The principal at South Elementary School, Kim Lowry, has a lot to be proud of these days. Several years ago her school was the "under dog" being pushed into Title I School Improvement, labeling the campus as one that was low performing and in need of recovery.
Today the school has not only climbed its way out of that educational rut, but it has implemented lasting changes that include new approaches to teaching and evaluating students in a way that reaps big rewards for the staff members and the children on campus.
In June 2009, Lowry enrolled in a program with a state-wide cohort of approximately 20 school districts, and was invited to do so because of its under-performing status, according to Superintendent of Schools Chris Wilson. The University of Virginia's School Turnaround Specialist Program (UVASTSP) is designed to address the needs of education leaders like Lowry, who was a little apprehensive upon first entering the program.
The administrator for a number of years prior to doing so had worked hard with her educational staff and tried every method and or approach they could collectively come up with in pulling the school out of its low performing status. Lowry admittedly assumed that there was likely nothing the program could teach them that they had not already tried, with great effort, to help the students achieve better scores. However, she pushed away her reluctance, with encouragement from former Superintendent Jerry Noble, and signed up to take part in the program with assistance from the district's Director of Curriculum Rayanna Dalton.
Lowry explained that rather than bringing outside management providers into the struggling district or have the state take over, she preferred to keep the control at a local level, which meant participation in the program at that point was the only viable option. The program's goal is to help administrators build internal capacity within their schools, which in turn presents visible change and sustained improvement. It is designed to hit on areas that administrators and staff may not have considered while addressing school improvement because of its partnership with the University's Darden School of Business and the Curry School of Education. According to Wilson, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) stands fully behind the program and elected to use a portion of federal stimulus money to partner with the project, with intentions of forming a state-wide cohort to participate in the two-year program.
Lowry was the key figure in representing her school through the program, while Dalton served in the role of "District Shepherd." The two educators took part in two residential executive development programs over the course of two summers and attended two mid-year trainings in January of each year at the Darden School of Business. It was there that a light-bulb moment occurred for Lowry, as she discovered that the program suggested success could be achieved when she began to think and act more like a Principal/Business Executive Officer.
"When we started to learn about data, and how that factors into the overall equation, things started to really change for us," Lowry said. "Similarly to operating a business, there is data that must be broken down and heavily considered or relied on in order to determine what areas we should be focusing on and how to go about improving in those areas. It's not taking the social aspect completely out of it in terms of what a principal should stand for in interacting with staff and students, it just provides incentive to add the concept of business manager on to the title, allowing you to see things in a more concrete, data-supported way."
In addition to the trainings previously mentioned, Lowry and Dalton also attended other state-wide meetings, regional trainings, and on-site visits which were conducted by the UVA training team and Southeast Regional Professional Development Center during the course of the two-year program. As a result, Lowry received credentials in late January from the University of Virginia, signifying her completion and overall success in the program.
In order to receive the credentials, a criteria was set, in which South Elementary had to meet. The specifications set forth would reference that the school had provided satisfactory evidence of sustained improvements. The criteria stipulates that Lowry had to successfully complete all components of the program; that the school had met or made acceptable progress towards meeting Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) as defined through the No Child Left Behind act, or had achieved significant reductions in failure rates in reading or mathematics; that the school had reached AYP in year two of participation (2010-2011 academic year); and that the Darden-Curry Partnership for Leadership in Education (PLE) had received documentation from the district regarding Lowry's progress over the course of the two-year program.
Lowry was one of eleven participants who received the credentials and represented one of only two Missouri district who successfully completed the program, which speaks volumes in referencing the effort she and her staff put forward in turning things around at her school.
According to Wilson, a commendation recognizing Dalton's role in the project was awarded for her participation on behalf of the district and its support of Lowry in her endeavors.
"Broken down statistically, our scores in the subject of English increased by 26 percent, and an additional 29 percent in Math," Lowry explained. "We are so proud of what has been accomplished here, it has taken a lot of work, but the dedication and determination we had in addressing the needs of our kids has ultimately paid off. The program taught us how to operate like any successful business would. In translating that into education, we learned how data applies heavily to success in education, and its role in the process of getting students to perform to the best of their ability, in addition to meeting benchmarks."
Lowry explained that the term "data" references the information her school derives from predictive test scores, grades in the classroom, acuity tests and more obtained through a reputable consulting firm the district has hired to collect this information. By learning how to take the best business practices available through the training program and apply them to education using this data as the foundation, Lowry was able to devise a plan that she hoped would get her students in a more positive place academically.
"We formed data teams made up of staff members from our campus who are basically responsible for breaking down and examining our students' performance in regard to their grades and test scores," Lowry said. "That information is in turn, used to educate our teachers on what is working and what is not, factually, based on data. It isn't the opinion of myself or any other entity within the district or outside of it, it is concrete data that shows what areas students are failing in, need mild improvement in or are showing success in. It's all about accountability, and our teachers know that they are responsible for creating change where improvement is needed."
When Lowry and her team first began compiling data, she relied on suggestions made while attending the UVA program, which recommended posting that data, depicted by classroom in the teacher's lounge so that the information was posted publicly to increase individual and campus-wide awareness. For some, the move was viewed as a little forward in the beginning, as many teachers began to see in black and white that they were not meeting the standards, where others were. It was a challenge for Lowry, who didn't wish to offend anyone, but knew that the motivation behind the maneuver was worth it.
"Our students' education is at stake," Lowry explained. So, she moved forward with the approach and it turned out to be a much-needed eye opener for many, including herself.
Later, the administrator and her educational team developed charts that are now kept in bound notebooks that each staff member has available to them, so that they can remain informed and aware of what their specific classroom data indicates. The new informational charts are color-blocked to indicate status, with "red" symbolizing failing scores, "yellow" suggesting needed improvement, and "white" representing on-target data results.
In an interview with Business Week Magazine's Alison Damast, who also recently interviewed Lowry on her success, the Executive Director for the collaborative effort between the Darden and Curry schools, LeAnn Buntrock, explained that the overall goal of the program is to not turn a school into a business literally, but rather to examine case studies on big name, successful companies while studying their organizational behavior practices and data from a management standpoint and then taking the best of those approaches in leadership and business principals to apply them to education.
Lowry and the team at South Elementary School has done just that using the knowledge and expertise they have gained and will continue to operate in this fashion as they move forward. Even though the school has reached its goals and is meeting the benchmarks under the federal No Child Left Behind law since facing a state take-over, Lowry said there is no option for going back to the former ways in which the school was operating.
"This has worked for us, so we will continue to move forward with this approach to education," Lowry explained. "The old way of doing things is gone. In finding success through this program, we have realized that change is good and that should continue to rely on this data in order to continually progress."
The administrator explained that it is her understanding that Dalton will be sharing the techniques utilized at South Elementary with the staff at Kennett Middle School in an attempt to make positive impacts at that campus as well. Lowry is frequently contacted by other district administrators who are curious about her success, in addition to leaders at outside school district's in the region and all across the state. They all want to know what her secret is, what has worked and what hasn't. She admits that it's a good feeling to be regarded in this light, versus the former in which her school was grouped and labeled as under-performing.
"It is nice to be able to look at how far we've come, to see how hard our staff has worked, and know that it has really paid off when you look at our students and see how much they have improved," Lowry said. "I'm proud of what has been accomplished here and we are glad to share suggestions with other schools that might be where we were several years ago."
Director of Curriculum for Senath-Hornersville Public Schools, Jerri Kay Hardy, can relate to Lowry. Hardy's district, which is also located in Dunklin County was under school improvement and utilized the practices taught through the University of Virgina's School Turnaround program starting in the 2009-2010 academic year, after being labeled under-performing. Its middle school campus was the qualifying sector and a new principal and staff members there attended the very same courses that Lowry did. Hardy and Lowry have exchanged information and provided feedback to one another throughout their experiences in creating improvement in their schools.
Hardy explained that what has taken place at South Elementary is notable, and that Lowry deserves attention for her efforts there.
"Kim's school has done marvelous things, it really is amazing and she has worked very hard to get them there," Hardy said, before commenting on her own school's progress and challenges.
According to Hardy, Senath-Hornersville has also made marked improvement in the areas in which they struggled, but still failed to meet AYP. She feels that one of the major obstacles making the climb so much more rigorous for them is the fact that Senath-Hornersville is one of only two schools in the area that shares a demographic that presents would could be considered by some as a disadvantage. The school boasts a Hispanic student attendance rate of over 35 percent, with many of the students requiring heavy English as a Second Language (ESL) courses to divert them from their native language to English, which is standard language in regard to test taking. Hardy explained that in the State of Missouri, students are not allowed to be tested in their native language and must be tested in English. Because so many students still struggle to comprehend English and be fluent enough in the language to be tested in it, scores in this area are affected, Hardy believes. To off-set the challenge, the school has focused a lot of energy into the ESL program, is training migrant students with the Rosetta Stone program and is utilizing other various methods in an attempt to raise the bar and overcome the language barrier.
Senath-Hornersville is also a school, like South Elementary, that is recently relying heavily on data and using staff to form data teams that spend time inside and outside of the classroom working toward measurable success, with administrative and board of education support.
"We're still continuing with the methods that have helped us get this far," Hardy said, echoing the feelings of South's Kim Lowry. "We're going forward, there is no going back. We've bought into it, we believe in it, so we're in it for the long-term. It's all about the students and seeing them succeed."
* An article featured in Business Week Magazine was used as resource in this article. Read it here at www.businessweek.com/magazine/. Additional information was provided by Chris Wilson, Superintendent at Kennett Public Schools.