When It Comes to RTI, Culture Trumps Strategy

Schools constantly try to come up with different strategies to close the achievement gap and enhance student growth. While many strategies are effective in the short term, most impacts are not sustained because they are neither established campus-wide nor practiced with focused and detailed attention. 

At Gunn Junior High School, many educators proposed that because we were a Title 1 school, we couldn’t perform against non-Title 1 schools within our district. We realized that we had to change the mindset of not just teachers but also students so that we would understand that labels don’t set a ceiling to what we can accomplish. At one point, our school was very affluent, and the demographics began to change. However, some teachers still did not shift the way they taught. We realized we had to focus on the development of a clearly defined culture that promotes student growth by targeting individual students’ academic needs.

We base our ability to sustain this culture on the value it creates for all campus stakeholders. At the heart of this value is our belief that the main ingredient to a trusting culture is relationships between all individuals in our community—teachers, custodians, nurses, front office staff, counselors, bus drivers, cafeteria staff, parents, and anybody else who deals with students.

Before my time at Gunn Junior High School, the school did not have a stable administration due to the previous principals’ promotions or retirement. In fall 2014, I was the interim, and the teachers asked me if I was going to apply for the principal position. I shared with them that if I was selected to become the new principal at Gunn Junior High, I would give them 100 percent of my ability and loyalty. I know it takes at least three years to establish solid relationships and trust, and that is what we have done. Teachers know they can come into my office to share concerns or ideas and that they will be heard. 

The Centerpiece of Culture: Family

Creating a solid, relationships-based culture can be challenging when you work with a great diversity of personalities, but it’s possible if you prioritize really getting to know your entire staff and find out what they value most. Many on our campus value family. We’ve made one of our core values making family a priority—something we genuinely embrace.

To tie the creation of strong relationships with the value of family, we take to time to hear from staff about those who are involved in their lives. We listen to staff talk about how well their kids did at their sporting event the previous weekend, or where they went out for their 25th wedding anniversary the night before. But anyone can sit and listen to people talk about themselves; what helps grow the relationship is the follow-up. Relationships begin when we put our needs aside and focus on the needs and interest of the individual with whom we want to establish a positive relationship. We take the time the next week to see how the son or daughter is progressing on their team or if they have tried any new trendy restaurants since their anniversary. You see, the key component to all of this is not just to show that you have a legitimate interest in their family, but to show how you are, in a way, a part of their family as well.

When we see or hear of something that needs to be acknowledged, I write about it in the school’s weekly newsletter, “THE CHOMP.”  We want every staff member to know the great things our teachers are doing. I also know that we have very silent leaders in our building who do not like to be recognized, so I write them a thank you note and usually include a little gift card to local restaurant to let them know that they are valued. At times, I stop at Starbucks to bring a teacher her favorite latte to just say, “Thank you.” The simple things matter.

When we received our seven-out-of-seven distinctions, we celebrated and celebrated big. We involved the entire staff and students, and invited our central administration to join in the fun. It was not an easy task organizing seven outlined starts and Gunn Gators with students and adults on the football field, but we did it. We took a picture with a drone, which turned out great and was posted on our district’s website. We celebrated with a small reception after the photo.  The expressions on the participants’ faces beamed with pride. It was such a memorable moment.

How a Strong Family Culture Infuses Our Work Together

The relationship-building with our teachers helps support the meaningful conversations they have through their work in professional learning communities (PLCs) or in response-to-intervention (RTI) teaming. During our team meetings and discussions, we analyze data and focus on the instructional reinforcement our students need. We look at the big picture—such as which standards students did not meet on a recent assessment—and create a weekly plan indicating when we can provide students with targeted intentional interventions. We are fortunate that four of our retired teachers help us by providing interventions during the school day.

Another component of our family culture is our daily PLUS period, which is somewhat similar to an advisory class. We have seven class periods in our regular school day. After the sixth class, we have our PLUS period which is rotated between first and seventh period. For example, on one day, a student attends first through sixth period followed by PLUS first, and then seventh period. The following day the student will attend PLUS second during the PLUS period, and the day following that, the PLUS third, and so on. Teachers arrange to help students during this time with interventions, or students make up tests or do homework. Being a low socioeconomic status school, we’ve learned that students must do all of their work during the day and receive the necessary help for our teachers to ensure their success. Many students have to go home and take care of siblings and fulfill house responsibilities. We understand that we must help them while we have them on campus, and the PLUS period goes a long way toward meeting their needs.

We also use our weekly RTI period as a purposeful target on RTI and student growth. In a team that consists of an assistant principal, a counselor, and the core teachers who share the same students, we discuss the social and emotional aspects of students having difficulties. We develop strategies and solutions for students who show behavioral or emotional issues. Allowing teachers who have a good rapport with the student to share information about that student helps us get to the root of the problem. We leverage that information to provide counseling or apply any other resources available. The team then shares its planning face to face with the student and parent. Students know we have their best interest in mind, and we want them to succeed.

Most importantly, we want everyone in the building to build strong and solid relationships with all students. To reinforce this positive messaging, we use our Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) system to encourage good behavior, and we write positive referrals which we call “Atta Gator!” On Fridays, the administrators call the students who have received recognitions into the office, and we call the parents to brag about the student while they are in the office. Creating memorable moments for the parents and students helps encourage good behavior.

A Culture of Trust Builds Results

All of our success comes from the culture of trust we have collectively created. This culture underpins not only relationships between adults but, more importantly, those with students. The most critical element in any student’s success is a positive relationship with adults. Students get many different signals that they matter to teachers. Teachers reward students with SWAMP dollars, which they can use to purchase snacks on Fridays after school from our SWAMP Store, also stocked with pencils, pens, and backpacks. Also, once every six weeks, we have a 3Rs (Ready, Respectful, and Responsible) party for those students who have displayed outstanding behavior. We provide students with a hot dog meal, and the PTA provides College Ready gift baskets that students can win by placing their SWAMP dollars to win a basket.

This year we also implemented shout-outs. Students and teachers can recognize the greatness of our staff and students by scanning a bar code and sharing with us why they want to give someone kudos. These accolades are read during the daily announcements, which really helps with relationship-building in the school. We also rely on the Rigor and Relevance framework to support our emphasis on relationships as it’s the most important ingredient in the framework.

For three consecutive years, the Texas Education Agency accountability rating system has awarded us a seven-out-of-seven distinction designation, and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram has named us one of the best junior high schools in North Texas. We have established a safe place for students to learn, have pride, and experience success. This couldn’t have been done alone. It’s taken the entire faculty to collectively work together to trust each other and create a stable culture of high expectations for students and ourselves. Before my time, the school was primed for success and great things were already happening at Gunn Junior High, but we’ve taken it to a different level by focusing on each individual student when we analyzed data in our RTI meetings and PLCs.

Join the team from Floyd M. Gunn Junior High School along with ICLE thought leaders and 5,000 of your peers at the 26th Model Schools Conference, June 24–27 in Orlando. You’ll take away innovative strategies for personalized learning, interventions, and school culture. Come be inspired by our success story and many others.