Phoenix Rising: A Story of School Transformation

(This excerpt from the full article "Phoenix Rising: A Story of School Transformation" has been adapted for publication on Shaped.)

Students getting into fistfights. A mass exodus of teachers. Kids as old as 16 still in seventh grade—and even sixth. These were the challenges facing Marcus Miller at Brownsville Middle School when he arrived as its new principal in 2017. Even worse, the school, part of Florida’s Miami-Dade County Public Schools—the fourth largest school district in the nation—had a tough deadline imposed upon it. The state gave Brownsville two years to show improvement. “After those two years, if it didn’t make the grade, the state could have taken it over,” Miller explains.

Brownsville had been struggling in terms of student performance for a while. On a scale of A to F, its ratings were consistently below the state’s proficient level of C. By 2018, it was going on four consecutive D’s. As per state requirement, if a school receives four consecutive D’s, it has to work with an external partner to change its trajectory and show growth.

Principal Marcus Miller of Brownsville Middle School, in Miami, Florida.

Brownsville was not alone in the district when it came to having to turn itself around. Madison Middle School and Georgia Jones-Ayers Middle School were also experiencing low student performance, as well as disciplinary problems, teacher departures, and overage students. Madison, according to its current principal, David Ladd, had “the lowest D in the county.”

While Georgia Jones-Ayers was not facing a state takeover when Principal Carol Sampson arrived there in 2018, it too was at the D level, and she was tasked with bringing about demonstrable improvement.

A chance for turnaround came in the summer of 2018, when Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho met with HMH’s CEO, Jack Lynch, and Bill Daggett, Chairman and Founding Partner of the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE), a division of HMH. This conversation led to the creation of the Lighthouse Project, a partnership between HMH and Miami-Dade to provide system-wide support to increase student achievement at Brownsville, Madison, and Georgia Jones-Ayers.

The Lighthouse Project was developed with a three-pronged mission:

  • Develop a comprehensive plan to improve academic performance
  • Provide customized professional development at the district and campus levels
  • Collaborate with families and community organizations to create systems of support

But, according to Daggett, the ultimate goal went beyond raising student academic performance and getting the schools to hit a particular letter grade to avoid unwanted consequences.

“What’s really at stake is the kids’ future, not simply losing the ability to manage your own school,” Daggett says. “What’s really at stake is preparing kids to be successful as adults, which is more than simply passing the state test.”

Bill Daggett, ICLE Chairman and Founding Partner

Thus began a multi-year effort bringing together ICLE consultants, district and school leaders, teachers, students, parents, and the community as a whole, with a deep commitment to cooperation, coordination, support, and achieving a common goal. It would not be easy, nor would it happen quickly. The effort faced initial skepticism both inside and outside the school, with principals, teachers, and parents having doubts that any real change would come about.

But as the ancient proverb goes, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” That first step began in January 2019, when the ICLE consultants arrived at the schools. This began a period of observation, data collection, analysis, coaching, and information sharing with school personnel, covering topics including rigor, relevance, and learner engagement, as well as instructional leadership and time management. All of these factors would come into play when the 2019-2020 school year began, with the partnership between Miami-Dade and ICLE moving into full swing and implementation beginning in earnest.

***

The full story of Miami-Dade is one of transformation, dedication, inspiration, and building a bridge to the future—for students and teachers alike. Read more.