It was not your usual cheerleading chant:
I don’t know what you’ve been told
But we beat our testing goals
The cheer by Cumberland County High School’s squad was loud and enthusiastic, but the 1,000 or so students and teachers marching in Cumberland County Schools’ celebratory parade Oct. 16 already were plenty stoked.
The district-wide parade through downtown Burkesville capped the system’s celebration of 2015 K-PREP results that awarded the district its first distinguished rating. Its increase was the largest among districts ranked in the top 40 statewide, and places it 34th among all school systems, Superintendent Dr. Kirk Biggerstaff noted, pointing out that Cumberland County was a district in state assistance just a few years ago.
With the parade, he said, “I wanted to make sure we really hyped it up and got our community involved, and recognized our students.”
The parade route, lined with iPhone camera-wielding parents and other residents, stretched from the elementary school, around the square and to a local nursing home where residents there could enjoy the celebration. As the parade wound around the square, onlookers burst into applause. The square was festooned with green and white balloons. Many businesses along the route put up signs and balloons as well.
“It’s important to support the school system. We are a small community and do anything we can to support the community and kids,” said Wendy Bullock, who came out for the parade with 13 other employees of Cumberland Valley Medical, which provides school-based health care.
The improvement in K-PREP scores, “means they taught us more and we really listened in class and learned,” said fifth-grader Audrey Groce, while classmate Garrett Scott said, “we set our goals and met them.”
Gail Lee, grandparent, mother of a fourth-grade teacher and wife of board Chairman Danny Lee, stood on the sidewalk holding a homemade sign that read, simply, WOW.
“It has just brought so much excitement. We’re so proud of them – they have worked so hard,” she said. “We have a great staff that really cares about the students. It’s just lifted morale.”
Danny Lee watched the parade from outside the post office, where he works as a mail carrier. “I’m very proud of the whole school system,” he said. “Not just one school improved – they all have.” He said the board has tried to ensure that educators have the tools they need.
Board Vice Chairman Terry Riley, who also watched the parade, praised the “hard work and dedication on the part of our entire school system.” The board, he said, isn’t afraid to implement changes that the administration feels will work.
“We’re kind of open-minded to try different things for our students, not just focus on the textbook learning strategies, but get outside the box a little bit, and it’s paid off for us,” Riley said.
Biggerstaff and his leadership team pointed to multiple factors in raising the district’s performance from the 63rd percentile to the 92nd percentile:
• High expectations, for students and teachers. Now in his second year as superintendent, Biggerstaff said principals “were ready to take on that challenge and take it to the next level” when he arrived.
• Goal setting. “Students track their own learning and keep up with how they’re progressing,” he said.
• Monthly leadership team meetings that focus on curriculum, instruction and assessment – no nuts and bolts issues allowed.
• Data tracking that principals share with teachers in their professional learning communities, as well as at the monthly leadership meeting.
• Strong teacher-student relationships, especially important in a high-poverty area like Cumberland County, the superintendent said: “They have to know you love them, that you care for them.”
• Celebration of successes by recognizing students and staff members for accomplishments, including at school board meetings.
• A push for parent involvement. Family resource centers have a big role in reaching out to parents and guardians, Biggerstaff said. Parents of struggling students are contacted weekly to give them more immediate feedback.
• A supportive school board; “They want what’s best for kids,” he said.
“Once you attain a distinguished status, it’s difficult to maintain that,” Biggerstaff added. But he said the district is going to work on its assessment practices, for one. “We’re not going to stop now.”
Not-so-secrets to school success
Cumberland County Elementary Principal Lisa Perdue said the biggest factors in the rise of her school to proficiency were shared leadership, no excuses and high expectations for everyone. “And we got our kids to believe it,” she said.
Perdue said when she became principal three years ago, she focused on standards-based, individualized instruction and on teachers’ work in professional learning communities.
Middle school principal Dr. Tim Parson points to high expectations and a culture of ownership by students that produced a distinguished rating. Every teacher has an advisory class of 12 kids, he said. “They build extra strong relationships with them. They know their kids’ data, know their grades, know when they get in trouble. That has helped with the culture, too, because that is where a lot of the goal setting and monitoring happens.”
Parson also pointed to the school’s one-to-one program using Chromebooks as providing more flexibility, and more differentiated and self-paced learning.
Angela Morrison, in her first year as principal of Cumberland County High, is focused on “what needs to happen from this point on,” at the now-distinguished school, including novice reduction and increasing the number of career-ready students. She is looking forward to implementing a new program that will provide a “strategist” to help some special-needs students, especially with their career pathway.
Morrison said teachers in her building are focused and caring. “They’re a team – it was obvious to me coming in that they’re a team, that they care about these students.”