By Madelynn Coldiron
Walk down the hallways at Caverna High School and it’s hard to miss some prominently placed displays. There are framed college letters of acceptance that students have received. Photo posters of students who score distinguished and proficient. Banners with positive academic messages.
Wait…this is a school on the persistently low-achieving list???
The outward positive messages complement the more data-based new initiatives and programs aimed at turning around a school where – when it was named persistently low-achieving two-and-a-half years ago – the average incoming ninth-grader was five grade levels behind in reading, and math proficiency scores were taking a nose dive. That was coupled with high retention and low graduation and attendance rates.
PHOTO: Makayla Groce and Danielle Carver worked together on a lesson in their Algebra I class as the 2011-12 school year wrapped up at Caverna High School.
The low-achieving stamp from the state education department was more than a wake-up call.
“It was demoralizing,” said Superintendent Dr. Sam Dick, and “devastating” to students and staff alike.
“It concerned me and made me aware that obviously there were some deficiencies, especially in math and some in reading,” board Chairman Wayne Hatcher said. “Those things alerted me that to say, ‘Well we’ve got to do better. We’ve got to address those issues.’”
Using federal School Improvement Grant funds and with a newly hired principal, the turnaround began. There were complications – for one, the PLA label created what Dick calls “a negative stigma” that itself was a hurdle.
“We saw kids almost had a defeatist attitude,” said Principal Brad Phipps.
Because the school culture was at a low point, Phipps went after that first, aiming at both students and teachers.
“We began promoting excellence,” he said. “We started to try to build that culture that you can get better.”
Hence, the student congratulatory posters and big banners with quotes emphasizing excellence. Schoolwide assemblies are held to celebrate meeting testing benchmarks. The student and teacher of the week and month are photographed, with the picture made into a poster board and placed at the school entrance. The treatment also is given to students who score well on state tests and meet goals.
Just plain academic growth is highlighted publicly. “Kids of low ability make progress and if you don’t reward that, they quit,” Phipps noted.
The district has recruited successful alumni to communicate pride in the school – judges, basketball players, state police officers, teachers and businesspeople.
And Dick said the district is trying to improve communication with community and parents, using newsletters, daily announcements and newspaper articles to spur community involvement.
Phipps also has formed a Community Principal’s Advisory Committee, inviting parents and the community in general to the panel’s meetings to share his vision, look at data and get their input.
Dick said the number of clubs has increased at the high school and students are getting involved in community service projects, activities that are designed to entice them to stay in school.
Students also are speaking to civic and government agencies such as the Rotary Club and local city councils about their goals and school data. “That’s enough to bring tears to your eyes with pride,” Dick said.
New academic initiatives
Phipps said his aim is for Caverna High to be “a data-driven school.” To that end, diagnostic and formative assessments have been ramped up with individual interventions designed based on those results. The school does MAP – Measure of Academic Progress –testing three times a year.
The high school now has professional learning communities that meet twice a week. “Every meeting we have we model a teaching strategy,” Phipps said.
Math teacher Sara Matthews said the professional learning communities have done content-specific work and looked at corresponding data. The school is using ACT’s Quality Core program, which helps align curriculum and boost college and career readiness.
“We’re being very intentional and specific about what we’re teaching,” she said. “Teachers have become more focused on teaching the whole child, preparing students for life after school, whether to college or a job.”
Administrative staff now conduct regular classroom walk-throughs and use teacher professional growth plans as a tool. Phipps meets regularly with each teacher to look at his or her data and discuss ways to revamp instruction accordingly. “That helps them understand the importance of not being static,” he said.
With the federal grant money, the high school hired a math intervention teacher and is training regular teachers in reading intervention strategies. Struggling students are placed in intervention labs and allowed to take an elective course once they meet their goals.
“They want that elective,” Phipps said.
The hiring of a school administrative manager also freed up the principal for more instructional duties.
Hatcher, the board chairman, said the work among schools and grade levels has encouraged him, including the ongoing curriculum alignment and formation of a District Leadership Team with representatives from each grade-center level.
“This encourages me because of the collaboration that is being formed between the administrators and staff from the elementary, middle and high schools,” he said. “I know this will help bring good results for our children’s learning.”
One of the best initiatives the school has implemented as part of its academic turnaround is a mentoring program that all staff participate in, Phipps said.
Mentors and mentees look at data monthly and the relationships have “built a sense of belonging and family in our kids,” he said.
The school board itself has intensified its focus, according to Hatcher.
“I think our role should be to have high expectations, encourage all the administrators to have high expectations of their staff and their teachers and their aides and everyone,” he said.
As federal money that supports the turnaround ebbs, Dick said he knows it’s not practical to sustain everything it has funded, but at least now the district knows what to maintain based on what has worked best.
Those intervention specialists are one success story. “We’re trying to figure out how we can do it without them,” Phipps said. One option, Dick said, might be to train other faculty in becoming interventionists.
Matthews said teachers have been holding small group meetings to discuss their intervention strategies and how to build teacher leaders to take up the slack of “what we’re going to be losing in the future.”
Fortunately, Phipps said, the cultural changes at the high school – the area where the school has gotten “the biggest bang for its buck” – have been low cost.
— This is part of an occasional series that will examine the strategies persistently low-achieving schools have used to implement a turnaround.