Preparing for the “Race to the Top:” Benton High School is “up!”

MarinesLogoI spent last week in San Diego learning serious lessons from the Marines.  It was a life changing experience for me in respect to organizational leadership and understanding what true “transformation” looks like.  The Marines know what they are about.  The few.  The proud.  They live and breathe their vision and mission daily.  It is a thorough belief from a first week recruit to a retiring general.  They believe in what they do. They have created, followed, and lived in a system that supports that belief at every step in every level.  Honor.  Courage. Commitment.

While I was there, I was pulled back and forth between the world of the “Semper Fidelis” (Always faithful) to the world of “Ancora Imparo” (Still, I am learning. ~Michaelanglo).  I realized there were so many parallels between our worlds and yet, we were worlds apart.

I realized I desperately want to move my laptop and leadership closer to their “eagle, globe and anchor.


One very long and serious conference call with our district’s leadership happened on Wednesday just after I finished successfully navigating the bayonet assault course.  We had to discuss the possible implications to continuing state reduction in funding both this year and for the next two.  The cuts we were contemplating were considerable in sum and required to be sustainable.  The battles of physical and mental were metaphorically comparable.  On the Marines’ assault course, you run to the next obstacle with weapon ready yelling, “AAAHHHH!” then entire way.  The battle ready stance absolutely fit my conference call.

Just to give you some perspective, here is a quote from the latest School Administrators Coalition (SAC) (March 5, 2010).   “Current year revenue collections continue to fall below expectations.  February revenues were down more than 14% over February 2009 collections.  To date, fiscal year collections are lagging 12.7% behind.  The Governor has indicated that state government must downsize further.  Additional withholdings in the current fiscal year are expected.”  Our state is short of funding, and that will directly impact us in education.  I stood in the middle of that concertina wire on that practice battle field, and I knew the parallel –  and I knew we had to be ready.

I realized, not unlike the recruits at the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot getting the future warriors ready for battle, there was a direct connection to what we were doing at Benton in respect to our professional development this year and planning for next year as we enter our school improvement planning for 2010-2011 – we are preparing ourselves for our mission.  I also realized the battlefront is changing, and it is my duty to ensure you are ready.  One federal campaign that is directly fueling the fire is the Race to the Top stimulus funding.  This money, which our state applied for but did not receive in the first phase, directly impacts the battle we wage daily.  Despite the fact that Missouri was not among the first 16 states awarded the phase one funding, our Commissioner of Education, Dr. Nicastro, said we will hold ourselves to these high standards regardless of funding.

Dr. Kirk Mallette, Assistant Director to the new Missouri Western RPDC, emailed principals last week:  “The following are the commissioner’s goals lifted from the early part of the grant application for developing “Great Teachers and Leaders”:

*Missouri will implement an updated system for measuring, analyzing and aggregating student performance and growth based on the Common Core Standards; continuous improvement will be achieved through accurate, ongoing evaluation and analysis and differentiated instructional practices.

*Teacher and leader effectiveness will be increased.

*Effective teaching and leadership will be fostered through an evaluation methodology that is performance-based and uses evidence-based best practices.

*Effective teachers/principals will be more equitably distributed among high poverty/high minority schools and chronically low-performing schools.

*Missouri will offer new pathways to the professions through a variety of high-quality teacher and leader preparation programs, these will be linked to student achievement and student growth data to each preparation program and consequently made more accountable for results.

*Missouri will establish a collaborative system of support for teachers and leaders focused on improving results in every school.

The above goals are found on page 13 of the grant and the goals for the other three areas are explained on the pages following.  I would still suggest that each principal and teacher actually read through the grant to see what the Commissioner has in store for us even if we do not receive the Federal money.  There are many things that will happen in the name of “reform” with or without the money.  Keep yourselves up-to-date with the facts.  I know there are a lot of rumors about Race To The Top out there and even after reading through the grant, there are more questions than answers.  In the press release posted on DESE’s web site, it was obvious that change is coming to schools all across the state: “State education officials, she said, will push aggressively to submit a new application and move forward with educational reform efforts on several fronts.” (Emphasis mine) We definitely need to watch what’s coming out of DESE in this new era…”  (Dr. Kirk Mallette)

IMG_0253In week eleven of recruit training, those kids spend 54 hours on the move with a total of three meals and miles of marching and obstacles to overcome.  When they are finished, they form up together to complete their transformation to Marine.  It’s an exhausting journey, but when they have finished – despite their fatigue – you can see the pride in their accomplishment.  You can hear it in their voices as they belt out the Marine hymn a cappella.  They are in total collaboration on their goals – banded together with one mission and vision.  They live each day for improvement.  Drill Instructor Gunnery Sergeant Perez told Karen, Karrie and me in an atypical softer moment that he lives each day to be better than the last.  “That,” he said, “is what it means to me to be a Marine.”

The parallel is not unique.  In order to ensure all my teachers at Benton High School are ready for the future of greater teacher accountability, we must make sure we are well trained and ready for future battles.  We must train with common goals.  We must believe in our goals.  We must have honor amongst our ranks.  We must have courage to face each day wanting to be better in our professionalism and practice.  And we must – we must have a commitment to get the job done for our students.  Ancora Imparo.  Still.  Still, we are learning.

I learned so much during my week with those Devil Dogs.  I don’t ever want to forget the lessons, nor do I ever want to forget to apply my learning to our organization.  We can be ready.  We will be ready.  Benton, are you ready?

This post is dedicated the men and women who serve this country and dedicate their lives to protect the freedoms we take for granted each day.  From this day forward, I will be faithful to honor those few brave soldiers who serve us as Marines. Thank you for a lifetime full of insight.  Semper Fidelis!  Ooh-rah!

3 thoughts on “Preparing for the “Race to the Top:” Benton High School is “up!”

  1. Dr. Westfall,
    Great comparison of Marine and Benton HS. I truly enjoyed your post. “Are We Ready”???? Yes

  2. Terrific post!
    First thing first: I applaud you, Karrie, and Karen for going there and participating. Marine boot camp is not easy, and I admire you all for doing it.
    Your post resonates to me that whether it’s the Marines, a corporation, or a volunteer group, that to be successful one thing stands out. Everyone has to have the same mindset. You have to be on the team. You have to be committed. You have to be focused. You have to have a common goal, and you must never be satisfied with where you are… Imparo. You are always striving for better.
    I agree that the Marines can teach us something. Team work, enthusiasm, commitment, pride. We can’t attain greatness (which in education, is not about us, but about the student’s success) until we have buy in and all share the same beliefs. And live those beliefs.
    My grandfather and his brothers were Marines. I’m proud of that, and I’m proud to be at Benton High School. It’s not easy, but nothing great ever is.

  3. “The Marines know what they are about. The few. The proud. They live and breathe their vision and mission daily. It is a thorough belief from a first week recruit to a retiring general. They believe in what they do. They have created, followed, and lived in a system that supports that belief at every step in every level. Honor. Courage. Commitment.”

    Dr. Westfall, this is by far my favorite part of your blog. Just as the Marines know who they are about, we, too, as educators must know who we are about. We must not let the distractions & difficulties in and out of the classroom sidetrack us from what led us to the classroom in the first place — students & teachers learning.

    “The few.” Unfortunately, like the Marines, educators, too, are just a few. Boy, those stressors, failures and fears can sure make one feel as if he/she is no longer apart of “the few.” Just as the Marines do not gain success through the triumph of one, neither do those in education.

    “The proud.” Gee, this is probably the hardest for me. I think this has been my hardest year, and I still have not sorted out the exact “why’s.” It’s difficult to feel proud when you feel a bit lost, when you can’t quite gauge what you are to be blamed for and what is beyond your grasp. One difficult year can cause one proud educator to question his/her ability, purpose and future. That being said, one difficult year is the year of incredible introspection and learning. It is the year that you make it through and come out better, stronger, prouder.

    “They live and breathe their mission daily.” Is this what separates the few from the others? Is it possible to have a strong, authentic mission and inspiring leaders, but other extenuating circumstances divert those who believe & know it to be true? “It is a thorough belief from a first week recruit to a retiring general.” Is belief alone enough to hold the infantry intact? I don’t know.

    “They have created, followed, and lived in a system that supports that belief at every step in every level.” Oh, this is important, isn’t it? Sometimes we educators can become frustrated with the system. We long for simpler times. There seems to be too many levels with too many differing beliefs along the way. When is it appropriate for one belief to trump another?

    In education, I see the ranks in two different categories: administration to teachers and teachers to students. We teachers struggle to connect with the students in order for them to believe that the system was created for them, to be followed by them and to be changed by them (as voting citizens) when, and if, the time comes. When the educational system is not valued at home, this can be back-breaking and dispiriting. When educators devote countless hours and tears to inspire, teach and engage with little result (accountability-wise), it is disheartening. This is when mission and pride falter. Sometimes I think we forget that success does not always equate to a short D/F list or an increase in attendance rate. Sometimes success equates to students having the courage to just “hang on” and “keep trying” when they felt like giving up. I’ve had many successes in the classroom. That doesn’t mean those students’ names won’t appear on some list somewhere indicating failure; it means I touched their lives, gave them hope, and made them feel something about themselves that didn’t exist before. Can we make a list/table for that? 😉

    “Honor. Courage. Commitment.” That’s you, my dear!

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