What happens when teachers and school leaders believe in students? When the students are told over and over again, how valued they are and how important it is that they do their very best? When they know that we, the adults, really care about their success? And how this unfolds when they have a cheerleader who leads the positive energy and enthusiasm? And when this person is your principal?
Meet Dr. Sonya Coley, principal at Riley Elementary School in Macon, Georgia. Dr. C took on Riley this year and, I have to tell you, she cares. She can write the book on being a student’s biggest cheerleader and that is how she started the year off…with her pom poms and her t-shirt that says believe in the blue and gold… she really does!
I have visited the school several times this year and during every visit, at least once, a student has stopped Dr. Coley to tell her about their work… how they are improving, what they are working on and how many books they are now reading. Now, to many of you, this might not sound like a big deal but for those of you who work in low performing schools and if you have followed this blog for a while, you have to be seeing the continuous pattern of school improvement. It has to start with relationships and building a community of learners.
There is a down side to caring so much and having high expectations. Sometimes we are disappointed. That is what I saw this week. Despite Dr. Coley’s focus on the right work and her teachers consistent practices to close the achievement gap at the school, when they received preliminary state assessment data, they still had many, many students not working at grade level. And, as Dr. Coley said, it feels like they failed. She told me about teachers crying when they saw the scores and she teared up with me as we talked about it.
As her school improvement coach, it was time for me to help her look at the entire year-answering questions about where they started, what they focused on and finally, what the data was saying about growth. The thing is, when students are many grade levels behind, one year of growth is not good enough. To get this to double and triple and so on… it really does take an intensive focus on being sure we are meeting needs -student by student/skill by skill. Through reflection, Dr. C recognized the work that she and her staff have done to create a safe and positive school learning culture. She talked to me about the students who show pride in meeting their goals and that she sees so many positive adult and student relationships in the building. She also knows that they have positive growth towards academic goals even if it isn’t quite where she wants it yet. She has led professional learning and collaboration with her teachers and instructional practices are improving. I am proud of her. The students and teachers need her at that school.
Across town at MLK Jr., I also had a funny reminder of this same theme- how important it is to get students excited about their learning.. you know really excited. What does it look like when you see it and hear it? Out of the mouth of babes… let me tell you a little more about it.
How do we collect evidence on student ownership of their learning? How do we know an academic culture is moving forward? Could it be as simple as being in the bus yard as they are getting on or off the bus? Letting the students do the talking? I think this is the best “soft data” that we can collect. When the students are running up to their administrators and teachers, truly excited and wanting to talk (maybe all at once) about how well they did on something that they have been assessed on? Would this be reliable data? How about when a little boy is truly excited, I mean really excited to tell us all… “I growed, I growed!!!”. Ok, he may not have the vocabulary correct (yet) and there is obviously more work to do but it really did my heart good (and the teachers) to hear and see this student so excited about his progress. As one administrator said to me this week, “It makes me feel so good to know the students care.”
Building this learning culture of pride in the school and academics is a winning first step in improving your school. I have seen, time and time again, students will rise to the occasion when they know what is expected. Let’s face it, we all go to work (and school) wanting to do our best. We just don’t always know how to do it or if it really matters to someone! Once we know and apply ourselves, we too can say “we growed!” See you next Saturday.