By Jennifer Wohlleb
When it came to improving academic achievement in Christian County Schools, leaders felt that the best programs and practices in the world would be ineffective if the underlying foundation was rocky.
To get to the bottom of the problem, Superintendent Brady Link initiated a culture audit at seven of the district’s underperforming schools to determine exactly how its teachers, parents and students were feeling about academic performance.
“When we came here, there was a concern that many people didn’t believe that our kids could learn,” he said. “They felt that because we had high poverty in Christian County, there was a feeling that no matter what we did, we could not improve student performance. We needed to know that that indeed was the case and to try then to make some adjustments on how we were going to try to get our teachers to understand that all students can learn. And to not only say that, but to believe that.”
Rim Watson, assistant superintendent of finance and operations said, “the culture audit process changes the conversation from, ‘Can these kids learn?’ to, ‘How do we need to serve these kids so they will learn?’”
To start the culture audits, faculty, staff, students and parents at these schools were all asked to complete anonymous surveys designed around five key areas.
“We felt like we needed to look at equity because we are a very diverse district,” said Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Janie Tomek. “We wanted to know more about parent involvement; we wanted to know what the norm of teaching and learning looked like in the classroom; we addressed leadership; and we also addressed relationships. The relationships extended from administrator to teacher, administrator to student, student to student; and we looked at all relationships within the building.”
From there, interviews were conducted at those schools with parents, students and all faculty and staff who were there that day.
“And for the students, it had to be equitable,” Tomek said. “If the school had 34 percent minority, within those interviewed groups had to be 34 percent minority representation. The same with the parents; we really tried to pay attention to the diversity.”
Half of the audits were done by Christian County teachers who were enrolled in an administrative certification program at Murray State University, which not only helped those teachers but also allowed the district to cultivate leadership from within. The other half of the audits were conducted by central office staff.
Once the audit process was complete, the findings were compiled into a document for each school with possible next steps and recommendations. These were presented to the principals and school councils for them to develop action plans to address any of the findings.
“The idea was that we provide the information to them and then it was up to the individual schools to come up with the answers, not to have the answers come from the outside,” Watson said.
Indian Hills Elementary underwent the first audit during the 2008-09 school year, and it was able to make some positive changes as result, particularly in the leadership style of the school’s manager.
“It had been low performing and it had high discipline referrals,” Tomek said. “It did have a lot of parent involvement, but the focus wasn’t always on all students. Within a year, that school went from a very controlled leadership style to a shared decision-making school. The principal reached out to the faculty and the decisions were being made by the experts – the teachers in the classroom.”
Test scores that year increased 14.6 points, and attention now is on the right things.
“Our staff definitely feels more ownership in our schools,” said Cindy Wyatt, a 25-year teaching veteran at Indian Hills.
She said her school found out that leadership and parental involvement were two areas where changes needed to be made.
“With the leadership, communication was a weakness,” Wyatt said. “We started a leadership team to allow the teachers to stay informed and have more involvement in helping make important decisions about our school. We’ve also surveyed parents about how we can improve our communication with them, how they think they would like to become more involved in our school.”
She said teachers and staff are more satisfied with their working environment and parents are getting more involved.
“Sometimes it’s hard to hear those things that we found out, but it wasn’t a negative thing,” Wyatt said. “Everyone just put their heads together, formed these committees and we all started moving together as one. All of this is done because we want our students to succeed.”
The culture audit was such a success that more were conducted at six schools the following year. Not only have they led the schools to improve leadership, instructional and discipline practices, but also have allowed the district to tackle an issue of inequity that had gone unnoticed.
“We also did an enrollment audit of all of our advanced classes, just to see who was being allowed in those classes,” Watson said. “That was informative. We did find out in the first round of that that our minority students were underrepresented in those classes. We just completed a revisit of the enrollment audit in the last two weeks and found that that is no longer true.”
Link said the audits exposed where expectations were being set and gave them a clear path to raise them.
“They didn’t expect the kids to be able to do what they can do and the kids then didn’t expect to perform well,” he said. “We’ve really been able to see a big difference in the way that students perceive their education now.”
Educators have also changed expectations for themselves.
“Instead of using the excuse, ‘Well, these parents aren’t involved; they aren’t coming to these meetings,’ we changed our perspective on that to, “It’s our responsibility to talk to the parents, to get them in,”” Link said. “A lot of the audit was us accepting the responsibility for the tasks rather than blaming it on something else because students weren’t learning.”