Photo: At Sugarland Elementary School, staff meetings have been replaced with community-building meetings. At a recent one, teachers made "intent" bracelets with the words that drive their purpose. (Courtesy of Sugarland Elementary)
Title I schools are usually synonymous with high needs simply because of the population of students served: those with an identified low socioeconomic status. Fortunately, for educators in these schools, the federal government provides additional funding to help close the achievement gap. At Sugarland Elementary, we surmised that the way to close the achievement gap was to close the opportunity gap.
In 2013, Sugarland was designated as a “focus school” based on the achievement of our historically low-performing subgroups. Along with the status came a state-approved school improvement coach, hundreds of classroom walkthroughs, and a long list of interventions, requirements, visitors, trainings, and meetings. It was our primary mission to bring the staff together to go from membership (in a school) to relationship (on a team). Although the staff were scattered in various directions, at the core were some hard-working people from every part of the school: cafeteria staff, custodians, bookkeepers, secretaries, parent liaisons, the nurse, teachers, assistants, and administrators. If they were there, they worked hard, but we were going about it all wrong. We were trying to get something to our students instead of something from them. We were in a state of emergency and needed triage. Instead of trying to transform students, we knew we needed to transform our school; thus, our journey of transformation began.
The most tedious part of transformation was setting the stage for success, which meant getting the right people in the right seats on the bus, or matching teacher talent to grade-level needs. For some, it meant a transfer to a less challenging “seat” or school. Reflection was a huge part of these “seat assignments,” as teachers had to ask themselves some hard questions about pedagogy, commitment, and purpose. It was no easy feat, and we had a lot of critical conversations to lead the entire team in self-reflection and a sustained sense of purpose. A question the team was often asked—and still are to this day—is “Who are you?” There is a lot of power behind that question because it continually compels team members to think about who they are personally and professionally, and that is who the team brings to school and who impacts our students for seven hours each day. We had to do the inner work to transform ourselves before we could transform how we did business. Once the team was strategically formed and placed, which meant many teachers were stretched to step out of their comfort zones, we were ready to do the work of transformation. There were several tenets by which we needed to build our purpose: transparency, teamwork, and tenacity, all of which had to operate in tandem.
Transparency was key to running a no-secrets school.
As a leader, I have always been transparent. I simply believe the world already has enough facades, schemes, and masks that prevent people from experiencing the beauty of truth. These are the very things that keep parents and business partners at bay when it comes to engagement in schools. For the most part, parents trust us with their best treasures—their children—and sometimes that trust is blind. We decided it was time for full-blown transparency. This is not to say we had kept anything from parents; however, we wanted parents to understand every aspect of the school, including who was teaching and leading their children, the curriculum being utilized, the data that identified our school, the programs and practices in our school, the teacher’s role in the classroom, and most importantly, the work being put in to ensure their children were growing and excelling.
Regarding the coaches and school improvement officers assigned to our school, from the state and district, transparency meant being vulnerable to receiving critical feedback about every aspect of our building, including teaching and learning, leadership, and the culture of our school.