A School's Transformation Through Transparency, Teamwork, and Tenacity

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. 

Fifth-grade students and their teacher at Sugarland Elementary.
Teamwork made the dream work.

One of the most important goals of our newly formed team was to ensure that everyone was on the same page in understanding that teaching and learning were priorities so students could benefit and grow exponentially. We settled on a list of nonnegotiables, by which teaching and learning would be based and measured, including:

  • Weekly lesson plans that ensured the written, tested, and taught curriculums were aligned
  • Daily walkthroughs with immediate feedback
  • Professional development based on needs determined from walkthroughs, observations, and teacher feedback
  • A master schedule that protected instructional time and provided time for daily collaboration for teaching teams, which included SPED, EL, and reading teachers

Students in Grades 3–5 were also a part of the team and became responsible for knowing their data from quarterly benchmarks, common grade-level assessments, and instructional reading levels, as determined by the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA), a district assessment for monitoring reading, setting goals for learning, and leading in parent conferences. A component of student-led conferences, with administrators, was added as a second layer of accountability. As a school, we continue to encourage and grow in the number of parents who are our partners in education. A future dream is to be able to offer a “parent academy” so parents can learn what their children are learning and be able to help their children at home. This is critical in our school, with over 88 percent of families speaking a language other than English. This is still in the dream stage, as a solution would have to be secured to offer parents help in any language needed.

Tenacity brought success.

With a team that stands shoulder to shoulder to get the work done, all of the adults in the building know and take ownership of their part in ensuring our students are successful. Teacher assistants are used as instructional assistants. All teachers are responsible for all students. Administrators offer support as well as differentiated and personalized professional development resources. And the district provides guidance, training, wraparound support services, funding, and differentiated staffing.

What drives Sugarland to continue to go from good to great is the high level of tenacity. This is possible because of our collective why. Hard work is a given. Working smarter is a given. Collaboration regarding teaching and learning is a given. Matching team members to needs is a given. Student success is a given. Some points of reference include the following:

  • Reading achievement scores improved from 63 percent in 2013–2014, when Sugarland was an accredited-with-warning school in reading, to fully accredited with a three-year average score of 92 percent (2017–2018).
  • Mathematics achievement scores improved from 58 percent in 2012–2013 to a three-year average score of 91 percent (2017–2018).
  • Science achievement scores improved from 63 percent in 2015–2016, when Sugarland was an accredited-with-warning school in science, to fully accredited with scores above 80 percent in the years 2016–2018.

Sugarland has not only gone from good to great, but from a struggling focus school to a model school. This year will mark the fourth time we have connected with and attended the Model Schools Conference, and it not only has transformed our leadership team, but also our entire school community. 

Sugarland Elementary administrators at the 2018 Model Schools Conference in Orlando, Florida.

We have embraced the rigor, relevance, and relationship tenets Dr. Bill Daggett communicates, and have transformed how we do business in our school from classroom design to lesson design. All students benefit because we are educating for all, and all truly means ALL.

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Join Sugarland Elementary, a 2019 Model School, along with more than 5,000 educators in 100+ sessions at the 27th Annual Model Schools Conference in Washington, D.C., from June 23–26, 2019, where you can learn what steps to take to act for impact in your school or district.