In President Obama’s State of the Union address last week, he called out the Bruce Randolph School, a turnaround school here in Denver. Once one of the worst-performing schools in Colorado, Bruce Randolph graduated 90 percent of its seniors last year—and 87 percent of them headed to college a few months ago. Obama attributed the school’s success to reform that is not just “a top-down mandate, but the work of local teachers and principals; school boards and communities.”
So how did they do it? According to a Denver Post article, then-Principal Kristin Waters first asked all teachers to reapply for their positions (only 6 out of 40 remained). Then, the school became the first in Colorado to be granted “innovation” status, a move that allowed it to operate more like a charter school, granting it autonomy from district and union rules and giving it more flexibility in terms of budget, hiring decisions, schedule, calendar, and incentives.
Waters said the school succeeded, ultimately, because it created “the supports for students, teaching them to ask for help and giving them that help…It was all about best practices, holding teachers and students accountable and creating high expectations.”
These factors are also at the heart of ongoing school improvement efforts in McLeansville, North Carolina, at Northeast High School (NEHS), which has moved from the academic “watch list” to the county’s “most improved school,” having increased test scores sharply for two years in a row. Since 2007, the school has seen double-digit gains in the percentages of proficient students in seven subjects, including increases of 34.5 percent in physical science and 25 percent in geometry.
The school did it by getting all teachers and administrators on the same page in terms of its main goal: to improve student engagement. Now, teachers hold themselves accountable by creating criteria for engagement and collaborating frequently, and “focus walks” by teacher leaders and administrators ensure that students are not only engaged but also learning in all classrooms via the same research-based instructional strategies.
In both cases, improvement efforts started at the student level. The schools didn’t bring in new programs or overhaul their systems; they simply figured out what their students needed most and found the best way to systemically meet those needs.
How does your school ensure students are engaged and supported? Do you have other examples of bottom-up change that have worked?