3 Tips to See Big Gains in Schools


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By Kristina Stratton
Communicator
March 2020, Volume 43, Issue 7

The start of the 2014-15 school year was difficult, to say the least, for Westside Elementary School. The school had failed to meet state standards the previous year, dropping from a C to a D rating at the end of the prior school year and would have dropped to an F except for the fact that Florida at the time did not allow schools to drop two letter grades in one year. 

That’s when I walked in the door as principal. The teachers and I would have to overcome our fair share of challenges. My first priority was to understand the current instructional model at Westside and align new initiatives to changing state standards. 

I began by building relationships with the school team through a series of in-depth meetings with both teachers and district personnel. Together, we identified three key objectives for the remainder of the year—improve student engagement, increase teacher collaboration, and find better tools to evaluate learning gains.

1. Improve Student Engagement

Students were often talking off topic, and when asked to describe the lesson in their own words, they were often unable to form an adequate response. Students also were unclear about the purpose of the lessons in progress and were not able to demonstrate their understanding.

We began to shift how we were delivering instruction to make it more student-centered rather than primarily teacher-led. At the same time, we needed to ensure that students were positioned to meet Florida’s new standards-based requirements. Teachers worked together to rewrite lesson plans by first mapping out the standards students needed to master and then choosing curricular resources to meet the depth of those standards. Our new lessons were designed to not only encourage active participation by students, but also put them more in charge of their own learning. Soon, we noted higher levels of engagement with the teacher, the materials, and each other.

Since then, we have continued to refine our instruction to support higher levels of student engagement. Rather than leading the class through one set lesson at one pace for the duration of the period, teachers began to set up centers for students to rotate through so they could experience a mix of targeted teacher-led instruction, small group work, and independent work. 

2. Increase Teacher Collaboration

The success of increased student engagement also surfaced a need for a more formal structure for teacher collaboration. Teachers were already working together, to an extent, to develop lesson plans, but many times these collaborations were siloed by grade level. To address this issue, we have removed barriers and put in place structures to support frequent and productive teacher collaboration. Rather than limiting collaboration to one grade level or one subject at a time, we designed “vertical teams” to promote collaboration between grades and across subject areas.

Another initiative aimed at fostering collaboration are classroom learning walks. Each month, every teacher in the building visits a number of their colleagues’ classes to learn new teaching skills, observe how learning occurs throughout a variety of grades and subjects, and discover opportunities for further collaboration. 

3. Find Better Tools to Evaluate Learning Gains

As we have made the transition to standards-focused instruction, we also realized we needed better and more frequent information about how our students were progressing. Previously, we were able to measure student growth in two major increments: from baseline to midyear and midyear to the spring FSA. But measuring progress just twice a year was just not enough. 

We decided on i-Ready’s online diagnostic and instruction tool for both math and reading. The initial draw was the strong diagnostic component that would provide key insights into our students’ understandings of specific topics, even before we began instruction. But the program also had adaptive instructional materials, designed for a blended learning environment and aligned with Florida’s new state standards. By combining the diagnostic with the instruction, we would have the data and insights we needed to truly understand our students’ needs in alignment with standards. 

We could now accurately pinpoint where students were on a variety of specific standards and what they needed to work on next to move toward mastery. This information allowed us to differentiate instruction far more effectively and in a fluid way; as students either progressed or lagged behind, teachers could adapt instruction and flexibly group students according to current needs and abilities. It also proved to be a powerful tool to quickly and accurately identify the most at-risk students. 

Our school standing soon began to reflect the impact of these changes. Rather than being last in our district in terms of student progress, we moved to the middle of the pack that first year and have made steady progress ever since. These gains have helped boost morale and confidence for both our students and teachers. 

Transforming an entire school culture with the goal of improving student performance does not happen overnight. It takes hard work, the dedication of an entire staff, and the willingness to persevere. But change is possible, and our growth from a D to an A rating in three academic years proved it. 

Kristina Stratton is principal of Westside Elementary in Florida’s Hernando County School District.

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