By Madelynn Coldiron
The turnaround of Greenup County High School has many of the hallmarks of modern education strategies, but it was a very basic, nonpedagogical concept that proved to be the rallying point for the teachers on the ground floor of change:
“We communicated that we have a moral obligation to see to it that these kids get whatever they need,” said Principal Jason Smith. “Our teachers saw it as that and they took ownership of it.”
PHOTO: Greg Potter, left and Nicky Reeves sort through grains of rice, peas and other items that are meant to represent the elements of the universe in a science lab lesson. Greenup County High School has a full-time science lab teacher who works with all its science teachers for lessons like these.
That was critical, because the turnaround effort that began in fall 2010, when the school was named to the persistently low-achieving list, focused first on teachers.
“We felt like we needed to begin with instruction. That if instruction improved, then learning would improve,” Smith said. “Then the communication of how we were doing it would get back to parents and the community.”
That started with a set of “classroom nonnegotiables” that teachers were trained on, covering curriculum, instruction and climate, with specifics ranging from posting focused learning targets daily for every class to using formative assessments appropriately.
Smith said that overall, the biggest problem was changing the culture of expectations by all stakeholders. Social studies teacher Brandi Litteral believes that “radical change” has been accomplished.
“I think we’ve done a 180 in terms of expectations for what teachers do every day and also the expectations that they relate to their students,” she said. “I think the bar is set higher for all of us.”
The process of turnaround and the amount of work involved “is daunting,” Smith said. Just how extensive the instructional changes were can be measured in part by the number of teachers who retired, transferred or otherwise left the school.
“It was because of the amount of work they knew was coming,” Smith said.
Nineteen new teachers were hired in the summer of 2011. That has since slowed, with just six being hired this past summer.
The school’s administrative leadership changed as part of the turnaround. The state education department consultant assigned to help the school was eventually hired as its new principal; Smith became assistant principal last year and was promoted when the former principal left for another position.
School board Chairwoman Kelly Adkins said she’s optimistic the school will work its way out of low-achieving status within the allotted three years. She bases that in part on the hard work of the staff and on her own conversations with the students.
“I love it when I ask the freshmen, ‘How’s school going?’ and they say, ‘Oh, it’s really hard – it’s a lot harder than middle school.’ Used to – when I had nieces in high school four or five years ago – that they didn’t have homework, they said it didn’t matter if they showed up. You don’t hear that from kids now.
“I know the atmosphere and the expectations are much higher, much better than they were three years ago,” Adkins said.
“I think we’re on the right track. I think the students are behind us. I think the community is getting more involved,” said technology teacher Josh Sturgill.
Besides the nonnegotiables, the instructional changes encompass professional learning communities led by teachers, taking the place of the old departmental system. Like other PLA schools, Greenup County High also has implemented 30-60-90 day planning aimed at needs revealed by data relating to school culture, academic progress and college and career readiness.
Teachers also were asked to integrate more technology into their instruction. They are required to create and maintain a website where they can post lessons, PowerPoints and study guides for both students and parents. Not all are on board yet, Smith said, “but it’s rapidly improving.”
Accountability also was enhanced through daily classroom walk-throughs by administrators. That took some getting used to, Litteral said, but it’s helped teachers be consistent in pushing students every day.
“Before you didn’t have the pedal all the way down all the time and now you do – full throttle,” she said.
The school revamped its master schedule based on the answer to this question: What are the classes kids need to prepare them for college or careers? Smith described the change as going “from being teacher-centered to kid-centered.” The classes were worked out and the teachers plugged in accordingly, rather than vice versa.
“Muskateer Days” are held on Thursdays and Fridays, when students meet for a half-hour block during first period – on Thursdays for literacy strategies and on Friday for club meetings. The literacy effort is aimed at the 65 percent of students who come to the high school reading two grade levels behind; the clubs are meant to boost school involvement, pride and belonging and build socialization skills. Every teacher sponsors a club and every student belongs to one.
Culture: attendance and discipline
Smith said administrators realized they needed to reorganize the way discipline was handled after analyzing data last year. They tailored a Clark County model to their own school district, using two teachers and two paraprofessionals to monitor the behavior of 20 or so students “who frequented our office for behavior,” Smith said.
Armed with special software on their iPads, the four check on those students throughout the day, de-escalating problems and reteaching target behaviors.
Discipline referrals in August 2011 were at 74; this year, that figure was down to 12. The program supplements the school’s regular in-house alternative center, which relies on live video feeds from regular classrooms rather than online learning.
The changes the school made in its attendance policy also seem to be working: the attendance rate last year was 88 percent; so far this year, it’s at 93 percent. The system combines teacher calls to parents and withdrawal of student privileges – the homecoming dance, for example – for too many unexcused absences.
As for the culture for adults in the building, overall morale is better, Litteral said, but “There’s still frustration because we know we have a way to go and students know we have a way to go.”
— This is part of an occasional series that will examine the strategies persistently low-achieving schools have used to implement a turnaround.