Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships: From F to the Brink of B in a Single Year 

Bellview Santos Elementary

Photo: Staff at Belleview-Santos Elementary School in Florida.

Imagine as a first-year principal finding out your school had just earned an F grade based on student achievement, starting the year with teachers feeling defeated and scared of losing their jobs, and a day before school starts having the entire fourth grade team removed because of that student achievement. Belleview-Santos was in a state of emergency, and something had to be done—and quick.

After participating in three days of summer training and attending the 2018 Model Schools Conference, the school leadership enthusiastically embraced the International Center for Leadership in Education’s Rigor/Relevance Framework as the answer they had been looking for. Because of this, the motto at Belleview-Santos became “all means all.” All students mattered; all students were going to learn and get the education they deserved, and all hands were on deck.

Through the implementation of Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships, Belleview-Santos’s team was able to instill a culture that resulted in growth from a state grade of an F to within three-hundredths of a point from a B. This growth was a direct result of making student engagement a primary focus, from some students learning to all students learning. The implementation of Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships focused on students, instruction, and people—not programs.

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Getting Started: A 20-Day Action Plan

At the Model Schools Conference in July 2018, we learned about creating and monitoring a 20-day action plan. Thankfully, our district had a cohort that required this plan to be turned in and discussed monthly. The 20-day action plan quickly became part of our school improvement plan. In order to successfully implement this plan, the team answered the below questions.

  • How and when does professional development occur?
  • How would the professional development tie into our twice weekly collaboration meetings?
  • What was the plan to inspect what we expected? As a leader, it’s crucial that you schedule your time and plan for every minute. It’s too easy to let the day-to-day happenings remove you from the top priority—students.

We had many new staff join Belleview-Santos, which meant we needed to begin with relationships. From there, we were quickly able to move into student engagement to support our motto of “all means all.” To support the full implementation and professional development, we partnered with ICLE to provide the leadership team and staff with adequate knowledge of the framework. The coaches from ICLE came out and modeled lessons in the classroom, met with teachers to discuss what they should see in the lesson, and reflected on what they saw after. Belleview-Santos’s academic coaches participated in the modeling sessions along with the leadership team and teachers.

The administration created schedules for the school’s academic coaches built around the teachers’ needs and the school focus. The academic coaches went in and planned with teachers and modeled or co-taught with staff in these areas. The second half of the year, we had an ICLE consultant, Mrs. Bacetti, model Quad D lessons for teachers. She focused on high rigor/high relevance student work and thinking and shared strategies with staff to engage students, make learning relevant, and show us how to move learning into Quad D. Teachers would observe the lesson in one classroom and then go back and try it in their own classrooms. Mrs. Bacetti coached teachers through debriefing and reflection on student learning, using rubrics to help guide the conversation in concrete, actionable ways.

First: A Culture Shift

Around November 2018, we began seeing big improvements in the school culture. Relationships were built daily, and the more we were in classrooms and in the trenches, the more teachers and staff trusted us as well as the plan. The staff moved from feeling defeated and afraid of losing their jobs to excited and reenergized. Visitors felt it in the classrooms, and teachers were excited to come to collaboration meetings and plan lessons. They provided input into the modeled lessons and then began implementing these strategies.

Second: Academic Shifts

When it came to the academic shift, we saw a drastic increase in student achievement scores in December 2018. In Marion County, we have district assessments that compare us with the other 31 elementary schools. Belleview-Santos went from the third lowest out of 32 elementary schools to 15th and, in one grade level, the eighth highest in the district by December. Our scores began drastically improving! The state assessment data showing our amazing growth was released in July.

Marion County and Belleview-Santos worked with ICLE to not only raise the school grade but also increased bottom quartile learning gains four times the amount and nearly doubling overall learning gains, while still increasing learner proficiency across the board.

Our Ongoing Journey: What’s Best for Kids

Everyone who’s in education is here to do what’s best for his or her students and schools. We know the job of a leader is not easy—whether a district leader, administrator, or teacher. The Rigor/Relevance Framework supported instructional practice at Belleview-Santos—with people, for students, not programs. This ongoing professional development and coaching will last no matter what curriculum or standards are adopted.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


Belleview-Santos was named a 2020 Model School from ICLE and presented at the 28th Annual Model Schools Conference. Join more than 5,000 educators in 100+ sessions at the 31st Annual Model Schools Conference in Orlando, Florida, from June 25–28, 2023, where you can explore firsthand how to effect meaningful change in your school or district.

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