keys to success

These 7 keys are helping one district better prepare its students

What should students know by the end of third grade? What about high school? And how do you get them there?

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

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