Wondering what makes successful schools and districts tick? In this new series, “Leading a Model School,” we ask principals and superintendents from across the country to share the secrets behind the recent gains and successes in their schools and districts. Find out what’s happening at Farrington High School in Honolulu, Hawaii.
In the heart of Honolulu an educational shift is taking place at Farrington High School. Long known for our tough neighborhoods with gangs and graffiti, as well as for our excellent athletic programs, it might be surprising to hear that the Farrington Governors are making some noise with improved academics.
Farrington has over 2,400 students from diverse backgrounds, with more than 20 different languages spoken. High academic performance had been an anomaly for years, and it was time for a paradigm shift. We needed to change the academic culture in order to prepare our students to compete in the global society when they leave us. It began with building trust and empowerment in all teachers.
When I returned as Principal of my alma mater in October 2010 after transferring from my Blue Ribbon Elementary School six miles away, I knew that increasing positive relationships, relevance and rigor, in that order, was a must. During the first staff meeting, the first slide I showed my faculty and staff was the vision of a Model School (picture at right). We needed to understand the importance of having high expectations and being change agents. I said, “You are pre-forgiven,” and pledged my support to all of them. This mantra allowed teachers to take risks and have courage to make mistakes without fear of failing.
My advice to other principals who are implementing change:
- Focus on Relationships, Relationships, Relationships
We built trust by focusing on all levels of relationships. “Researchers who have investigated teacher-student relationships for older students have found that positive teacher-student relationships are associated with positive academic and social outcomes for high school students.” Teachers need to be empowered to make an impact on students’ lives.
Farrington has over 60% free and reduced lunch students, 10% Special Education students, and 11% English Language Learners. Furthermore, a large number of students live in five low-income federal housing projects that feed into Farrington. In the past, it was difficult for staff members to get to know their students. Today, having made the effort to learn their students’ stories, our teachers are providing the positive adult support that is enabling our students to achieve.
One of the first things we did was to ask teachers to greet students at the door and send them off after class with a smile. I urged teachers to call home to share positive stories about each student and open their classrooms during non-instructional time to offer students a safe place to socialize and get extra help with their academics. These are simple things that take effort, not skill, to do.
- Have High Expectations and a Growth Mindset
Students live up to teacher expectations and student achievement is aligned to what teachers expect of them in the classroom. At Farrington, we saw that when teachers began to teach with a growth mindset, it didn’t matter where the students began; all students progressed and developed to a much higher degree. As research into growth mindset shows, we experienced much more movement between ability groups as students learned and improved.
I took a survey of all our teachers to see where they stood on several questions, the first one being whether they believed that all students could learn at high levels. From 2011 to 2016 that belief has increased by double digits.
- Empower Teachers
We formed a Teacher Leader Cadre (TLC) with the intention that the group would lead all teacher professional development once a week during teachers’ non-teaching periods. Teachers were asked to apply for a spot on the 10-team TLC that meets on the first Saturday of each month to plan the following month’s professional development.
The TLC has quickly transformed the teaching and learning culture on campus, as the impact of teachers collaborating with and learning from one another has been game-changing. Teachers share technology engagement tools, AVID strategies, high-level questioning techniques, Socratic seminars, different types of lessons, and recently they have come to a common understanding of what Project-Based Learning is all about.
Through the TLC, teachers focus on the Hawaiian meaning of A’o, a word that means both “teaching” and “learning.” Teachers teaching teachers has allowed our staff to learn differentiation techniques that will help them meet the needs of all their students in class. This has also trickled down to the classroom, where students are beginning to teach students through different integrative Academy units. As one senior student said, “If we can teach it, we know it.” This is how true learning occurs.
- Identify and Focus on “Your School’s Way” to Set a Consistent, Positive Tone
“The Farrington Way” is about respect, learning, citizenship, being morally upright and spiritually sound. It also extends to the meaning of family and taking care of one another. At the core of everything we do is the spirit of aloha that most of our 2,500 students, faculty, and staff have grown up with on the islands. The real meaning of aloha in Hawaiian is “love, peace, and compassion.” It guides us in how to live—a life of aloha is when the heart is so full it is overflowing with the ability to influence others around you with your spirit.
We know it’s our kuleana (responsibility) to do things “The Farrington Way” every day and remind all our stakeholders that in doing so, we are carrying on the Farrington tradition…which now includes high academic standards and expectations.
Farrington High School has been honored as a 2017 Model School by the International Center for Leadership in Education. Learn more about what it takes to be a Model School.