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. Read about one enlightening initiative at Winfield Elementary School in Baltimore.
My journey as principal of Winfield Elementary began five years ago. I did not know much about the school I was charged to lead. All I knew is that when my colleagues said the word "congratulations," their facial expressions conveyed condolences. I would soon find out the challenges were great and ranged from a professional culture of mistrust to student behavior out of control to strained relationships with parents. What I realized in my first two years was that I needed to begin by redefining boundaries for everyone, listening to what was important to all stakeholders, and building critical relationships with staff, students, and parents. I needed to be fearless, because the work necessary to make a difference for all would take vulnerability, bravery, and transparency. Leadership is serving others, and I needed to figure out how best to serve this new community of mine.
Building relationships and trust through transparency and reflection
By my third year, I had hired 31 new staff members. After spending the first two years trying to find a collective mission and vision, I realized I was going about establishing our
mission all wrong. I had forgotten my commitment to transparency. I did not explicitly share with my staff the core beliefs that guided every one of my decisions about the work we do for children. It was in this third year that I took those steps and challenged my staff to reflect on their beliefs about the work we do. In order to be effective, our beliefs had to align. We adopted the following core beliefs after much work on unpacking what they meant and ensuring everyone was committed to these beliefs:
- Every child is capable of meeting, exceeding, and/or making progress towards his/her grade-level academic standards.
- Every child is capable of demonstrating resilience, perseverance, and social skills needed to be successful through effective social-emotional skills training.
- Every parent/guardian wants his/her child to be successful in life.
- Every member of the school community is responsible for creating and maintaining a learning environment that supports academic growth and success and social-emotional growth and well-being for every child in the Winfield community.
A commitment to teaching the skills our students need most for success
Born out of these four core beliefs was a change in mindset. We focused on teaching our students the social-emotional skills (SEL) they needed to be successful in class. This not only helped them become stronger and safer, but is equipping them for life. We began systematically teaching SEL skills as explicitly as we teach reading and math in hopes of reducing class disruption and loss of instructional time.
Ensuring a safe and orderly learning environment begins with understanding that we must address Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs before we address Bloom's Taxonomy. With the support of our school social worker and behavior interventionist, my leadership team and I set about developing a school-wide comprehensive social-emotional program. We realized we needed to create not simply a behavior intervention plan but a social-emotional plan that would support student mental health and teach social-emotional skills. We created an SEL Team and SEL Plan based on a Trauma-Informed Care. This is not synonymous with a school-wide PBIS (Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports) plan although PBIS strategies are included.
During the past two years, we have taken several steps to work toward building a positive climate and culture in the learning environment:
- We developed our vision/mission/core beliefs to target students' SEL needs and inform creation of a winning leadership team. (School Principal, School Social Worker, School Counselor, Behavior Interventionist).
- We created a team for the long-term implementation of the SEL Plan within the school schedule such as Responsive Classroom's Morning Meeting/Closing Circle.
- The SEL team created a Social-Emotional Plan and Blueprint using SEL Standards.
- Administrators and the SEL Team created supports for teacher training on emotional regulation (Incredible 5-Point Scale), the effects of trauma on learning, and SEL brain-based theories.
- The leadership team continues to monitor and hold teachers accountable for participation in our PBIS School-Wide Program as well as facilitating morning meetings and weekly Second Step lessons.
The positive outcomes of the SEL Plan have been significant. We've seen a big reduction in referrals and a decrease in loss of instruction. In a school-based survey in 2016, which was the first year using a plan, teachers observed that students accessed social skill supports at least 50% more of the time than in the previous years. In discussions during grade-level meetings, teachers expressed that they felt empowered to resolve conflicts within their classrooms and equipped to coach students in real time on effective problem-solving steps. This practice has led to more meaningful relationships between teachers and students. We have also seen continual improvement of our academic data and will be using the model for our focused data-driven SEL Plan to develop academic protocols and professional learning for our teachers going forward.
Winfield Elementary School has been honored as a 2017 Model School by the International Center for Leadership in Education. Principal Aricka Porter will be presenting at the 25th Annual Model Schools Conference in Nashville, TN, June 25–28.