middle school

Principal: Real school transformation starts with a magical triangle

A principal shares how his data-based approach to discipline, academics, and SEL have transformed his middle school.

Every child deserves the opportunity to lead, learn, grow, and succeed. It’s only through a 360-degree approach to learning that we can provide these necessary opportunities to all children. At E.A. Cox Middle School, we are committed to a “whatever it takes” approach to success for each student entrusted to our care. In order to truly dedicate ourselves to this method, my staff and I decided two years ago to develop a three-tiered approach for our curriculum and instruction.

The model we created focuses on achieving proficiency in reading and math for our entire student body, along with proficiency in identified social-emotional skills. This model was developed out of a needs assessment that we conducted in 2015–2016, the first year I was principal at Cox Middle School.

It became very clear, very soon that we had to find a solution to combat the inordinate rate of disciplinary referrals and infractions across the school. Concurrently, it was clear from the academic data that the school was academically low-performing and that reading and math proficiency rates were far below acceptable standards. As a result, we developed a 5-Year Strategic Improvement Plan aimed at improving each of these areas.

Taking on an initiative that had far-reaching impact for all students felt intimidating at first, but we were pleasantly surprised by the overwhelming support and external encouragement we received.

Our community, we learned, was hungry for change and eager to see our school turn around. In addition, changes at the district level brought new leadership and vision at nearly the perfect time. Further, our school had recently been assigned Title I status, so funds were available to help address the areas of need.

The district and community were behind us, but Cox Middle School was still experiencing a relatively high rate of personnel turnover. Our first steps were to stabilize our staff and set teaching expectations at an appropriate level.

(Next page: Specifics of the magical triangle approach to middle school transformation)

A Magical Triangle Approach with Discipline, Academics, and SEL

Once we were able to set proper expectations for our teachers, we turned our focus on the disciplinary issues and classroom management, which were impeding any efforts to improve student achievement.

First, we completely revamped of our disciplinary protocol to embrace a school-wide positive behavior support approach. Through a Response to Intervention-Behavior initiative, we set the stage for our disciplinary strategies.

On the academic side, we incorporated new approaches such as blended learning, problem-based learning, and personalized literacy solutions like myON. With those pieces in place, we believe that every student can achieve proficiency in reading and mathematics in every year of their educational experience.

We also believed that by accurately assessing and monitoring our students’ growth with our Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Rubric, we could help each student achieve proficiency in the “soft skills” they need. To this end, we implemented The Leader in Me program to provide a common focus, language, and platform for change. We also focused our efforts on the 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens to help our students grow in the SEL tier.

Finally, the collective and individual use of wildly important goals (WIGS) and leading measures for those goals has helped us begin to see the academic success that we envisioned. We’ve established our cadence of accountability by using scoreboards to monitor our progress and maintain focus on those goals and leading measures.

Empowering Teachers and Building Relationships

The only way we achieved the success we’ve seen was through the empowerment of our teachers. By establishing teacher leaders and promoting shared decision-making amongst the staff, Cox Middle School fostered a team approach and created a community of learning in which our three-tiered model could properly flourish and grow.

We learned that grade-level and subject-area leadership teams are critical to implementation success. To the maximum extent possible, we make collaborative decisions through leadership teams and committees.

At the end of the day, however, I’ve found that change must also take place at the individual level. All of these efforts, ideas, and philosophies die on the vine if those responsible for implementation are not invested in the process and decision-making. Improvements have to be made “with folks, not to folks.” Otherwise, the changes are at risk of simply being the flavor of the month or just another passing fad.

Lasting change, belief, and investment can only be accomplished through a continued focus on building relationships with students, parents, teachers, and community leaders.

In order for an implementation such as this to succeed, my recommendation to fellow principals is to take the time to build these relationships, earn trust, and share the decision-making. Build a team, a family; take risks; embrace and use qualitative and quantitative data. Develop and deploy teacher leaders; leverage internal strengths. Take control of and tell your own story with full transparency.

Most of all, never underestimate the power of goals, the individual ownership of those goals, or the importance of celebrating your success at every opportunity. To me, being an innovative principal includes all of this while taking the risks and implementing the changes necessary to meet the needs of your school and your children.

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