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Calling for Excellence with One Voice
Story posted September, 2008. Results updated April 2, 2010.
• Now one of the top high schools in Memphis, outperforming the district as a whole on nearly all End-of-Course exams in 2009
• In 2009, 99% of students met or exceeded proficiency standards in reading and 95% of students did so in math, outperforming the state as a whole despite serving a population that is much more economically disadvantaged
What does shared leadership look like? At Westwood High School in Memphis, TN, it is evident when teachers and staff members talk with students in the halls between classes; when students demonstrate pride in themselves and their school by being fully engaged in their classes; when parents participate in their children's school life; and when community members are regular partners in the school.
This picture of collaboration and purpose was not present four years ago when Westwood was ranked at the bottom of high schools in Memphis and was about to be taken over by the state. Students were angry and had no respect for authority. Staff members describe being overwhelmed and demoralized. Students remember the fights and chaos.
Enter Tommie McCarter, appointed to her first principalship. The first thing McCarter did was meet with staff members to stress the need for collaboration; to emphasize her belief that they were the instructional experts; and most important, to ask them to prioritize what they would do to change the school. Everyone agreed that the first priority was restoring order. The students needed structure and discipline before instruction could begin- no new rules, just consistency in implementation of what already existed.
Given the staff's priorities, McCarter mandated teacher- parent conferences for behavior and academic issues as well as tutoring for students in need of academic support. Parents and students quickly came to understand that behavior that was tolerated in the past was no longer acceptable. Rapidly, student achievement began to improve.
Change may start with a good leader, but a good leader also knows that going it alone is fruitless. To maintain momentum requires a commitment to collaboration. McCarter and the staff point to their adherence to collaboration and teamwork - two principles emphasized in Breaking Ranks, the National Association of Secondary School Principals' seminal guide to school improvement - as reasons the school made adequate yearly progress for two consecutive years.
To address various pressing concerns, including discipline, attendance, mentoring, safety, and leadership, McCarter set in motion a process that led to the development of teams. For example, the disciplinary team faced the concern that discipline had historically been meted out unevenly and unfairly, and helped develop and implement policies and procedures to provide consistency, awareness, and transparency to discipline. The team charged with addressing attendance and truancy works with parents to improve attendance and has developed a no-exceptions policy regarding student tardiness to school and class. Structured monitoring of attendance ensures consistent follow-up with parents and a creative way to reward exemplary attendance.
The creation of teams and the accompanying feeling of empowerment also kindled an interest in fostering teachers' leadership abilities and developing professional learning communities. That interest became reality when teachers who shared a common planning period began to get together once or twice a month to share new strategies and techniques for teaching and leading or to engage in small-group professional development on a specific topic.
Staff members decided to tackle behavior and responsibility early on in their high school students' careers. Because they knew how vulnerable incoming freshmen can feel, staff members volunteered to create ninth-grade mentoring programs that teach and model proper, responsible, and respectful behavior and help prepare students to become leaders in their school and community. Selected students in grades 10-12 also help aid the transition for underclassmen by serving as peer counselors and role models.
In addition to these mentoring opportunities, Syriac says that "every student has an adult they feel comfortable with; and every teacher can call that person immediately-during class if needed-for assistance with the student." Every student participates in a club or on an athletic team, further fostering the student-teacher relationship.
Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment
Westwood's mission is to offer students a diverse curriculum designed to prepare them to become effective communicators, critical thinkers, proficient problem solvers, and responsible citizens after graduation. All regular education students are enrolled in a college-preparatory curriculum, and teachers encourage all of their students to enroll in challenging courses, with honors and AP level courses open to all students who are up to the challenge.
Teachers at Westwood use data to drive instruction. In fact, with one data-gathering instrument, the classroom performance system (CPS), teachers receive immediate feedback on student comprehension. CPS is a computerized system that enable teachers to assign each student an individual handheld remote control unit. Students use these remotes to submit answers to in-class assessments. Upon completion, the teacher can instantly run reports that detail exactly which objectives individual students mastered and which objectives need more work. This immediate feedback not only saves the teacher valuable instruction time but also aids in individualizing instruction.
"I have seen technology further the learning of students by keeping them interested," says McCarter. "Technology like the CPS handhelds mimic the gaming technology the students enjoy using. We have seen our math scores soar since the adoption of the classroom performance system."
After-school and weekend tutoring is available for struggling students- and mandatory for students performing below standard. Students and parents are given a choice: four days of Saturday attendance or four weeks of three-day-a-week, after-school sessions. In addition, once every six weeks on a Saturday, the ZAP (Zeroes Aren't Permitted) program allows students to make up zeroes, failing grades, and missed work without penalty. Another standards-related initiative, the Gateway Boot Camp, helps students prepare for the state exit exams.
Consistency Reaps Rewards
The staff at Westwood is on a mission. They demonstrate that putting in the effort, working together, modeling the behavior, and demonstrating the expectations with one voice all the time reaps rewards. They are proud of their students and proud of themselves for they have accomplished during the last three years. There are no fights at school, every student is in class on time, and the school is now in good standing, ranking near the top of high schools in Tennessee. The school was honored by the district in September 2007, when it received the Blue Ribbon School of the Year award in recognition of its improvement.
As McCarter advises, the key to school change is to build leadership. She is adamant that this strategy is possible: "Kids are kids.... The adults must meet their needs.... One just must have the heart and mind to do it. Start with the staff and listen."
APRIL 2010 UPDATE: Westwood continued strong academic performance in 2009, as evidenced by the Tennessee Department of Education Report Card. The school, where 92.4% of students are considered economically disadvantaged (compared to 57.8% of students in the state as a whole), outperformed the state on the tests that determine adequate yearly progress. 99% of Westwood students met or exceeded proficiency standards in reading, compared to 94% statewide. 95% of students met or exceeded proficiency standards in math, compared to 89% statewide.
Westwood also remained one of the top schools in Memphis, outperforming the district as a whole on nearly all End-Of-Course exams. The school did particularly well in English and writing, with 90.8% of students tested meeting or exceeding proficiency standards in English I, 95.5% doing so in English II and 97.3% doing so in writing.
For additional information, please contact:
Principal, Westwood High School
Further details about this story can be found at:
NASSP's "MetLife Foundation/NASSP Breakthrough Schools: Westwood High School Profile," 2008
Copyright (2008) National Association for Secondary School Principals. For more information on NASSP products and services to promote excellence in middle level and high school leadership, visit http://www.principals.org/
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