|by Harry & Rosemary Wong
Special to the Gazette
November 1, 2008
In September 2008, Ray Landers, the Alabama principal of Boaz Middle School, was named Middle School Principal of the Year by the National Association of Secondary Principals Association (NASSP). This award is given to someone whose school has achieved greatness.
If you were to commend Ray, he would quickly tell you that the student achievement at Boaz Middle School is due to the teacher teams. All of the schools in the Boaz City School District are exemplary and they all use the concept of teams with teacher teams and leadership teams. Click here to see examples of this concept.
And if you were to commend the teachers of these schools, they would you, “It’s all about the students. At Boaz Middle School, the focus is on the students. We are here to change lives.”
And change lives they have. In 2000, Boaz was a booming retail community of outlet malls. Through the years the economy shifted to an agriculture and blue-collar factory economy.
However, while the student population was changing to more students
The Vision at Boaz Middle School
This is the vision that defines the culture at Boaz Middle School, one of the top middle schools in Alabama with an impressive list of titles and accolades.
From 2000 to 2008
This same year, ARMT data ranked Boaz Middle School
That’s a lot of statistics. But it gets more impressive!
Boaz Middle School is a Title I School with more than 50% of its students receiving free or reduced-fee lunches.
How is this possible?
A Vision for Greatness
Ray will tell you that when he arrived in 2000, many of the teachers were in their own little world. They would go into their classrooms, shut the door, and do what they wanted with the kids. Ray recalls, “They were use to doing things their own way. They felt like school was about them.”
Isolation is the enemy of improvement. In low performing schools, teachers are less likely to collaborate with and learn from one another.
Whereas, in high performing schools, teachers will share with one another the needed knowledge and skills to help their students reach high academic standards.
Rudyard Kipling wrote, “The strength of the wolf is in the pack and the strength of the pack is in the wolf.”
Through the years Ray has moved the culture to where, today, it is one of collaboration where the faculty learns from each other and can see what is going on in other classrooms. In 2000, there was no school vision.
Teacher Learning Has to Change
Ray knows that it is effective teachers, not programs (especially multimillion dollar programs), that produce student learning.
Ray recruited teachers who love working in teams, have an outgoing personality, and have a passion for kids.
Then he trains his teachers. He produced well-trained teachers who truly care about the success of their students and are willing to do whatever it takes.
Ray understood that only by working together as a community, as administrators, and as teachers, would they be able to create an academic environment in which all of its students could be successful.
His objective was to create a dual focus on both adult and student learning. The more the teachers learn, the more the students will learn.
Increasing student literacy became a priority. This required training teachers to produce effective instructional techniques.
Ray’s first step was to hire Pam Duke as the school’s instructional coach. Her job was to focus solely on academics and instruction.
Pam understood that before student learning could change, teacher learning had to change. Pam says, “A person may be proficient in a certain subject area or have a love of teaching. But to be effective, a teacher must first learn how to teach.”
The faculty, staff, and administration began their training together. As a group, they read and discussed topically important books. Expert authors were brought in to lead some of the discussions that helped to inform their actions as educators.
Every member of the staff received training aimed at improving the entire spectrum of literacy components. From English teachers and math teachers to P.E., music, and art teachers, every teacher was and still is involved in the school’s literacy effort. Every faculty member is included in an on-going, collaborative learning process to ensure the success of the literacy component.
The Results Are Awesome!
After the first year (2004), writing proficiency among 7th graders rose from 69% to 80% (as determined by the ADAW).
Even more telling—that same group of 7th graders who scored 80% on the test, had scored only 34% two years previously as 5th graders! And these numbers have continued to climb.
Know Where the Kids Come From
Ray and Pam know that understanding their students is a priority so they bus their entire faculty, staff, and support personnel into the impoverished neighborhoods of their students once per year. They meet with parents, neighbors, and friends. They join them in casual chats on their porches and in more serious conversations regarding their hopes for their children.
Pam says, “Many of our children deal with a disproportionate number of responsibilities after school.
“Often they are charged with looking after their siblings, providing meals, and cleaning. Some find themselves mediating between parents or other siblings in a discordant home.
“We felt it was critical to the success of our students for all of us to have a better understanding of their home lives.”
Programs to Prevent Failure
After the visitations, the adult staff comes together to study and discuss related articles such as Voices of Discipline: Children in Poverty and 90, 90, 90 Schools: A Case Study. These help them to create new programs designed for their students like these:
What? No Homework?
Another “radical” concept and outgrowth of the visits is that there is that no homework given to students.
Ray shares, “Our students work very hard during their seven hours at school. Every minute of their time here is focused on learning. They need time at home to focus on other things. And for many of our students, the realities of a difficult home life preclude their ability to complete homework.”
No Teacher Teaches in Isolation
Growing into a Professional Learning Community was a major culture change for everyone at Boaz Middle School. For the most part, it was one that most of the teachers embraced. But not everyone is as open to change. And for those teachers that felt uncomfortable or resisted the move forward, non-renewals occurred.
“Our teachers will tell you, this is the hardest job they have ever loved,” says Ray. “Yet, our teacher attrition rate is very low. And for every new job opening, we have 25-30 qualified applicants who would love to work here.”
New teachers go through a comprehensive induction program that begins the summer before their first year of teaching. “We front-load their learning with an intensive multi-week training program in which we acculturate them with every one of our school programs,” says Pam Duke.
Every new teacher in the Boaz school district also receives a copy of The First Days of School before the start of the new school year. New teachers join veteran teachers to study and discuss the book. Collaboratively they flesh out proven classroom management techniques and share what has worked for them.
“All new teachers are coached and nurtured by an effective veteran teacher,” Pam adds. “And while this continues for two years, really our collaborative environment means that no teacher ever teaches in isolation.
“If I stopped our forward motion now, I think the teachers would riot! We are not here simply to fill a vacant job position and collect a paycheck,” Ray tells us. “We are here to change lives.”
The leadership team collaborates. Subject teachers collaborate. There is collaboration among grade-level teachers and across grade levels. And there is cross-curricular collaboration.
Renee Adams, a seventh grade science teacher, says, “Our team works on the grassroots level within our school to help teachers develop strategic solutions to academic and systemic difficulties. As a team we take the concerns of the teachers and through collaborative analysis devise innovative ways to improve student and teacher successes. This is possible because our administration has given us the freedom to tackle these issues, work together to create solutions and then implement positive change in our school. It’s wonderful.”
Connie Morgan is a special education coordinator at Boaz Middle School. She says, “One of the rewards of leadership teaming is the ability to create a powerful classroom leadership model for all teachers.”
Allison Alexander, seventh grade language arts teachers tells us, “I love that we work together as a team to break down data, construct student schedules, guide instruction, and individualize assessments.”
Pam concurs, “Because we meet on a constant basis, learning together, sharing ideas and techniques, working to ensure the success of our students, we have developed bonds that simply don’t exist among most school faculty. We work very hard together. And we celebrate together.
“When the results of the most recent state assessments came out (with Boaz Middle School once again landing in the top 10 of all Alabama schools), a special celebration ensued. “We brought in large blow-up structures, set-up carnival booths, and karaoke. “When our teachers and students work so hard, it doesn’t hurt to take a day to celebrate.” And why not? Celebrate!!
Intervention, Not Suspension
Ray stated, “The idea of shared responsibility is at the core of our successful school change.
“We preface everything we do at Boaz Middle School with the following questions:
Several student initiatives support their vision that “Every Day, Every Child, A Success.” A Student Advocacy Pyramid provides a specific series of intervening steps designed to monitor the academic and emotional well being of targeted students and a School-wide Intervention Reading and Math program is a daily intensive intervention in small group settings.
Each staff member (including counselors, P.E. teachers, music, and art teachers) that is without an assigned homeroom teaches an intervention class with four or five students. Pam models lessons focused on comprehension, vocabulary, and reading fluency to ensure that they are all on the same page.
The composition of these student intervention groups is a direct result of collaborative assessment and analysis. They separate their students by gender and assign readings that are interesting for those groups. They found that in-school suspensions merely took their students out of needed classes so, “Together we created programs that replaced the ineffective in-school suspensions,” said Pam.
Students are not allowed to not do their work.
“Then we supported it with several new programs.
“At-risk students are given more responsibilities, serving as traffic-patrol, office aides, library and teacher aides. This gives them the opportunity to feel needed and appreciated. For many of these students, it has resulted in a 180° change in both behavior and academics.”
No Student Fails
Student response to these programs has been incredible.
In 2001, 31 students at Boaz Middle School failed their grade.
Personal placement of students also helps to avoid classroom conflicts. As a group, grade-level teachers meet towards the end of each year to discuss student placements for the next year.
Instead of textbooks, teachers collaborate to plan in-depth units of study and share best practices across both grade levels and content areas. They develop materials based on the needs of their students, with freedom to change from year to year.
“By not limiting ourselves to standard textbooks, we are able to create instructional materials that not only fulfill state educational requirements, but exceed them in depth and scope.”
The teachers continually work together to ensure that literacy skills are taught across content areas.
Students are drawn into their subjects with increased interest and a greater motivation to learn. Because topics are taught across subject areas, students have the opportunity for greater depth of learning. And because studies are not limited to textbooks, students learn varying methods of deriving information. For one student, the study of Rosa Parks grew into a four-month research project that included an interview with Rosa Parks’ lawyer, who still lives in Alabama!
This student is just one of 40 who qualified to participate in the statewide National History Day contest, and one of 18 who had won the right to compete at the national event in Washington, D.C.
Class Projects Reflect Cross-Content Learning
Research and inquiry is part and parcel of every student’s education at Boaz Middle School. And every eighth grader must also write a research paper on a given topic.
This past year the topic, famous mathematicians, came from a math teacher! The resulting student work encompassed skills they had learned across content areas.
Students look forward to other annual class-related projects. For seventh graders, it’s their Toothpick Bridge Project. They use their knowledge in math, reading, and science to organize and construct their bridges. Through the year, the students plan. At the end of the year, the teams gather to build their bridges. A school wide contest is held to select the sturdiest bridge. Students add weights to the bridges to see which will hold the most. Of course, everyone celebrates with the winners.
A walk around Boaz Middle School will allow you to see students who are engaged and involved in their home away from home. Ray proudly says, “We provide a loving, caring, and clean environment that is filled with pride. Just as we put the responsibility for learning into the hands of our students, we hold them responsible for the care of their school. Our building is 14 years old, yet visitors coming in remark on how new it looks.”
And the school has a lot of visitors. Teams of educators visit on a regular basis Over the last three years, more than 100 schools have come to learn how to create their own professional learning communities. Students serve as ambassadors, greeting visitors, leading tours, and answering questions.
In 2006, even National Geographic came to visit. They spent a full day filming classroom instruction and interviewing teachers and students for use with their educational component.
Teams That Help Teams
To keep the teacher culture and community spirit alive, several on-going programs were created.
Teachers also attend and present at conferences at the state and national levels, meeting with others and collaborating on a larger scale.
The Principal as Part of the Team
When Ray first took the lead to create change within the school, he was the one to organize the teams and provide the guiding principles for collaboration and learning.
“Our teams have grown exponentially beyond anything I could have done myself,” says Ray. “The group always accomplishes more than the individual. I am an active participant in our leadership team and provide guidance on research and articles when needed. But I am a resource. I am not there to lead the discussion or mandate direction. On occasion I bring topics to the table, but most often it is others on the team who bring ideas and new things to explore.
“I am also an active participant on our intervention team, our grade level team and our departmental teams. The most important thing I have done is to empower these teams with the ability, the responsibility, and the authority to make decisions that relate to our Professional Learning Community.
“Of course, all decisions that change policy, implement new programs, change the structure within the building, or relate to personnel must have my final approval. But as a principal, I have never gone against a decision made by the leadership team.”
The Mark of a Great Leader
As the effective teacher is the mark of a classroom that hums with children learning, an effective principal is the mark of a school that creates success for children every day. Both the teacher and the principal have but one guiding principle—what can we do to ensure learning and success for every child?
Ray Landers and his team have found the formula that works for their school. The methods used at the school are replicable. It will take time and dedication to the ideal to achieve the same success.
We hope that by sharing the story of Ray Landers, you’ll be inspired to create such an environment at your school or steal some of these ideas to take your school to a higher level of student learning.
Ray will be the first to admit that success is a team effort with hard work and hard choices—all with the student in mind. Diligence pays in ways unexpected—in the present with honors, awards, and recognition and in the future in ways he’ll never know for believing in and creating success for every child.
Congratulations to Ray (and his staff) for being the difference in the lives of children. They will forever be thankful for your dedication to their success and future greatness.
For a printable version of this article click here.
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