Don't Stop Believin' in Literacy: A School's Path to Reading Proficiency

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 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. 

A Dr. Seuss celebration at Merriam Cherry Street Elementary School. (Courtesy of Bay District Schools)
2. Keep Disruptive Behaviors Out of the Classroom

In order for the plan to work, we had to ensure that the teachers maintained instructional momentum. Student behavior had to be reined in and controlled. When I arrived on campus, I was appalled at the behavior of our students. They had no respect for themselves, much less the adults who were assigned to work with them.

We started this portion of the plan by setting a handful of schoolwide expectations and holding the students accountable. Teachers were permitted to extend these expectations and build on them inside their respective classrooms, but they were nonnegotiable. The behavior plan was simple: If a student made a good choice, he or she was rewarded with a “Cheetah Paw” (Positive Behavior Intervention Support), and if a student made a poor choice, he or she received a consequence for that behavior. Students exhibiting disruptive behaviors were removed from the classroom until they could get themselves under control. Gone were the days where one student detracted from the learning process of the other 20 students in the classroom. It took our students about six weeks to figure out that there was a new sheriff in town and that errant behaviors would not be tolerated. The students soared under our high expectations for academic and behavioral standards. Discipline referrals peaked early, but by the end of the year, our discipline referrals were down by 100, and suspensions were drastically cut as well, from 275 to 98.

3. Improve Relationships on Campus

There was a level of distrust between the former administration and the faculty and staff. This had to change. My first message to my staff was simple: “Take care of our kids, take care of each other, and I’ll take care of all of you.” We had to create a family atmosphere. We had to model respect and kindness to each other so that our kids would see that and follow our lead. If our kids were hungry, we fed them. If they didn’t have the right supplies, we provided them. We loved them first, and then we taught them. They cared about what we taught because they knew we cared.

Every staff member “adopted” a student in our bottom quartile and mentored the student throughout the school year. This mentoring program gave our students with the greatest challenges a trusted adult to whom they were accountable. We helped them set academic goals, behavioral goals, and personal goals. We carved out time for them each week to check in and ensure they knew we were invested in them. Out of this program, #MCSBelieves was born. Our students needed to know that we believed in them—and we do.

Staff at Merriam Cherry Street Elementary School wearing "I'm a believer" shirts. (Courtesy of Bay District Schools)
4. Support My Teachers

My teachers never met with difficult parents alone, ever! I made sure that either I or my assistant administrator sat in on conferences where there was the potential for a heated discussion. Parents were no longer permitted to talk down to teachers at Merriam Cherry Street Elementary. We needed to have some difficult conversations, but yelling, cussing, and blaming the teachers were simply off the table. I wanted parents to know that we had their child’s best interest at heart and that we had to be a united front as we worked through what could sometimes be complex issues. 

My teachers are an extension of me and the type of school that I run. I have the utmost confidence in their abilities. They are professionals, and they care. They are not compensated monetarily for all that they do, but they will be extended professional courtesy. I never miss an opportunity to give them credit for all of the success our school has enjoyed over the past few years. No school leader, no matter how smart, charismatic, or dynamic, will ever be able to turn a school around without a rock-solid teaching staff in place. It just isn’t possible.

So, this was the “recipe” of success for our little school. We climbed out of the pit of being one of the bottom 300 performing schools in the state of Florida to being labeled a Model School by the International Center for Leadership in Education in the span of 2.5 years! I had the privilege of leading my former neighborhood elementary school back to its former glory. 

We did so with a meteoric rise to success, but we figured out how to sustain it. Those bottom quartile ELA learning gains that were once 10 percent are now 70 percent, and those math bottom quartile learning gains that were 23 percent are now 76 percent  We have also nearly doubled our proficiency scores in ELA, math, and science. Our total points for school-grade configuration rose from 193 to 461!

The best part is, we’re not done yet. Like my hero Sue Szachowicz says about Brockton High’s success, “What we did was simple; it wasn’t easy.” The same can be said about us. We chose to focus on literacy. We chose to believe in our kids. We chose to believe in our teachers. We chose to believe in our school. Three years later, we’re still just A bunch of believers (see what I did there?)!

***

Join Blythe Carpenter, former principal of Merriam Cherry Street Elementary School—a 2019 Model School—along with more than 5,000 educators in 100+ sessions at the 27th Annual Model Schools Conference in Washington, D.C., from June 23–26, 2019, where you can learn what steps to take to act for impact in your school or district.