I’m passionate about two things – leadership and education. Today, I am going to talk about transforming schools for student engagement. So why is this topic important? Well for me, I am the product of an urban school. I attended urban schools most of my life. Without education, I would not be here today!
Educational reform has been a topic of debate for the last 30 years. In the early 80’s, the National Commission on Excellence in Education was created to study the state of education in America and presented a report on the quality of education. The Commission report “A Nation at Risk” was published and it identified five recommendations to improve the quality of education:
- Content – strengthen graduation requirements and increase rigor in the classroom.
- Expectations – rigorous and measurable standards, and higher expectations for academic performance.
- Time – require more effective use of the existing school day, a longer school day, or a lengthened school year.
- Teacher Quality – improve the preparation of teachers and make teaching a more rewarding and respected profession.
- Leadership and Fiscal Support – hold educators and elected officials responsible for providing the leadership necessary to achieve these reforms, and provide the fiscal support and stability required to bring about the reforms.
Over the years, numerous strategies in line with the report have been implemented. In Florida, rigor in the classroom has been increased and the graduation requirements have been formalized. Seat time for students has been increased and measurable standards of proficiency have been established. The State evaluation system holds teachers and administrators accountable for student performance. Extensive professional development and coaching to improve teacher quality is offered. Struggling schools receive additional financial support and resources. Yet, we still have schools who are not hitting the mark. Why?
Welcome to Middleton High School: The Pre-Colligate STEM Academy for Hillsborough County Public Schools, which is the 8th largest school district in the nation! Middleton High School is an urban school located in the heart of East Tampa. The community is 84% African American and 10% Caucasian. The per capita income is $11,133 and about 25% of the households have high school diplomas. The unemployment rate is over 20%.
Middleton High School is an urban school with more than 1,400 students. The school educates students from East Tampa and magnet students from across the county. The student body is 68% African American, 17% Hispanic, and 11% Caucasian. 20% of the students have a disability and 77% receive free or reduced lunch.
My journey with Middleton High School began when I moved from the classroom to the District Office. As a Supervisor in the Office of Federal Programs, I would visit Middleton High School every week. Like many urban schools, Middleton’s students struggled to meet state proficiency standards. I joined the Middleton HS leadership team as an administrator. That year, we had over 10,000 discipline incidents, which was twice as many as any high school in the District! Our students where underperforming academically and only 18% of our African American students were reading at proficiency level. Our District provided:
- Additional personnel – administrators, teachers, guidance counselors.
- Additional resources – technology, funding, instructional programs
- District support –focus meetings, academic coaches, and contractors
While the school had strong support from the Superintendent and Alumni, it continued to struggle academically. Although the school never received a failing state grade, our state grade was a “D” for seven consecutive years.
The turnaround began a year later, when the school was designated as an “Intervene” school by the State. The school’s graduation rate placed it in the bottom 5% of high schools in the nation. The District changed the administrative team and we aligned our vision and mission with the needs of our students. Working in conjunction with the District and State team we developed a data driven plan. We implemented school wide research based instructional practices. At-risk students were identified and provided additional support. Staff changes were made and we were intentional with our daily actions. Academic performance improved and the school climate began to change. As the school climate changed, discipline incidents decreased, magnet student enrollment increased and school culture changed.
So, where is Middleton today? Middleton High School is a Department of Education Turn Around School Model and Magnet School of Excellence. Middleton has a world class robotics program with seven robotics teams and has placed first, second or third in the world for the last three years. In 2012, Middleton was First Robotics FTC World Champions, defeating teams from around the world. Middleton has national winners in Future Business Leaders of America and Skills USA competitions. So what’s next? We have been nominated for a PRIME School site designation by the SME Education Foundation.
So how did we turn the school around? It started with an effective administrative team. In the book the 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, Maxwell’s Law of the Lid states the effectiveness of the organization is limited by the leader’s leadership level. If the Principal’s leadership level is a four, then the organization will be a three. Leaders set the vision, shape the culture, develop and empower leaders.
While the report “A Nation at Risk” addressed many of challenges facing education, especially urban schools, it didn’t address the main ingredient to turn around struggling schools. So what is the main ingredient? Leadership. John Maxwell says “everything rises and falls on leadership.” Everyone in a school is a leader, including faculty, staff, and administrators. Yes, the clerical staff, food service, and custodians are school leaders! Can we turn a low-performing school into a high-performing school? Yes!
Has Middleton turned the corner? Yes, however the school is not quite out of danger and could slip back at any time. Effective leaders at all levels is the key to sustained change.
So why should you care about transforming schools? Because education has the power to break the cycle of poverty and change future generations. In order to transform schools for student engagement, you must have effective leadership, the main ingredient.
Kim D. Moore
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