Below is an excerpt from a story that I wrote about Westlawn Middle School in Huntsville, Alabama. On paper, this school struggled with the same challenges many low achieving schools face: high poverty, high teacher turnover, neighborhood crime, below-grade level learners, limited parent involvement. In practice though, this school is showing the world that their staff, their students, and their families are more than the data points used to sort them.
But truthfully, what is happening at Westlawn is just great practice. It's what should be happening everywhere. Whether you are a struggling school, a getting by school, a staying the course school, or a high-flying one: there is something for you in this.
If you want to learn how a school changed minds to change results (and change lives), read the full story here. Below, you'll find a brief excerpt along with brief descriptions of what the leadership in this school did first, did always, and does really well.
Excerpt: Westlawn Middle School, Huntsville, Alabama
Some stories you hear and think, there are neither the right words nor enough pages to tell this story right; to tell it the way that covers bare arms in goose bumps, that fills tired eyes with tears of triumph, that causes a pound in your chest that sounds like hope and admiration and belief; to tell it the way it feels when the people living the story tell it.
This is one of those stories. This is the story of the people at Westlawn Middle School in Huntsville, Alabama, which sits in the center of the city serving the five surrounding housing projects, the homeless shelter, and is situated on a street lined with apartment complexes where families live but don’t often stay. This is the story of educators, students, families, community members, and educational partners—and how they have built capacity, commitment, and relationships with minds and hearts and hands in a school that once had a reputation as “the place no one else wanted to be” but today stands proud with t-shirts and megaphones and achievement scores shouting publicly at pep rally’s and privately in their meetings, “We’re going to show the world.”
In 2012, Westlawn was placed on the state's failure list. It was approved for a School Improvement Grant and selected the turnaround model that replaced 80 percent of staff and the principal. That's when Ms. Alexander was brought in to lead the charge.
1. Give hope. People wanted to tell Ms. Alexander all kinds of stories and rumors about how bad the school was. She heard none of it. She tells her teachers and their students, "We write our own story, we get our own messages out. We don't let rumors or misconceptions do it for us."
2. Get out into the communities you serve. Because of high turnover, Westlawn sees new crops of teachers every year and many have never worked in high poverty, high need areas before. Every year, Ms. Alexander and her teachers do Warrior Walks in the neighborhoods where her students and their families live. They pass out information about the school that they want the families to know and have. They also do it so that teachers understand that when a student comes to school with dirty clothes, or tired, or hungry, maybe there is a reason for that. "We don't make excuses...but we do need to understand."
3. Bring the community in. Ms. Alexander invites churches and nurses and doctors and community members into the school for performances and information sessions. "We do it to get the word out about our school but we also do it to make connections for our families."
4. Build structures that support teaming and improved teaching. Right away Ms. Alexander established a strong leadership team, created times and structures for teachers to collaborate on instruction, and engaged partners to implement a student discipline program.
5. Align everything: standards, curriculum, assessments, instruction, and professional development. To personalize learning for every student, you must be able to assess their level of mastery, adjust instruction accordingly, and support teachers in their professional growth as well. "Teachers must grow before our students can grow."
6. Build collective commitment with the entire staff. To Ms. Alexander, this meant identifying the areas the entire faculty and staff felt were critical to turning around the school. For each area (read more about them in the full article) the team identified what the school should look like and what they would do to achieve it (Indistar was integral to this step). This collective commitment was discussed at every meeting, every week. It kept the team on task and focused on their work and achieving their goals.
The improvement at Westlawn was not without snags; Ms. Alexander was very candid about what they were and how they helped her and the school to grow even stronger. Humility, belief, persistence, and growth: it's all there. Read the full story here.
CALL TO ACTION
You have a story and we'd all love to hear it. 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!