Beating the Odds: How Oakridge Lower Elementary Became a "Beating the Odds" School
“As the times change, we've changed according to what we know to be best for kids despite the growing pains of those changes.”
To begin this journey we knew that it must start with the school leadership team. The leaders have a crucial role in the building and we knew that the stage must be set and the environment cultivated for teachers to perform at their best. Therefore, our story begins with the thinking processes and values the leadership team put into place to change the culture of the building and ensure our teachers could rise to their highest potential. Our journey can best be displayed by the following graphic which the leadership team developed, embraced and utilized throughout the years.
“Our Secret: a staff that is caring, loving, supportive, willing to learn and willing to go above and beyond. When I say our staff, I mean all staff. Our administration has given us what we need to make our students successful. Without that support we would not be beating the odds.”
“I think that our reflective & collaborative nature has been one of the primary things that has helped us "Beat the Odds." Another part of this has been keeping our kids first. It's about their achievement and futures and we consistently reflect back on what we are doing or what we need to do better to give them successful starts. We keep at it, even when it's tough and don't give up just because there are obstacles or because it's going to take time and hard work. We respect each other as professionals and recognize that we all have strengths and weaknesses. Mostly, we are not afraid! We are not afraid to admit when we are wrong, when we could do better, or when someone else is doing better. We don't accept excuses from each other or from our kids."
As we looked at changing the culture of the building we knew that the place to start was with the staff. After reading countless hours of research we understood that the greatest impact on student achievement was the teachers. Therefore, our motto: Relationships are at the heart of it all! We believed a leader who endeavors to be relevant must hold relationships with colleagues in highest regard. Without relational skills couching every choice made, our leaders could quickly lose the essential trust and respect of individuals on staff. Relational leadership is ultimately the essential component necessary to turn our environments into the kind of communities we envision for our colleagues and, in turn, our students.
VISION AND COMMUNICATION
Setting the vision for our school was tantamount to our success. Communication goes hand-in-hand with the vision because in order for the vision to work, it must be clearly communicated to everyone involved. Again, it starts with relational leadership to initiate the communication process with colleagues. A vision must be created together in unity with all staff having input in order to get the buy-in from everyone involved.
That vision then was realized as we worked deliberately side-by-side with teachers in classrooms. Every coaching cycle and planning meeting fed into and moved us toward the goals we set collectively. When collaborating with teachers either one-on-one, or in a group, principal, literacy coach, school improvement representatives, etc. worked backward from the specific student achievement-based end goal. The data-based goal that was collectively determined then guided all planning and communication resulting in specific action plans for areas of instructional focus.
“I think one of the biggest things to have influenced our success is the explicit instruction in teaching reading and writing that we have received. It is almost as if every member of our staff is working on a Master of Reading degree”.
Time was deliberately set aside throughout the school year to develop and revisit our mission and focus. Our staff meetings became professional development time and the “administrivia” items were handled in an email. In education it is easy to get side-tracked by the day-to-day operations of the school so we had to be extra intentional about keeping ourselves focused, however painful that was. We needed to take time to address the “parking lot” (non-instructional) issues without making them the focus of our being. So we created a structure during staff meeting times that kept the staff meeting focused on professional development and a board was set up where staff could post a “parking lot” issue that would be addressed at a more relevant time.
TRUST and TIME
These two components are key to building a community of learners within the staff. As leaders we understood that building trust was not something that would happen overnight. It can take years for the trust to develop through one’s actions and words. Essentially you must “walk the walk”. For those colleagues that are hesitant to trust, time is the only thing that will create trust and it could take between 2-5 years before a solid relationship of trust is built.
Trust doesn’t always come from knowing someone well. It was our choice to trust our colleagues inherently, consistently and from day one. Yet time is required for that trust to be reciprocated. We have found it necessary to exhibit exhaustive perseverance in working to develop trusting relationships. When teachers feel valued, appreciated and understand the basic expectations, increased productivity will transpire.
“It has taken many years to overcome the identifiable risk factors to low student achievement, such as low economic status, race and ethnicity. This is due to the commitment of our teaching staff to use student testing data as a means to drive and inform instruction. With data in hand, a readiness to embrace ever changing curricular demands and a driving desire that focuses on high achievement expectations for all students; our teaching staff is highly effective in beating the odds. Teachers take on an extremely personal quest as they hold themselves accountable for high standards and academic success of all students.”
FREEDOM and VOICE
Educators are a very smart group of people. As leaders we acknowledged teachers’ expertise and utilized their skills to perform at our best as a school. We honored the knowledge that teachers possess by giving them FREEDOM to teach as they know best and by sharing their VOICE in educational decisions. Our leadership team did not pretend to have all the answers. We actively sought the wisdom of our staff and listened to what they felt would work and what would not. However, within the context of this we maintained our vision and focus to ensure that what we were doing continued to align with our goals. When teachers have a voice in the educational process, they are fully vested in the outcomes and results of their work.
“Over the past 10 years, the focus of the district leadership and staff evolved to a strong literacy based focus, including data driven instruction, research based instruction, differentiated instruction, and a common curriculum and common assessments across grade levels and across the building. With very expert coaching and training in the areas of reading and writing instruction and assessment from within and beyond the district, along with deep analysis of our data (individually and as a whole), the staff has grown into a highly skilled group of literacy teachers”.
GOALS and HIGH EXPECTATIONS
Setting goals for the year allowed us to keep our “focus on the focus” and not get distracted by the “parking lot” issues. In the first years of our transition toward a “Beating the Odds” school we got together as a staff and identified what our goals or “focus” was for the year. Each teacher then had a binder labeled, “Focus on the Focus” to keep with them throughout the year. This binder was with us at our staff meetings and professional development and served as a constant reminder of what we were all about.
“I think the most important thing we do for our kids is creating high expectations. We set expectation for our students based on who they will become, not who they are or where they come from. We do not allow our students to use unfortunate circumstance as a crutch or an excuse as to why they cannot do something. Instead we teach are students to rise above these circumstances and give them the confidence to strive to be better.”
What transpired from these conversations was a need to have an aligned and viable curriculum that all teachers were using with fidelity. Significant time was spent on this task and teachers had an integral part in doing this work. Along with that work was the time spent in professional development so teachers had the skills and knowledge to deliver the curriculum. That is an investment we make every year because we believe we never stop growing and learning.
“Our district never turns down teachers who want to advance their learning by doing professional development.”
The leadership team also had a focus of high expectations for all teachers. Gone were the stereotypes of certain teachers and in its place were the expectations that all teachers were high performing teachers and it was our job to foster their skills in the right directions. This behavior was modeled to staff and also carried over to the students. All staff were given high expectations, all students were given the same expectations and this conversation became a regular part of our professional development. We no longer limited our expectations of students based on our previous experience or their background. The ceiling was raised in regards to our students’ abilities.
“This has been a wonderful journey with my students. They worked very hard and have succeeded in all they have tried. I look forward to see what great things they will accomplish in the future!”
“We are a staff that analyzes data and a staff that always wants to help our students achieve to their highest potential. We truly believe that we will do whatever it takes for our learners to excel!”
ENCOURAGEMENT and CELEBRATION
A crucial piece to our new culture was never forgetting to encourage others and celebrate the success along the way. Celebrations were frequent and positive feedback became the new norm. By taking the time to celebrate the small stuff, we built a culture that saw the gains and worked harder toward the next benchmark. Looking at data became our new way of doing business but we did so in a way that looked at the success of each student and the classroom as a whole. This fostered a positive attitude among staff and students and a will to achieve at the next level.
“I feel that I'm a respected professional in the building and that what I do along with the rest of the staff impacts students.”
As educators we know that we never truly arrive at our final destination in education. Each year presents new challenges to tackle and new hurdles to overcome. We greet each year with the mindset that new learning will occur for both students and staff. This is only the beginning of our story. As expectations from federal, state and local shareholders continue to rise we adapt and change to meet those standards.