Breaking the Heart of Education: AYP meets McKinney-Vento

imagesWe started high school last Wednesday in my school district. Students eagerly, if not with a little trepidation, entered their classrooms with high hopes and fresh expectations. That is – most students.

The week prior to school starting, Missouri state exam testing results were released. The results were depressing.

In our state of 554 school districts, 74% did not make AYP. In my school district, all but five schools are on some level of the MO School Improvement “watch list.” My school is one of those schools.

As the gatekeeper of students entering my school, I feel a great obligation to protect the learning environment for the students who are by law assigned to our school. As a lifelong educator, I feel a great obligation to teaching students – all students. And it is here that East meets West. It is here where legal intentions are beginning to cause greater harm than good. DSC03763

In order to attempt to make AYP for the next school year, my school must have around 60% of all testing students score advanced or proficient in Algebra 1 and English 2. If I can’t create a situation where that occurs, Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (MO DESE) offers specifically and mathematically determined thresholds to help us “make” our AYP Target – these thresholds are titled “confidence intervals (CI),” “safe harbor,” and “growth.” These thresholds are determined by student attendance (total population) and graduation rate. This is where we struggle on the journey – but it is trails West for us. We worked hard this year in both subjects, we knew we made significant progress with our students – and with the CI we survived in English. We were ambushed in Algebra.
Even if we change modes of travel, there will be no safe harbor for us.

And then, riding in from the East, are all the students who want to attend our great school. They are weary travelers with tales to match those of Canterbury – these student travelers are mad at their parents and have left home, they are pregnant and met Missouri “Romeos” on-line who offered them residence, they want to attend school with their summer friends so badly they offer addresses that don’t exist in order to come to our school. Test scores don’t worry them – they never have. Attendance doesn’t worry them – they are willing souls in August and September. Graduation doesn’t worry them – they hope they will, one way or another. And the tales grow. images-1

The educator in me screams “Yes! Let the children be educated.” The principal in me screams, “No! These children have homes, and their resident schools must educate them.” And McKinney-Vento says, “Yes. These children shared their sad, weary stories, and they are “considered” homeless.” And AYP says, “No. When the children leave your school for a destination unknown, you will be held accountable for their journey, and the students you legally educate will be labeled as not making adequate progress.”

If only No Child Left Behind gave credit for schools attempting to bring every child along on the journey of learning. Then every school in the nation would be clamoring for the ones left behind.

Leadership Team: One High School Transformation

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

I was selected to be an assistant principal – a coveted position in my district for sure – as my first step into administration. One month into the school year, I knew I was in a professional situation that would test my ability to apply my carefully studied ISLLC standards to the real test. With my new position as an AP, I felt like I had landed myself on one great vacation spot at the beach looking at one huge, impending storm.

Impending Storm

Impending Storm

One month later, my principal was removed from duty. Our staff was surprised, but not really. Our district leadership decided it was best to allow the two assistants to lead the school as co-principals. I do believe I lived one of the shortest assistant principal tenures on the planet.

“…it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”

Armed with three solid months of AP experience, two years of instructional coaching background, and an ABD in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri (Go Tigers!), I knew the first thing we needed to do as co-principals was get a leadership team up and running. Up to that year, the situational leadership of the school allowed for department chair meetings that were often canceled and an administrative team of three that split itself to facilitate discipline, instruction and management. It was not an odd set-up; probably relatively standard for the time period. Our assistant superintendent challenged us to design a leadership team and create a concept map of our vision of a governance structure for our school. I was never so glad as at that moment to have read Bolman and Deal’s Reframing Organizations

“…it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…”

The conversations were rigorous about who we bring to the table to lead the school in such tough times. The school had departments with powerful and politically aligned department chairs – an old guard of sorts – that protected the traditions of our locally popular high school. The school had also started down a path of transition to become a Professional Learning Community with identified coaches who were not necessarily department chairs but carried a clique of teachers with them on an appropriately identified track of learning. How did we organize this team? What personal agendas did we allow or disallow in leading the school? What would be the fallout if we did not include a known “Big Fish?” What teachers and teacher leaders were truly qualified to be decision makers for their peers. The options were endless.

“…it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness…”

Our decision was to center our leadership team around the department chairs. We felt these individuals were, or at least should be, strong content knowledge teacher leaders who would help us keep our decision-making focused on what was best for our students academically. Our school has 12 department chairs on the team – four core (MA, LA, SS, SC), five electives (FL, FA, IT, FACS, PE, BUS), counseling and library. We obviously added our admin team, which included our Activities Director and an assistant principal in the subsequent years), on the leadership team as well as our instructional coach. As it turned out, the PLC coaches were not pleased with our decision. The tough conversations about our decided leadership direction provided a first conversation in what was about to become one exhausting marathon of conversations.

“…it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”

We brought the team together. We studied how to be a good team. We studied how dysfunction would affect us. We studied data. We wrote our School Improvement Plan using our leadership team to lead the staff. We believed in a vision and mission and made it our own. Together, we suffered through a pounding by the press and a drop in state testing scores. We developed policy (cell phone usage and tardy) together that began to change the way we offered learning and managed classroom behavior. We grew as a team, but it often felt like we were rowing the Titantic.

“…we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…”

We felt like we were moving. We added an “At Large” member to our leadership team who was a teacher voted on by all the teachers to represent them on the Leadership Team. The tenure of that position was one year to offer the opportunity for any teacher looking to grow leadership experience. We also made a super smart decision to add our Professional Development Committee members to the leadership team. This decision was made based simply on the fact that the leadership team was making PD decisions they didn’t want denied. It was logical to include the voting PDC members a part of the decisions and save a step. Smart leaders, eh?

“…we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going the other way.” ~ Charles Dickens

So, despite NCLB goals increasing at an unprecedented rate (or at least it felt like it), our leadership team stayed focused on our school improvement and continued to study how to make our students better learners and more successful community members. We pulled together to earn NCA-CASI accreditation – a team building experience if I’ve ever met one – and we earned a humbling US News & World Reports Best High Schools 2009 Bronze Award. We were selected by the district to pilot technology integration with pedagogy and content knowledge, and Virtual Southside was born with ensuing success and a tremendous professional impact. The leadership team was pulling the staff to earn some great wins. Then, with little warning, much of our hope was dashed when our community decided to withdraw their financial support and not renew a 63 cent levy our district used for basic operations and salaries. When a strong leadership team exists in a high school, adversity only makes you stronger. We were rock solid.

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Leadership Team: The best of times in the worst of times

We had our third start of school leadership team retreat today. We battled over our literacy plan. We focused on reaching each student personally with our ready-to-launch CAMP (Cardinal Mentoring & Advisement Program). We will grow our school spirit by including every teacher and every child in activities and class acclimation. We grow every time we meet together — we have a plan for that which includes bi-monthly leadership team meetings, monthly department meetings, and monthly job embedded professional development on TPACK. Our conversations are vocal and passionate now — the transformation to instructional leadership within the team is exciting and dynamic. We will succeed, hopefully with the levy, because we believe in our vision: Success for all through education!