Holding Up the Mirror

It is that time of the year when energy levels in schools is lower than usual. We see this  around October and again in February.  Many schools are looking forward to spring breaks and teachers are relishing any well deserved rest that they can find to get ready for the final weeks of the school year. In this thirteenth blog on school improvement, I want to take you back to Jan’s school and look at what starts to happen when adults make changes instead of waiting for the students to change…

At Jan’s high school there have been many conversations about students and what they need to be successful. They have looked at the graduate list and really focused on supporting each student. The leadership team and teachers of the seniors have divided the list of graduates and they have been meeting with them over the past few months, one on one, on a regular basis to make sure that each and every graduate’s courses and marks are on target for graduation.  They have a goal of ninety-five percent graduation this year and they are working hard to get there.

The teachers in Jan’s school have also been very busy with the other students as well. This school has made me so proud as they have accepted the challenge of understanding any evidence put in front of them that really tells them what the students need.   They are collaborating and as I mentioned last week, they are holding up the mirror, more and more to really see what they can do differently.  I know that their hard work will pay off this year.  Remember, hope is not a strategy and they are not just hoping for improvement, they are working towards it every day.

I had an opportunity to talk with Willie again… my student friend at Jan’s school.  He loves to catch me up on things when I visit. He told me that students are “liking” the school more now that teachers are having more conversations with them. He was bragging that some of the teachers are even having the students write out their goals for the rest of the year and challenging them to keep track of what they are doing to meet their goals.  I was so happy to hear this as we have talked a lot about how student ownership of their learning is so important! This made my heart sing!! The school is on its way to creating great opportunities for students to be successful. Oh, and Willie also tells me all about the boyfriend/girlfriend break ups and what’s happening in the schoolyard! Even in high school, there are schoolyard stories!

Do you remember my New Year’s story about East Gresham Elementary in Portland, OR. – the school that “clapped” the students in after many snowy days and made the students feel so important to them? I shared their focus on GRIT and a motto of “No Excuses”. What I didn’t tell you was how much academic success they were also able to create for their students.  Four years ago, I started working with Kimberly and her staff and only 23% of their students were reading at grade level.  In school improvement consulting work, we should work ourselves out of a job.  It truly takes three to five years to turn a school around and in most situations, the life of a contract for a consultant depends on impact and the resources of a school. If we are doing good work together and the value is there for the school, a contract of three years typically gives us enough time to really see the gains.  My contract with Kimberly’s school had to come to an end at the end of the third year. I was able to have one visit with her in September but during her fourth year as principal, this year, I have had little contact with the school.  Recently, I received an email from Kimberly and had a follow-up phone call with her.  Both made my day, my week, my month… maybe my year!

Kimberly read my blog on collective commitments and wrote out to me to tell me that this had been so timely for her. She had just revisited all of this work with her staff.  Even though they had done the work together a couple of years ago, Kimberly recognized that it was time to revisit, revise and refocus.  I loved what she had to say about it so I want to share this with you:

Good Morning Karen,
Another enjoyable read this morning. You are still with us in many ways and your mentions of mission and vision statement is an example. We revisited ours in a leadership team meeting last month. 
The experience was something I wished I could have caught on camera, but I guess it will always be in my head. When beginning the discussion with the leadership team the conversation was honest, difficult, inspiring, raw, and powerful. I facilitated, but the dialog was theirs. We then brought it back to teachers and staff, discussed, revised, revisited, rewrote it further, and, here is what we came up with.
It was decided it wasn’t a mission statement, but more of a vision statement. Whatever it is called is not the issue, but the process it took to get us where we all agreed we are headed. 

Kimberly now understands the value of shared ownership and as she continues to empower her teachers they will empower the students.   What I really love is that they are placing their value on every child. Their work is truly about the students.  The other reason that I am writing about East Gresham  is that Kimberly talked to me on the phone and told me that they now were at 50% achievement in the school for overall reading at grade level. Now, she is the first to admit that this still means that two out of every four students are not reading at grade level but remember that just three years ago it was 23%. The staff recognizes the work to be done but they have a road map and goals and the best part is they are using their collective expertise in collaboration to create their community of learners.

So, I am feeling inspired by Jan and Kimberly and their teachers who are  courageous enough to hold up the mirror to determine what they can do, as adults, to ensure students learn.  Have a great week and I look forward to next Saturday when I take you on a road trip to South Dakota!


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