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The Power of Leadership: How Two Individuals Turned Struggling Schools Around

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Five years ago, there was little joy at Booker T. Washington Elementary School in Dover. 

Morale was extremely low, as student test scores fell and frequent changes in leadership caused the school to lose direction, recalls Cathy Schreiber, the school’s literacy coach at the time. Feeling overwhelmed and frustrated, teachers turned inward, working in isolation rather than helping one another.

In Wilmington, a similar scenario was playing out at the East Side Charter School. Ineffective principals churned in and out for three years, leaving teachers with little idea of what the curriculum was supposed to be and flailing from lack of administrative support. Some teachers were convinced that the students were running the building. The school hadn’t met its goals for student progress in state testing for five years, and though the State Board of Education had renewed the school’s charter in 2010, it imposed strict conditions that would have to be met if its doors were to stay open.

“There was a mentality of ‘shut your door and survive the day,’” third-grade teacher Cynthia Kreal says.

This year, there’s little talk of gloom and doom at either school. 

At Booker T. Washington, Principal Dale Kevin Brown has turned the school’s initials, BTW, into an overarching mantra: “Best in The World…and getting better.”

At East Side, Lamont Browne, the school’s CEO and executive director, talks more about structure than acronyms. “We put a structure in place that monitored and supported desired behaviors,” he says. “It’s a very student-first environment. Kids first, teachers second, and everyone else is down the list.”

Booker T. Washington and East Side Charter are a pair of success stories—schools with high percentages of low-income, minority students and records of poor performance on annual state assessments—that have turned themselves around through a combination of dynamic new leadership, strong collaboration among teachers and the use of data practically every day to measure students’ strengths and weaknesses.

But neither school is where it wants to be, and sustaining success can be just as challenging as achieving it for the first time. 

“School improvement is a process,” says Shannon Holston, deputy officer for school leadership strategy in the state Department of Education. “We’re looking forward to seeing where these schools take it over the next two years.”

Here’s a look at the progress each school has made.

 

Lamont Browne, executive director of East Side Charter School.

Principal Dale Kevin Brown speaks with a group of students at Booker T. Washington Elementary School in Dover.

Photo by Lance Lanagan

This historically black school on Dover’s west side (its original wing dates to 1922) began its turnaround in July 2012 with the hiring of Brown, a recently retired middle school principal of the year in Maryland.

Earlier in the year, the state Department of Education had labeled Booker T. Washington as a “focus school,” singled out for its “achievement gap” of 36.8 percent, based on student performance on state tests by students of low-socioeconomic status and those of average income and above. With more than 70 percent of its students falling into the low-socio-economic group, Brown’s challenge was clear: “We had to move the scores up for three out of four students without compromising the one out of four.”

Brown got to work quickly, meeting with the staff and getting to know his students and their families. In his first year at the school, he made 150 home visits, meeting parents on their own turf at times that were convenient to them. “We talked about what we could do together—not what I would do to their child, but what we can do together to move forward,” he says.

Though test scores may be the bottom line in contemporary education, Brown understood that “teaching to the test” doesn’t put a school on the express lane to success. He formed several committees to prepare students, and he got everyone involved—cafeteria workers, custodians, parents and the kindergarten teachers—even though students don’t start taking the state tests until third grade. In addition to achievement, the committees looked at topics such as discipline, behavior, community, respect and trust.

“There’s a high probability that when all these factors are conducive to teaching and learning that a school will be successful,” he says.

All that committee work “established a vision of excellence that was embraced by the teachers, students and community members,” says Schreiber, who is now literacy coach for the Capital School District. Brown “revived the morale of the school by creating a culture of collaboration and collective engagement in the success of all children,” she says.

Establishing vision and reviving morale were just the start. Innovative approaches to professional development for the teaching staff made it work. Teachers learned how to use data in bite-size pieces, not waiting for the yearly test results. That meant reviewing quizzes and homework assignments every day, not waiting for the weekend to figure out what the students weren’t picking up. If most students in a class got the same question wrong on a math quiz, it meant they didn’t absorb that part of the lesson. The message to the teacher might have been that she had to find a different way to teach the concept. 

Through professional learning communities, or PLCs, teachers at each grade level met weekly to discuss instructional issues and their students’ progress. Brown designated teachers as “resident experts” in specific topics and methods. The experts would coach their colleagues and sit in on their classes as observers, then give advice and feedback.

A key component of the turnaround effort was an extended day program that ran four days a week and was open to all students, from kindergarten through fourth grade. Student participation was optional, but most students attended every day. Funded by a portion of the $250,000 a year the school received through the federal Race to the Top grant to the state, the program built on the instructional strategies used during the regular school day. Participants received a meal, provided through the Food Bank of Delaware, and two class periods—either reading or math for academics and, for enrichment, choices like dance, sports, arts and crafts, fitness and sewing. Teachers from Booker T. Washington and other Capital schools staffed the program.

The setup ensured a successful turnaround, teacher Latisha Robinson says, because it gave students academic reinforcement, time to do their homework, a fun activity and a healthy meal, all while strengthening bonds with their teachers.

The bottom line: In two years, that 36.8 percent “achievement gap” between low-income and other students shrank to 8 percent. From 2012 through 2014, at least 70 percent of the third- and fourth-graders at the school scored proficient or highly proficient in the annual state assessments. 

Brown and his staff say the changes have taken hold, and they hope to sustain their success. 

But there is one problem: Race to the Top money is gone, and so is most of the funding for the extended-day program. Brown believes the program was essential to the academic growth of his school’s largely low-income minority population. Can they continue to thrive without it? 

Stay tuned.

Watch WHYY’s video coverage of the turnaround inside Booker T. Washington here

 

East Side Charter

Opened in 1997 in a small community center leased from the Wilmington Housing Authority, East Side moved into the former Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, adjacent to the Eastlake and Riverside public housing projects in northeast Wilmington, in 2005. Serving an overwhelmingly low-income minority population from kindergarten through eighth grade, the school struggled academically and suffered from frequent turnover in leadership and staffing.

When Lamont Browne was hired as school leader in 2011, the school had failed to meet performance goals for its students for five consecutive years.

“There was a lot of disorganization, and not a real vision of what the school wanted to be,” says Vince Medaglio, who joined the school’s teaching staff when Browne arrived. (Medaglio is now managing director of finance and operations.)

Nearly 40 percent of the teaching staff was new that year, creating potential for an us-against-them battle between old and new teachers. Returning teachers “initially were a bit resistant to change,” says Brianne Kennelly, a member of that group. But Browne, with his emphasis on structure and teamwork, broke down any factionalism and bonded the groups, Medaglio says.

The changes started with a radical move—getting rid of textbooks. “We wanted teachers to learn how to design lessons based on the students’ needs, not to rely on what the textbook says,” Browne says.

Next came a change in the school calendar: two weeks of professional development training before the start of the school year, and Friday half-days throughout the year (classes for students in the morning, professional development for teachers in the afternoon).

“The first year was introducing the kids to what we were starting to do,” Medaglio says. “The second and third years, we implemented our plans. We became more data-driven. The push was on improving your craft as a teacher, through coaching, observations, and talking more about what was working and what was not.”

As at Booker T. Washington, the emphasis on data focused on bite-sized chunks—on checking quizzes and homework to detect patterns of strengths and weaknesses for individual students and whole classes, then finding alternative approaches to teaching concepts that students didn’t catch on to the first time around.

Browne also assigned a coach, a supervisor or more experienced teacher, to each member of the teaching staff. Every two weeks, the coach would visit the teacher’s classroom and make a video of the lesson. “We then met with our coach and watched our video, pinpointing areas of improvement and creating clear, doable action steps,” third-grade teacher Kreal says.

Instead of having a supervisor spend hours writing a 10-page evaluation once or twice a year, Browne’s system emphasizes frequent interaction and assessments—a parallel to the almost daily data-driven analyses the teachers used to monitor their students’ progress.

That evaluation system has morphed into something larger—an alternative evaluation format called the Teacher Excellence Framework that the state Department of Education has approved for use in four charter schools in Wilmington: East Side, Thomas Edison, Kuumba Academy and Prestige Academy.

(In January 2015, after leaders of the Family Foundations Academy in New Castle were alleged to have used school funds for personal expenses, several members of the East Side board of directors and key managers, including Browne and Medaglio, took on the added responsibility as Family Foundations’ new leadership team. Family Foundations has begun using the Teacher Excellence Framework as its evaluation format.)

Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network, an advocacy organization for charters, attributes East Side’s turnaround to the combination of an excellent teaching staff and Browne’s leadership and motivational ability.

“You need great teachers who can be creative, see a challenge in the classroom and find a solution on their own,” she says, “and you need a leader who can trust their people, anticipate challenges, and provide the tools, resources and feedback that enables teachers to become better.”

East Side’s staff has steadily prodded its 506 students to do more and to do better. “They’ve raised the bar,” Massett says, “and they’ve also told the kids that they believe in them.”

The new school culture has netted substantial improvements. In the 2013-14 school year, the last year the state used its Delaware Comprehensive Assessment System for measuring progress, more than three-quarters of East Side’s students met their academic growth goals. From 2011 to 2014, the percentage of students rated proficient in reading increased from 28 percent to 58 percent. Proficiency in math jumped from 37 percent to 63 percent.

“Every kid is capable of amazing things,” Browne says.

At Booker T. Washington and East Side, highly motivated leaders and teachers are helping make those amazing things almost daily occurrences. 

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