In Conversation With…features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a representative of the Kentucky School Advocate.
This month’s conversation with Principal Tim Schlosser focuses on the transformation of Franklin-Simpson High School from persistently low-achieving to its current place in the top 3 percent of Kentucky high schools and as one of the state’s two hub schools. In recognition of this, Schlosser and his support team at the Simpson County school were one of three winners of the fifth annual Dr. Johnnie Grissom Award presented by the Kentucky Board of Education in April.
Q: When did Franklin-Simpson High School begin its turnaround?
A: We were named a PLA (persistently low-achieving) school in December 2011. I was hired as principal in April 2012. That was when we started the groundwork for this transformation.
Q: What were your first steps?
A: We had lots of initiatives going on prior to being named PLA. We have streamlined our focus so that everything goes back to our mission statement: “Empower students to be college and career ready.” All of the systems we have in place here are geared toward how is that going to help our students become college or career ready? If we are going to do something new, we think “What are we going to take off the plate before we put something else on it? Until we have perfected these things, do we need to add anything else?”
Q: You also worked on relationships with students and staff?
A: Yes, we had relationship and trust issues, and so we had to build relationships with the people in the building before we could move forward.
I have said that kids have got to want to come to school because they like the environment, they feel comfortable and safe and they feel like there are people here they can trust. And it is the same for teachers. They want to know they can trust the administrators, and administrators trust them as well.
Q: How does the school build relationships with students?
A: There is not one particular thing. We try to make the school about the kids. For example, we do a back-to-school swim party for seniors, a back-to-school open house for freshmen, an ACT Hall of Fame board where any student who scores 21 or over or 28 and over has their picture on the wall. When any student receives any award, in school or outside of school, we make a 24-inch by 36-inch poster, and we put in on the wall. We have TVs in the lobby that scroll pictures of events that we’ve had throughout the year. We do a Student of the Week award and recognize four kids a week who are nominated by their teachers.
We really try to embrace that this school is student-centered. We do anything that we can do to build relationships, because if students trust you, they will work a lot harder in the classroom for you.
Q: You also use social media?
A: Yes, I use Twitter and Facebook to get that message out there. Every time another student becomes college ready, we change the number on our board and we take a picture of it and tweet it out.
Q: Building a culture is important, but what else was done?
A: That culture piece can’t be the be-all, end-all. If there is not good instruction, that is a problem. We started working to make sure we were covering the standards the kids needed to learn and being more intentional in planning in the classroom. And we are looking at the data and asking, ‘What does it tell us? What skills do our kids not have that we need to improve on?’
Q: How did you communicate your ideas and goals to teachers?
A: That first year, before we left school for the summer, I had an exit interview with every teacher on our staff. During the five- to seven-minute interviews, I told them exactly what my goals and expectations were. We have far exceeded those expectations. I wanted to be in the top 25 percent of all high schools by year three. We were in the bottom 5 percent. By year two we were in the top 3 percent. We moved a lot faster than I thought we would.
Q: What else did you talk to teachers about?
A: I asked, “What is it you need from me to be successful?” They were very open and honest and that helped bridge that gap. We are all in this together. We all have to be open and honest and transparent and let everyone know what is going on in order to be successful.
Q: What challenges did you face?
A: Some of it is just change in general. I think a lot of times people want change until change happens, and then they say, “But that is not like we have done it before.” You have to say, “I understand, but we are going to do something a little bit different.” Like I told the staff, we are going to do something different even if it is wrong. I believe sometimes you have to fail before you succeed. You can’t be afraid to take those chances.
Q: Were there any other obstacles?
A: One of the biggest challenges has been to find the time to do all that needs to be done. One thing we did was create Professional Learning Communities for teachers to plan and work together. We created that time during the school day. We have one-hour assemblies for the kids twice each month, and that allowed the teachers to have time to go work. We tried to create time for teachers to work that wasn’t always before or after school.
Q: Have you taken any other measures?
A: We changed our school day schedule. We have 30-minute intervention time every day at 10 a.m. related to student skills to help them be college or career ready.
Q: Where have you seen the biggest improvements?
A: Obviously academic rigor in the classroom was one. But also that first year, we went to a systematic discipline matrix. Expectations were laid out to the students from day one. We said, “Here are the consequences; hopefully we never have to use them, but if we do, this is what we are doing.”
As a result, disciplinary referrals went from 2,200 to a little over 900 in year one. The kids knew we meant business.
Q: What, in your opinion, was the most important part of the turnaround process?
A: Building relationships and trust with everyone involved and understanding that our focus has to be to get kids college and career ready. People lose focus on what their purpose is and what the vision is. When you lose focus on what is important, you can get bogged down in things that aren’t that important.
Q: Tell me about the role the school board played in the transformation.
A: Our school board passed a policy that students had to be college or career ready in order to graduate, even if they had met all graduation requirements. So the board really upped the ante. Ours was the first district in the state to do that. The policy was made before I became principal; this will the first year that it affects a senior class.
Q: How does this work?
A: If students don’t meet the requirements, they must do a service-learning project in the last month of school in order to graduate and show they are ready to go into the workforce. There is a little caveat; they can still graduate if they show a good-faith effort to reach the college or career readiness benchmarks, but if they don’t, they are assigned a service learning project of 24 hours – six hours per week for the last four weeks of the school year in an area that they want to pursue after they graduate from high school. After the project, they have to write an essay and make a presentation to the board of education in order to graduate. We will probably have seven or eight students who have to do a service project this year.
Q: Franklin-Simpson is one of two hub schools in the state, which means it is a model for others. What has this status meant?
A: It has validated all the work and effort they have put into this process of school turnaround. It also gives us the opportunity to show people how we made this transformation and what we did to turn our school around. It gives people a chance to replicate or model things we have done. More than anything, it has been an affirmation for our staff. We have put in a lot of time and effort and people recognize it and they have been rewarded for that.
And, it is a learning process for us. We don’t have all the answers, and we are still looking to improve, so when people come to visit, we seek ideas from them as well. We try to learn something from everybody. We have had over 250 visitors from 20 plus school districts and over 50 schools and co-ops in here this year.
Q: What interests them the most?
A: Mainly, the systems we have put in place, which are the backbone of the work we do here. For example, we have the Teacher Leadership Team that meets every other week, and then the Teacher Leaders meet with their departments the next week, which is when they share any information that needs to go out such as new instruction strategies and or reviewing student data.