Jul 21, 2015

How a New Principal Transformed a School

Relay Fellow Linda Slothower focused on team culture and data to turn small victories into big wins.
How a New Principal Transformed a School

Calhan Elementary School was at the end of its rope. By 2013, four years of declining student scores on Colorado’s exams had earned it a “priority improvement” designation, and contributed to a toxic atmosphere that pitted the administrators against teachers and teachers against each other. As frustrations boiled over, its principal resigned in May of that year.

To right the ship, the district hired Relay National Principals Academy Fellow Linda Slothower that summer. In just one academic year, Calhan students’ scores on state exams improved so substantially that the school jumped two full designations — to “performance” level. Faculty had become more positive and collaborative. Slothower’s strategy had begun to transform Calhan and set it on a path toward success.

What, exactly, changed during Slothower’s tenure, and how has she continued to raise the bar as she enters her third year at Calhan? She shared a few key principles that were part of Calhan’s winning formula, and that might create opportunities at other struggling schools.

Diagnosis: Identify the Problem

Calhan “was a pail with 100 holes in it,” says Slothower. “We were starting from scratch.” To know where to focus her energy, and her teachers', the team needed to understand exactly where students were struggling. To do that, teachers analyzed the root causes that were contributing to gaps in their students’ reading, writing, and math skills. They found that many of the problems stemmed from a lack of collaboration and poor use of teaching tools, and they were able to focus on improvements in those areas.

Leadership: Support Teachers by Being Present

Slothower visited every classroom at least once a week, and met teachers afterward to coach them toward improvement. Slothower expected teachers to submit their lessons plans to her each week, and she provided feedback on them before the next week began. Her observations and reviews gave her a clear pulse on instruction in each classroom. It also communicated her personal investment in each teacher’s success.

Culture: Encourage Team Collaboration

Prior to Slothower’s arrival, Calhan was “a battlefield,” she says. “Teachers were in trouble frequently, blamed each other for the dropping scores, and blamed the administration for a lack of support." In short, “there was no team spirit.” Slothower let her teachers know that it was OK to admit their students were struggling — and that they needed help from teammates. “I wanted everything out there, without pointing any fingers.” To strengthen relationships among the teachers, she reorganized the school’s schedule to allow them common planning time. This reinforced the notion that the only way to improve was by working together.

Data: Don’t Just Gather Metrics — Analyze Them

Assessments and tracking sheets were helpful, but only if the team could draw insights from them. While Calhan’s teachers had administered assessments prior to Slothower’s arrival, they weren’t properly trained on how to analyze their results. The data were “filed away after each assessment,” Slothower says. They were seen only as evidence of success or failure, rather than as tools for identifying trends in student learning. To change that, several teachers accompanied Slothower to Relay Professor Paul Bambrick-Santoyo’s “Driven by Data” conference, where they learned how to analyze assessment data and use it to drive future instruction. Teachers who attended the conference shared what they learned with their colleagues at Calhan, and created tools to help them analyze student data.

Curriculum: Use the Right Tools, Properly 

Over the years, Calhan had spent significant resources on various reading, writing, and math programs. But teachers at the school didn’t know how to use them properly. “There was never any expectation that teachers would be using the programs with fidelity,” Slothower says. Teachers were departing from otherwise promising curricula without a clear rationale. So, Slothower revamped professional development for her teachers, trained many herself, and carved out time for them to practice teaching the programs with each other before using them in the classroom.

Focus: Build Long-Term Success on Short-Term Victories

Slothower says Calhan “had miles to go” when she arrived. But, instead of tackling every problem at once, she mapped out a series of smaller steps. Teachers monitored students’ weekly progress in reading, math, and writing, and Slothower introduced interim assessments and monthly tracker sheets to help her teachers analyze their students' progress throughout the month. In her post-observation meetings, she worked with each teacher to identify a bite-sized instructional goal for the following week. “It made everything much more manageable for them,” she says, “and gave them confidence that they were continuously improving.”

By implementing these strategic changes, Slothower built a culture in which errors became opportunities, collaboration instilled trust, and practice led to success. She inspired a team of teachers who had all but given up hope, and empowered them to lead their students to greater achievement.

“It has been an incredible two years,” Slothower says. Calhan’s staff is “determined to increase the achievement of students and score above state average in all areas. We are looking forward to the challenge of the 2015-2016 school year.”

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