After 20 years of being the principal of the same school–and 20 years of continuous improvement–I often am asked how we keep our momentum. How do we keep on driving for a “finish line” that keeps changing? I think it boils down to one idea: we have to be vigilant so that we don’t create our own status quos. Having been named a National Model School for seven years, it would be easy to rest on our laurels, but we have to remember what earned us the recognition in the first place. It wasn’t following the “rules” or compliance with the multitude of mandates. It was challenging the system. It was the tearing down of all the status quos that held us hostage for so long. We can’t be afraid to challenge what worked several years ago but may not be working as well now. It is easy to fall into line but greatness does not live inside the lines. Being a future-focused school and keeping organizational momentum both require a few key characteristics:
- wanting to have impact beyond traditional school paradigms
- having a relentless drive to share ideas that work with anyone who will listen
- a willingness to risk everything–even your own comfort zone–to do what’s best for your students
Change the mindset, change the culture, shake the foundation! Rob Carroll, Principal of South Heights Elementary School, Henderson, KY
Having a school that keeps striving to be more requires a belief system driven by purpose and resulting in impact. We were once one of the 25 worst-performing schools in Kentucky; but in 2004 we were honored with a National School Change award, and since 2010 we have been an ICLE Model School (this year—our seventh in a row—we earned the title of Sustained Model School).
How did this transformation come about?
Lead the way you want to be led. Figure out who your great people are and lead around what they need to be inspired. Rob Carroll, Principal of South Heights Elementary School, Henderson, KY
Our school believes that “ideas rule, not people.” True educational change will not come from above. Transformation will be a grass roots effort of schools sharing ideas with other schools. Great teachers aren’t driven by pay or job descriptions. They want to be a part of something bigger than themselves that can potentially change how things are done. Our school lives by that idea! Our why is “We will change the world beginning at the 1199 (South Heights).” Impact is a driver! It is addictive and keeps us always wanting more.
That is why being designated a national Model School has been so powerful! Breaking down status quos, including our own, means that a new, better idea can evolve and take over. We have to be open to that. It’s about making school-based innovation a participatory sport for all regardless of job descriptions. Changing the world is a collaborative venture that requires sharing every idea that works. Here are a few of the groundbreaking initiatives that our teams have innovated to drive change at South Heights Elementary:
- The Home Visitation Blitz–Our teachers visit each of their students at home just before school starts every year with a festive, celebratory introduction to the family. It’s a way of establishing trust up front and building community. We have even begun “simulcasting” with other schools, whose teachers have joined us via Skype while doing their own Home Visitation Blitzes. And we’ll invite other Model Schools to participate as well.
- Blazer Corps–We’ve engaged parents, grandparents, and community leaders who want to be part of our school, offering training sessions that enable them to be reading and math helpers, who are much needed due to staff and budget cuts.
- 1199 Forever–This means that when our students leave 5th grade, they’re not gone. Teachers leave postcards on the kids’ 6th-grade desks, connect with students when they get to high school, write college recommendations, and even attend high school and college graduations (in tee shirts with the students’ names listed). Our relationships are built to last forever.
- College Tours–Our kids may come from families whose parents didn’t attend college. This means they need exposure to college early in order to be able to think about their futures, so we started a college tour program that begins in Kindergarten. And in true Circle of Life fashion, some of our kids who did the first college tours are now graduating from college and they want to give back—they are asking to lead the college tours.
- Team before Self–How do you get great people? We hire for heart. We included a panel of students in the hiring and interviewing process—and their perceptions were spot on.
- Day of Thanks–We established a day to thank students for being who they are. Around Thanksgiving time, each teacher picked out a student to thank. The team member who came up with the idea said it was the proudest day of her life.
100% of our students were born to be incredible. Rob Carroll, Principal of South Heights Elementary School, Henderson, KY
Putting students first is more than a catch phrase uttered in an interview. It is the core belief that all of our other beliefs are built upon. Sometimes this belief will force us into uncomfortable situations where we will have to make choices…tough choices. We can’t have ongoing status quos because for every one success story, we had nine kids who didn’t make that level of success. We needed to address the excellence and equity gap. Our vision? To be an anchor of change in the community by bridging the gap from birth through college. How are we doing it?
One way is the Audubon Kids Zone. We recruited people and partners in the community to revitalize an area of 10 square blocks, which we identified as an area of underserved children. We are building a “hub of services” that uses the idea of “community RTI” to identify the needs of every student who lives within the zone. Through collaboration and innovation, those needs are starting to be addressed one by one. As we perfect the model and build capacity, the size of the zone and the number of children and families we serve will grow. This first summer of being open has been tremendously successful! Throughout the summer, we are holding activities that involve parents, including a community event every Thursday night. Hundreds of family members have participated!
This summer as we continue to celebrate our “Sustained Model School” honor from ICLE at the Model Schools Conference in June, we are also energized by partnerships we have formed with other Model Schools from around the United States. We will continue to smash our status quos. We have to be ever-evolving to keep our momentum and to always put our students first!
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Rob Carroll, Principal of South Heights Elementary in Henderson, Kentucky, presented at the 25th Annual Model Schools Conference in June. Interested in becoming a Model School leader? Apply now to represent your school or program as a Model School or Innovative District in 2018.
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