Strengthening the Core: Leading Transformation in My School District

My journey in the Asbury Park School District began in 2014 as the Director of Curriculum and Instruction at which time I was tasked with the challenge of helping to turn around a district in ‪dire straits that had been plagued by high administrative turnover at the central office, failing test scores, perpetual low student achievement, and high absenteeism. In January 2017, I became the Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, and in 2018, I was appointed the Superintendent of Schools for the Asbury Park School District.

During the four-year period, a plan was created to address the low hanging fruit. After assessing the landscape, the district foci were leadership and literacy as priorities. In order to change outcomes, we first had to change the perception of the district from that of a failing district. Next, we addressed the leadership structure and took steps to ensure the best people were in the right positions.

I believe that we all have a purpose; mine is to change the trajectory of the lives of everyone with whom I come in contact. I knew that at the helm, we needed to transition from a deficit instructional mindset to one that embraced and supported the intellectual curiosity of students who were realizing small, incremental gains for the first time. Addressing the mindset of all stakeholders required a cultural shift in thinking, hence the establishment of new pillars that have become one of our main hashtags (#PerformancePassionPurpose): 

  • Performance—the action or process of carrying out a task; 
  • Passion—an intense desire or enthusiasm for something; and 
  • Purpose—the reason for which something is created or exists. 

Collectively, these words coupled with our moral imperative—exemplify “heartwork.” 

We assessed the landscape by employing the continuous improvement model coined R.A.C.E.—Reflect/Review, Assess, Create, and Execute—as a means to get us to the finish line, which we defined as high school graduation, career, college, and beyond. We embarked on a mission that began with reviewing and reflecting on the plan; assessing the landscape using all available data; creating a plan to improve district outcomes; and executing based on prior findings. After an internal assessment, the district focus shifted from an over-reliance on academic interventions to focusing on strengthening the core instruction at grade level and beyond. In order to change student performance outcomes, we first had to address the deficit teaching mindset.

We continue to address literacy rates to close the deep hole of deficiency. To understand our plight, I call your attention to studies by Hart & Risley and LENA that reported the 30-million-word gap between children in language-rich homes versus those in language-deficient homes. The studies’ conclusions included two important findings that relate to what we experience here in Asbury Park:

  • The more parents talked to their children, the faster the children's vocabularies were growing and the higher the children's IQ test scores at age three and later.
  • A child with “talkative” parents heard 45 million words spoken to them during their first four years, while a child with “taciturn” parents heard 13 million words, resulting in a cumulative 30-million-word gap after just four years.

Specifically, what that meant for Asbury Park is that we had over 75% of our students reading below grade level. To that end, we implemented several intervention programs that allowed us to experience incremental gains. Our students’ performance levels indicate that the deficiency gap is closing: over 65% of our students are making one year’s growth and over 40% continue to make two years growth gains on their Lexile levels

Today, the district finds itself in the middle of transformational change. Over the last several years, we have established processes and procedures to continue to take us to the next level, and I find myself as superintendent, situated to oversee this much-needed shift. Our goal is to make sure each of our students is college- or career-ready when he or she graduates—our moral imperative. With the continued support of the Board of Education, our three career academies—Law and Public Safety, Engineering: Project Lead the Way, and Allied Health—provide relevant, real world experiences for our students. For example, our 10th-grade engineers built a bridge for our districtwide Pre-K Bridge Crossing ceremony, while our 12th-grade engineers designed and constructed a stage extension for the high school fashion show. Both student-led initiatives empowered our community of learners while saving the district money. Additionally, we have partnered with businesses, institutions, and universities to offer our industry-valued credentials, such as E.M.T. certification, that will afford students not attending college the opportunity to seek employment immediately upon graduating. The moniker for the City of Asbury Park is “the place where music lives.” To that end, we are launching a Visual and Performing Arts Academy this September. We are doing this because we realize the time is now to give youth access to highly rigorous options that in turn strengthen our C.O.R.E. (Curricular Programs, Organizational Leadership, Re-Imagining, and Equity).

We have to R.A.C.E. to get our students to the finish line. Faced with a $24 million reduction in state aid, our reality is that we will have to do more with less. That is our challenge and one that is shared by many other school districts. This problatunity (problem-turned opportunity) provides us with a plethora of possibilities for our district. I plan to uplift the community as we climb by ensuring all have access and opportunity. I invite you to follow the Asbury Park School District’s journey as we ascend to the next Level, which is focused on the intentionality of design to increase student achievement.

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Hear more from Sancha Gray in her Lead the Way to Literacy webinar, “Strengthening the Core.” Watch the recording here.

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