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Defining Success and Strategies to Transform Your Neighborhood School

I find it interesting to read or hear about the stories of school transformation from my colleagues worldwide. No matter what geographical location we find ourselves, our stories are the same- at least those of us who have led inner-city schools. I would often explain my job as "I teach in a high poverty school- and all that implies." The implications, of course, being that children who grow up in poverty suffer the same conditions: Absent fathers in the home, lack of nutritional food at home, unsafe neighborhoods, and homelessness- to name just a few. I've studied or visited schools throughout the United States and many different countries. I find it true that poverty is poverty, and black children suffer disproportionately from that "unfortunate condition." How do school leaders combat poverty- and all that implies to lead a successful neighborhood school?

First, we must define the word "success." I read an article touting the performance of student's scores on a math assessment. The report boasts about double-digit gains in a "short" three-year period. "After teachers began implementing what they had learned, in just three years, math standards doubled from 18% passing to 35%." I would certainly agree that is a remarkable improvement. However, the fact remained that 70% of the students in the school could not pass a basic math test after three years.

So, what is a universal definition of success? Success is relative to the individual school and the community. For example, one district might define success as being the most academically rigorous in the state. At the same time, another might describe it as graduating the most kids with special needs.

I would argue that state leaders must come together and offer a universal definition of success in schools. Would the measures include standardized tests, graduation rates, school climate, or the myriad of other indicators in which principals are rated? Imagine if the entire country had one measure of a 4th-grader being proficient in math! It would be much easier to identify solutions for students who have not mastered a particular skill or subject.

In the state of Texas, student participation in the STAAR test is mandatory. If a school performs poorly for too long on the STAAR, there are severe ramifications for the campus and the school district.

Strategies for Success

During my first year as a high school leader in Texas, I inherited an enormous task. The school was nearing the "improvement required" label. School morale was at an all-time low, and there appeared to be little trust amongst the staff. Within three years, we realized the highest scores on state assessments the school had ever witnessed. School culture improved drastically (as measured on the Insight Survey). We were also graduating more students than in the previous 5-years. I am a product of the neighborhood school that I would eventually lead. I've tasted the bitter fruit of an "us" versus "them" mentality. I've seen what happens when the adults in a community stop believing in their children and their neighborhood school. But, I've also seen what happens when adults believe in their children and their neighborhood school.

Here are three strategies that we implemented to turn my school around and reach our definition of success. First- we implemented a collaborative Theory of Action. Basically, as a group of educators, we identified the best teaching practices that we believed would positively affect student academic performance. We identified those best practices and how we would measure them during daily instruction. Second- based on our Theory of Action, my administrative team and I would perform daily Instructional Rounds. During these "check-ups," we would measure whether our teachers were implementing what (as a community of learners) determined were our best practices. If a particular teacher were not implementing our best practices during an instructional round, that led to our Third strategy- Timely Feedback. Of all the strategies, this one was probably the most critical. Teachers thrive when they are given feedback. My teachers wanted to know how they were doing at any given time. Timely meant that we would literally stop instruction and briefly meet with the teacher. The interruption would only last a few minutes- but we believed that course correction had to happen as soon as the problem was identified. A good coach doesn't allow their athletes to continue making the same mistake, or a musician to continue playing the wrong notes on an instrument. No- as soon as the problem is noticed- you blow the whistle, correct the action, and put them back in the game.

In sports- success is measured by wins and losses. When educating our nation's most precious resource (our children), a universal definition of success must be determined. Once that definition is defined, each district, campus, and teacher must be given the freedom to devise their own roadmap to reach the highest level of that definition.

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