teachers say, “The kids are so low.” I wanted to know what that meant, and whether this mantra was reinforcing the misconception that the students were somehow “stuck” below grade level.
I also learned that for most students, kindergarten at Lake Park was their first school experience, because very few of their working parents were able to take advantage of the state’s free three-hour pre-kindergarten program.
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2. Update our approach to literacy
In my first few weeks, I realized there was no consistent use of any one literacy program. To make matters more challenging, some teachers were using outdated curricula that no longer aligned with standards. My first order of business was to remove those materials from classrooms and begin to leverage the i-Ready program, which had become available to the district the prior year. I scheduled a series of professional development sessions so the entire team could learn how to maximize our use of this program as a key component of the school’s blended learning environment.
By October of my first year as principal, all students at Lake Park were using i-Ready Instruction for 45 minutes in both language arts and math per week. In addition, teachers began using the accompanying leveled reading materials, lesson ideas and a wealth of supporting resources in the Teacher Toolbox.
3. Delve into the data
We also zeroed in on data to refine our instruction and closely monitor progress as we embarked on our elementary school turnaround. The i-Ready Diagnostic, administered three times a year, combined with instructional usage reports, provided us with detailed information about students’ individual strengths and knowledge gaps.
We worked with teachers to use this data to identify problem areas, group students according to need, and differentiate instruction. Teachers conducted individual student data chats with students to set personal goals and help them see how many points they needed to attain their next level. I met with teachers individually to review their students’ overall performance and collaborate on how we could plan for better instruction to promote even greater success. Throughout this process, we used information and data tracking forms available through iReady Central.
4. Celebrate success
To motivate students, we began to celebrate their accomplishments in a number of ways. We held ice cream parties, and bought lunches and movie tickets for our students who improved and met their goals. These were extremely important to our third graders who knew if they reached a certain score in i-Ready, they would be likely to pass the state’s year-end assessment, as well.
Students who demonstrated notable growth were invited to visit the front office where we surprised them with certificates and small prizes. Many of our students were inspired to read regularly over spring break in anticipation of the popsicle party they would enjoy upon their return. These small rewards have helped us create a culture of success and contributed to higher levels of engagement.
We soon began to experience strong results as more students began to achieve grade-level proficiency. In my first year as principal, we raised our year-end grade from a C to B, and then in my second year, we earned a high B–just twelve points away from an A! Importantly, we have reduced the number of our lowest-performing students by 24 percent. We are also steadily decreasing our third-grade retention rate from 20 kids the first year to just four last year. At the same time, we are making strides to close the pre-kindergarten gap.
By working closely with the district and community organizations, we have been able to establish one section of full-day pre-kindergarten right at our school, serving 20 students. It is my hope that each year, we will be able to increase that number so that all students entering kindergarten will be able to benefit from that experience. Moreover, it is my goal to continue to not only educate the whole child, but also support our families and provide them with the right tools for their children to be successful.