School gets to the 'core' of the matter
What happens when a school shakes things up, changing practices, challenging mindsets and touching hearts? Good things.
Just ask the educators at Inman Primary School in southwest Iowa’s Red Oak Community School District. But don’t think it was easy lifting, school officials told participants at Celebrating Iowa’s Success, an early literacy symposium in Des Moines.
It started last February with a site visit from the Iowa Department of Education.
“We knew that things weren’t good prior to the visit,” said Inman Principal Gayle Allensworth. “Our healthy indicator data wasn’t good. We went into the visit with an open mind, and had a really open heart to not take things personally. Through that process, we got a foundation for change and we have tried to follow that foundation.”
When Allensworth became Inman’s principal six years ago, she was initially hesitant to interfere with her team.
“When I came here I didn’t want to push people – I wasn’t the content expert,” she said. “So I let teachers tell me what they needed. It was great intentions, but it wasn’t getting us to where we needed to be. Then during the site visit, one AEA (Area Education Agency) consultant said, ‘Gayle, I have been a lot of places, affluent schools and poor schools. When your data is good, you can be loose with your management style. When your data is bad, you cannot be loose.’”
That was enough for Allensworth.
“I mean, we had (same grade) teachers who were 15 lessons a part from one another – that’s three weeks difference from classroom to classroom,” she said. “Confronting the brutal reality was necessary for us. Sharing that information with the staff was frightening because gone are the days of doing what you want. We had to become more unified with regard to building-wide curriculum implementation and instruction. We had to guarantee learning for all.”
Working with the Department of Education and Green Hills Area Education Agency, Allensworth focused on the building’s leadership by rewriting the job descriptions of both the instructional coach and building leaders to align with the school’s needs.
Then they started examining practices.
“Last year I was a reading interventionist,” said Debbie Graber, who is now the instructional coach. “I would take kids out of the classroom regardless if they would subsequently miss core instruction. From the site visit, we created a protected, uninterrupted block for literacy and math.”
“That was a huge shift for our staff,” Allensworth said. “They were used to sending the kids out. But in doing so, the students were not there for the initial high-quality, evidence-based core instruction, meaning that they would need interventions later on.”
Now, students needing intervention out of the classroom are pulled out during non-core instructional times. And, all staff are responsible for interventions, including music or physical education teachers.
In fact, staff rethought the timing of everything during the school day, from when volunteers would be used to field trips, assemblies and even fire drills – ensuring that students were never pulled away from core instruction.
Next, the school revisited and re-created authentic mission and vision statements that were aligned to the school’s goals. Virtually everything done in the school now is immediately identifiable within those statements to ensure educators are streamlining their classroom focus.
“In our PD (professional development), everything is grounded in the mission,” Allensworth said. “And when you create your mission and vision and write your building goals, you can’t ever stop thinking ‘what other resources do we need?’”
The streamlining also extends into the classroom in which teachers take great care to ensure all same-grade students are learning the same lessons at the same time.
“We have strong conversations during our PLC (professional learning communities) meetings,” Graber said. “They talk about the units, when it’s going to happen, so that all the students are getting the same lessons.”
Even the protected blocks of literacy and math are aligned to specific schedules.
“Let’s take the literacy block, from 9 to 10:30,” Allensworth said. “During that time, a specific percent is assigned to each of the areas that need to be taught, such as small group reading, comprehension, writing and fluency. Those percentages vary by grade level, but not grade.”
A visit to the school will show children moving quickly, deliberately, from one task to the next, much like a choreographed dance. There isn’t time for idle chat.
Through the transformation, the staff has discovered an unintended outcome: improved behavior.
“We don’t have behavior problems like we used to because kids are so engaged,” Allensworth said.
The hardest part of the entire process – and certainly the longest – is changing mindsets.
“There are days when people say, ‘I don’t like this,’ or ‘I don’t like that,’” Allensworth said. “I don’t have a problem hearing that, and I will certainly consider their point of view. But the teachers know we won’t back away from this work. People have to understand or accept that change takes time, and requires a lot of commitment. But we also have to have an unwavering belief that all kids can learn to their highest potential.”
“The work is exciting and challenging and sometimes exhausting,” Graber said. “We push the teachers, but we want to make sure the teachers are getting what they need so they can be on their A game for the kids.”
And for the first time, Allensworth is looking forward to the winter assessment.
“We don’t have to prepare for the winter assessment because we have been doing the work every day,” she said. “I know our data is going to be better but not where we want it.”
Allensworth is pragmatic, noting that their work is just getting under way.
“I think it’s important to hear loud and clear that we don’t have all the answers,” she said. “We are not where we want to be yet. We believe in this process as much as we believe in our kids. Paring those two helps us focus on the right work. As the saying goes, the right work is never easy.
“Before the teachers were working hard. But if we are giving it our all and not getting results, then you need to do something different.”