Today, I’m going to talk to you about transforming schools to engage students. Now, I know you may be thinking, why is this important to me? My child goes to a great school, or my grandchildren go to great schools. I hope that by the end of this post, you’ll feel inspired and understand why this should be important to you.

Let me tell you why it’s important to me; because, I am a product of an urban school. I was born in Chester, Pennsylvania, in a city, an urban city, very much like parts of Tampa. I attended urban schools most of my life. And I can tell you that without the education that I received, I would not be here today.

So for me, this is a very important but also personal question to be answered.

Now, the topic of school reform has been going on for the last 30-plus years. In the early 1980s, the President commissioned a group of experts to come together and assess the state of education in America. They produced a report, which some of you know as A Nation at Risk. It serves as the foundation of all the reforms we have done to the present time. This report included five recommendations that they felt needed to be put in place to improve the state of our educational system.

Why was this so important? Because back in the early eighties, we realized there were things we needed to do to change our educational system, to ensure that our students would be prepared to compete in a global economy.

So, what did the reports say?

  1. Well, first, it said in the area of content that we needed to standardize graduation requirements and increase rigor in the classroom.
  2. The second recommendation had to do with high expectations because there was plenty of research to show that when teachers have high expectations of students, students rise to the occasion. We also needed specific and measurable ways to determine how much a student was learning.
  3. The third recommendation dealt with time. The report said that we needed to maximize the time that students were in school to either lengthen the school day or lengthen the school year.
  4. The fourth was teacher quality. We needed to change how we prepared teachers to make their pre-service training more effective and take teaching and make it a rewarding and profitable career field to attract the best and the brightest.
  5. And the last recommendation dealt with leadership and fiscal responsibility. And that recommendation said that educators and public officials needed to be held accountable for the reforms and provide the fiscal support for the reforms to take place.

Now that was over 30 years ago, many of these initiatives have been implemented. For example, in Florida, we now have standardized graduation requirements. Every student has to take four English classes, three math classes, three social studies classes, three science classes, and electives for a total of 24 credits, and a state GPA of 2.0. We’ve increased rigor in the classroom. We now have standardized assessments to let us know how students are performing. We’ve had seat time of 184 days of school per year. We offer professional development and coaching for our teachers to ensure that we’re equipping them to provide the best education possible for our students. We’ve also increased funding for schools that are struggling.

But yet, some schools are still not hitting the mark. And you have to ask yourself, why? We’ve done everything the report said we needed to do. Why are we still struggling?

Well, I’d like to introduce you to a school. The school’s name is Middleton High School. It is the Pre-Collegiate Stem Academy for Hillsborough County Public Schools. For those of you that are not familiar with Hillsborough County Public Schools, we are located in Tampa Bay, Florida. We are the eighth largest school district in the nation, and Middleton High School is one of 27 high schools.

Middleton High School is located in east Tampa, which is the heart of the city of Tampa. East Tampa is a community that has struggled with poverty. The demographics are 68% African American, approximately 10% Caucasian, and the remainder consists of Hispanics, Asians, and other races. The average per capita income is a little over $11,000 a year. 25% of the households have a high school diploma, and the jobless rate is over 20%.

Now, Middleton services that community; we’re also a magnet school. So, we draw students from the entire county. What does Middleton look like? We’re 67% African American, about 15% Hispanic, about 11%-12% Caucasian, and then a combination of everyone else.

I joined Middleton’s administrative team in 2008. After I left the classroom, I went to the central office, which is our headquarters, and our district office and I did a variety of jobs in the Office of Federal Programs. I worked with Middleton High School as a district person.

In 2008, I decided I would go back to a school site, and I joined the administrative team at Middleton High School. Now I have to tell you, at the end of that school year, we had over 10,000 discipline incidents. Twice the number of any other high school in the District. That’s pretty sad. So, what did we do about it?

The District gave us additional support in the form of resources, personnel, funding, technology, programs, and all of those things that you can think of that will help a school. Yet, our academic performance did not improve.

Unfortunately, that next year, we became what’s called an Intervene school. Intervene schools from the No Child Left Behind Law were schools that had the bottom graduation rates. So, we were in the bottom 5% of schools nationally with our graduation rates. Pretty bad. However, I’m here to tell you that that was a blessing for us because what happened is from that point on, we began to turn around.

Working with the District and the State, we restructured our administrative team. We changed our vision and our mission. We realigned our practices to meet our student’s needs. We didn’t use a one size fits all approach. We looked at the data and developed a data-driven plan using research-based best practices to guide our instruction.

Now I’m not here to tell you that it was an easy journey because it wasn’t. It was a lot of work. And it took a lot of time and required us to make some very, very tough decisions. We realigned staff, so some people had to leave, and others came. We realigned every practice, looked at every decision, and asked ourselves every day why are we doing what we are doing?

“it is your daily agenda that determines your level of success.”

Dr. John C. Maxwell

So, every day we asked ourselves those questions, did we do everything that we could do that day to change the student’s life that we have been entrusted with? And as we did that over time, things began to change. Discipline went down, and we’re now at the bottom of the 27 high schools. Academics began to improve. The climate of the school changed. And now, the culture of the school has changed.

Where are we at today? We are a United States Department of Education Turnaround Model School. We are a two-time Magnet School of Excellence. We have a first-class robotics program. For the last three years, we have been number one, two, and three in the world, beating teams from China, Latin America, Europe, and across the United States. We have national winners from student organizations like Future Business Leaders of America and SkillsUSA. I have one young man on my campus who is rated number one in networking out of all of the high schools across this nation.

So, how did we get there?

We had resources before that the District had given, extra funding, personnel, everything that you could ask for. The report, A Nation at Risk, said, “if you do these things, education will get better.” Well, the report missed one essential ingredient, the main ingredient, which is leadership.

“everything rises and falls on leadership.”

Dr. John C. Maxwell

The leader of the school, the principal, sets the vision and can empower everyone on that campus to be a leader. Without leadership, we perish. Leadership is the main ingredient. If you come to our campus today, you’ll see clerical staff, food service, custodians, mentoring students, and taking ownership and responsibility for their areas. Everyone understands how important they are to the success of every student that walks on this campus.

So, I told you I would hope to inspire you. Let me share a brief story with you of a young man. This is a young man who was living in East Tampa. His mother was a drug addict. The young man was accustomed to taking care of her. So, every morning he would get up, fix her breakfast and some coffee, sit it by the night table for her, kiss her goodbye and come to school.

One particular morning, he goes into her room, and she has passed away. He makes all the calls he needs to make and brings in the county. The school is notified. We’re not expecting to see this young man, yet he comes to school. Why? Why? Because what he told us was that he had nowhere else to go. He wanted to be someplace which was safe and where people cared.

So, I asked you today, why it is important that we transform our schools for every student? Not just the ones in this neighborhood, or this zip code, but for every child.


This post is a transcript of Dr. Moore’s TED Talk during the TEDx TampaRiverwalk independently organized TED event in 2014. Click the play button below to view the original TED talk.

Transforming Schools for Student Engagement – Dr. KIm Moore

How do you improve student engagement in an urban school? How can you turn it from having over 10,000 annual discipline incidents into a U.S. Department of Education Turn-around Model School and Magnet School of Excellence?

Dr. Kim Moore will tell you about getting everyone at the school involved and how leadership is the main ingredient for transforming urban schools to engage students.

Lead Confidently
Expand Influence
Achieve Significance

  • This is inspiring! I used to intern at Middleton while earning my Bachelor’s in Education back in 2015/16. I’m so happy to hear things have gotten better. Your students and admin are lucky to have you as their leader! Your vision, mindset, and persistence in creating a safe and productive environment is incredible.

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    About the author

    Hi, I'm Kim, Your Leadership Guide. I equip aspiring leaders to lead with confidence, emerging leaders to expand their influence, and accomplished leaders to achieve significance!