If you ask the Leadership Team in Augusta, Arkansas what it takes to turn around a culture, shift a mindset, change a thought, and ACHIEVE they will tell you in one word: persistence.
So begins the story of a small district located in the Delta region of Arkansas.
"We have one stop light in Augusta, one dollar store, one grocery store. A lot of grandparents are raising children. Many teachers do not live here, some driving fifty miles to work here," explains Pam Clark, school improvement coach from the Arkansas Department of Education and who works with the Leadership Team .
The high school was placed in "Academic Distress" and the elementary school was identified as a Focus School.
"Kids do not come form homes where there are books. They do not know about Dolly Parton's Imagination Station. They come to school and that is their first experience with learning. We do not buy into that old myth that some kids can't learn. They can learn just as well as anyone. We're proving it."
Augusta has been using Indistar for three years. They started at the same time the high school was placed in priority status.
The Leadership Team generously spent two hours sharing the details of their growth and improvement journey with me. Read the full story HERE (it's powerful). I've extracted some pieces and highlighted them below. But FIRST, if you or your team have a story you want to tell and share with others like the one from Augusta, I would LOVE to listen (and then write). Type in Maureen Mirabito here or click: firstname.lastname@example.org
Augusta Leadership Team On Using Indistar
"We were in deep when we started with Indistar, hoping to get through today and maybe tomorrow and not focusing on the list of things we were supposed to be doing. We knew we were supposed to be doing them but we had no idea how," shares Jessica Stone, K-12 Literacy Coach.
Anything new feels clumsy at first. The night before my first day of teaching I lost sleep over when and how to make copies (I had made them at Staples prior to the start of school and I vaguely remembered hearing something about using a code...). It wasn't long before I was a copy-making expert, but I didn't show up that way. Copies, teaching, leading, improving...none of us show up as experts. But we get there.
The Leadership Team in Augusta, Arkansas started with a conversation. An uninterrupted, protected, conversation that happened every week. Here is their process for figuring HOW to do it.
1. Schedule time to meet. Do not, under any circumstances, cancel.
The first step in building their process for improvement was to meet. They started with one hour every single week and worked their way up. Nothing moved this time. Protecting it demonstrated that the TEAM mattered and their time was valued. It demonstrated that the work was really really important.
It reminded me of a rule from childhood. My mother told me and my three siblings that we were not, under any circumstances, to call her at work unless we were bleeding from an artery or knocked unconscious. Some rules are definitely not meant for breaking.
2. Start with a few.
Like many schools, Augusta was required to assess, plan for, implement, and monitor several indicators of effective practice. But they weren't just tackling lots of indicators of effective practice; they were also learning how to work together differently. They were building language and common understanding about improvement, instruction and learning (and the role each of them played). They were developing a readiness to learn and change. They were practicing how to be vulnerable about their own struggles and successes without fear of judgement. They were replacing judgement (and fear of it) with genuine care and support for their colleagues and experiencing the most transformational relationships and professional growth of their careers. They were even figuring out how to project from the computer onto the screen (we've all been there).
Selecting a few indicators (rather than tackling all of them) gave the team space to do all of those things at the same time they were advancing on their improvement work. Talking candidly about what it means to assess students using a variety of methods and how well or often it was happening in their school became this team's version of trust-building games at an outdoor retreat: their trust-building was anchored in a specific practice related to teaching and learning, their fresh thinking was their fresh air, the action steps they built together for what would happen next was the sunshine filtered through green leaves on a shady tree.
"Once we got the process moving, we were much more successful adding in indicators rather than trying to do them all at once"--Richard Greer, math coach and Leadership Team member.
"It wasn't always like this, our culture of trust and honesty. We have struggled together every week, sometimes every day, though some tough realizations and difficult decisions. But now it is always in the best interest of our students. It is not personal when someone challenge us. We know it is all about academic achievement and making sure that we are not just doing good enough--but that we are fully implementing the indicators of effective practice in every classroom in the best possible way for our kids."
3. Rely on the Research (Even conduct your own).
The Leadership Team talked about their use of the Wise Ways research within Indistar to guide their focus and discussions about the indicators of effective practice and to understand exactly what achieving schools do and to establish a common vision for what it will look like in their school. Student engagement was an area the team returned to over and over again each week. They reviewed the research in their Leadership Team, with teachers during instructional team meetings, and even sought help from an external partner on collecting and gathering evidence that would measure up with what Wise Ways expected.
They also interviewed students about what teachers did that was engaging and was not engaging. Their responses were "right on with the research."
"Having our student voices, supported by research, gave us a solid foundation and platform for making changes to instruction and technique with teachers. We said, 'Our students are saying this, research is also saying this, so how will we make it happen? It was what we needed to get out teachers involved and hear their ideas and get their buy-in for making changes,"--Jessica Stone
To learn more about this district and its schools, how they moved off of the state identification list, and the percentage of their high school students that are graduating and have been accepted into post-secondary education, read the full story here.
CALL TO ACTION
We all have a story and we'd love to hear yours. Those who have already worked with me have shared that they were not prepared for the impact that reading their story in writing would have: pride, accomplishment, joy, triumph. No matter how small or how big a story or success or experience--those sharing them and then reading them say that it amplified the resolve and commitment of their teams, of their school, at just the right moment. To get started, email me here (write in Maureen Mirabito) or at email@example.com. I can't wait to work with you!