Photo: "Bingo for Books" family night at Merriam Cherry Street Elementary School. (Courtesy of Bay District Schools)
In November 2015, I received a phone call that would drastically alter the course of my educational career. “Blythe, I’m calling on behalf of the superintendent, and he makes no promises, of course, but he’d like you to consider applying for the principal job at (Merriam) Cherry Street Elementary School.”
At that time, I was serving my 15th year at my high school alma mater, Bay High School, as an assistant administrator. I took the next several days to consider the offer. I counseled with some very close friends and prayed fervently (mostly for some sign of why I shouldn’t do it)! Instead, I kept hearing why this would be a good move for me and that I really could do the job.
I transitioned to the new job in June 2016. I got straight to work building my team, pouring over data, and coming up with a plan. Things were slowly beginning to take shape. Then, a curveball came down the pike. Three weeks after I first sat down in the principal’s chair, I found out that my new school had slipped from a D school to an F as determined by the Florida Department of Education! How was a lifelong high school educator supposed to pull this struggling Title I elementary school to the heights of glory? I didn’t know the answers, but I trusted, I believed, and I assembled the best team I could find to help me figure it out.
I remembered my first experience at the Model Schools Conference in 2014, which I had attended in Orlando, Florida, as a brand new administrator. While I was at that conference, I had the privilege of attending a session where Dr. Susan Szachowicz, former Brockton High School principal from Massachusetts, spoke of her experience turning her school into a perennial high-performing school. She did it by focusing on literacy—writing, to be specific. So, as I studied Cherry Street’s data, I quickly determined that we, too, had to focus on literacy. Our biggest problem was reading. Our bottom quartile learning gains in ELA were 10 percent! That had to be fixed immediately!
So, how did we go about doing just that? We followed these four steps.
1. Close the Gap on Reading Proficiency
We first employed a reading program by Science Research Associates (SRA) to build proficient readers. SRA proved to be a great resource for our relatively inexperienced teaching staff because it is a scripted program. We implemented it schoolwide (K–5), and it was built into our master schedule. We ran the program every day with fidelity. We had to expose our students to on-grade-level text while teaching state standards to ensure that they were prepared for the end-of-year state tests.
The other part to this step was to require every teacher to utilize complex texts in his or her ELA instructional block. We had to teach our kids how to access difficult texts by focusing on strategies that would enable them to better understand the content of the passages. The best way to do this was to instruct students in small groups with at least two adults in the room. In some cases, two certified teachers were assigned to a room; other times, it was a teacher and a paraprofessional paired together. The teachers modeled, scaffolded, and differentiated their teaching practices to reach every student. For 90 minutes every day, ELA grade-level standards were taught uninterrupted and nothing, absolutely nothing, interfered with this instructional time. Our one and only goal for our School Improvement Plan was to improve our ELA scores by employing this plan of attack on a daily basis.
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