Consistency Reaps Rewards: A Conversation with Principal Greg Alexander
Back in 2005, Idaho’s Sacajawea Elementary School was struggling. The school had had four principals in four years, had never made Adequate Yearly Progress and lacked direction. But that changed with the arrival of Greg Alexander.
Now in his fourth full year as principal, Alexander presides over an award-winning school. After making AYP the last two years and seeing tremendous growth in its Limited English Proficient students' reading scores in particular, Sacajawea was named one of only three Distinguished Schools in Idaho for 2009. What are the keys to its success? A focus on recruiting and retaining excellent teachers, a consistent discipline strategy, a strong reading program and a host of other efforts designed to meet students’ individual needs. Principal Alexander recently told us more.
Public School Insights: How would you describe Sacajawea Elementary?
Alexander: Sacajawea Elementary is located in Caldwell, Idaho, a suburb of the capital city of Boise, just a good 20 minutes away. I actually live in Boise and commute to this community. We have a neat facility. We are up on a hill, overlooking what is called the Treasure Valley. There is a story about a young boy sitting on the edge of a cliff off beyond our school, looking over the valley as the wagon trains came through. The sagebrush was so high that you could only see their canopies. And we look up at the Cascade Mountains. It is just a really beautiful campus.
On this beautiful campus we serve 500 students from pre-K through fifth grade. We are 60% Hispanic and 23% ELL, or LEP [Limited English Proficient], students. We are about 36% Caucasian students, and then just a few percentage of a variety of other students. We have 7% that have special education needs, and we are 90% free and reduced lunch.
Public School Insights: Since you started at Sacajawea, the school has improved enormously. What was the school like when you arrived?
Alexander: I came to the school during the ’05-‘06 school year, so this is my fourth full year here. I had been working at the middle and high school levels, and then the district asked me to come down and work in the elementary. It has been a blast, learning everything. It has been a vertical learning curve, but it has been great.
When I arrived Sacajawea was on its fourth principal in four years. There was no consistency. A big “Onward to Excellence” survey done with families, community members and just a wide variety of folks on a variety of issues revealed frustration with that. The school needed a consistent discipline plan as well as just focus and direction, because it had been pointed in such a wide variety of directions over the years.
The school had not made AYP—Adequate Yearly Progress—at that time. And we did not make it either my first year or the second year. But these last two years we have made Adequate Yearly Progress and we have achieved great growth with our LEP readers in particular. For example, in the past couple years that population grew 17% in reading--we went from 60% of LEP students scoring proficient or advanced in 2007-2008 to 77% in 2008-2009. Performance for our non-LEP students also improved slightly over that time. We are really trying to make the gap our LEP and our non-LEP students disappear. That has been our focus.
Public School Insights: During those first two years that the school did not make adequate yearly progress, did you see signs of growth? How did you know you are on the right track?
Alexander: My first year I came about nine weeks before the end of the year. Things were not headed in the right direction. There were a number of challenges with folks either not taking the leadership seriously or the leadership not being consistent prior to my getting here. And I hope all is well—I think there were some personal issues with the previous leadership. But let me answer the part that I dealt with, not what was there before.
When I came in, I basically had nine weeks to evaluate all teachers. At that point I realized that a number of the staff were not headed the direction that we were all going to be going. We actually had a turnover of 10 teachers that year. I was not a mean guy. Some people were on their way to do other things—they had made a decision before I got there that they wanted to do something else, like become an administrator, move to a neighboring district or whatever. But for me a big part of getting on the right track has been a real focus of hiring and retaining the best teachers. We know that if we keep teachers, and we keep investing in them, we do not want them to leave. But we do not pay as much as the capital city of Boise, or the first suburb of Boise, which is Meridian. So we are trying to figure out how to hire and retain the best.
My first year it was almost 40%, the 10 teachers that left. Then the next year, five teachers moved on. So the number went down. The last two years, it has been minor, just a couple of teachers—one retired, one moved, one had a baby, those kinds of things.
Getting the right people on board has been a huge factor in our improvement. We need people who want to work hard and really do want to see these kids succeed. And they have to believe in these kids, and they have to believe that all kids can learn. If not, if it is about them and what they teach, then they have missed it. It is about kids—what the kids can learn, where the kids are at and how to move them to the next level.
Our teachers work really hard, and they have been really open to all of the things that we are doing. And they are seeing consistency, which is nice. Some of these folks have been around education for 25 or 30 years, and they are saying that this is the best professional development that they have ever had. That it is all consistent, and that we always say the same stuff, so it is not, “What is the new thing that we are doing, the new program we have to learn?” Everything that we do has been trying to help streamline and focus and get them on the same page.
Public School Insights: What would you say have been the biggest factors in the school’s improvement?
Alexander: We have been a Reading First school the entire time that I've been here, though we are in our last year now. I really believe that my leadership and my understanding of elementary education have come so far thanks to all of the professional development that I have received through Reading First and the opportunities that the funds have provided, including some conferences, like the CORE Conference that I recently attended. I took a teacher and a reading coach, and we got to hear Dr. Kate Kinsella, Anita Archer and just some great folks. It was really a valuable learning experience.
So when we talk about what made the difference at Sacajawea, I really think one main factor was Reading First. And I would also credit establishing what we are going to teach and common discipline and consistent focus towards where we are headed.
In the past couple of years we have brought in a few key programs. One is “Time to Teach,” which gives us a consistent discipline structure across all the grades. Our goal is that teachers can teach, students can learn, and the students around students can learn. And this program helps us meet that goal by refocusing students when they are acting up. If a student is not focused then we give them the opportunity to redirect. If they do not respond to that then they will do a refocus paper. They will either stay in the classroom or go to a partner teacher so they do not miss the instruction. And the process helps get them back on task.
Also, when I came to the school we were in a continuous school improvement plan, which really made me aware of our needs assessment. So we were focusing in on, what are the greatest needs? We brought in consistent policy addressing them. We kept our focus on our reading and math scores and provided reading instruction and reading support. And through Reading First we got support in peer review with other schools. That is one of the greatest things—having other schools coming in and having teachers analyze teachers. We were participating in that. And with it, we sort of melted right into professional learning communities (PLCs). We started studying the DuFour's work. We have read a number of books connected to PLCs—Whatever It Takes, Learning by Doing and Pyramid Response to Intervention. We are doing S.M.A.R.T. goals with PLCs as well. We are also really focusing on, to use PLC language, the “essential outcomes” of what we expect at the end of the year, what are the grades below doing to get our students to us, and then what are we doing to get them into the grade beyond. As a team, the staff is looking at those essential outcomes together. And that has been a big factor in Sacajawea’s improvement.
We have also started using what is called “instructional focus groups.” Each week, within each grade level we identify up to six subgroups of students with distinct reading needs, though of course even inside those subgroups there are more specific needs. Then each day there is a “walk to read,” in a sense. We use all of the teachers—from the computer teacher to the music teacher—and the paraprofessionals that we can to support our grade level teachers during that hour. They go to classrooms and work with the kids once they have divided up into the specific skills they need to work on. Once the kids gain whatever skill they needed, they move into the next group. So that really helps us support all kids’ needs. Some teachers piloted this idea two years ago, and then last year we really started putting it all together. This year it is even better.
The last three years we have been a part of the Developing Mathematical Thinking program from Boise State University. We've worked in a close partnership with them, which I love, having played football there—the connections are great. With this program, our teachers are doing what is called “cognitively guided instruction.” From what I understand, CGI allows students to move along the continuum of understanding. They do direct modeling with mathematics, moving towards learning and understanding algorithms. There are some things about the actual algorithms that tend to mess kids up with number sense, place value and things like that which they are really understanding a whole lot better.
And the biggest part of this model is that they have to explain. Students listen to each other and they have to explain how they get their answers and then how their partner got their answers. So the kids are becoming more confident through this, which is spreading over into everything that they do, including things like vocabulary building, which is especially important because we have a lot of language learners. We do a lot with vocabulary as well—we have studied Maria Elena Arguelles’ approach and read Isabel Beck’s book Bringing Words to Life as a staff.
I don’t want to short sight our district at all either. In the last couple of years our superintendent has started the Caldwell Academy of Leadership—the CAL Project, we call it. There is also the Principal’s Academy of Leadership (the PAL project) that the state started several years ago that I worked under when I was at the middle school and high school level.
With the CAL Project, the principals, coaches and lead teachers from every building meet about four times a year with our superintendent. We have 10 buildings in our district and so it is 30+ people who get together. We do book study together—for example, Anatomy of Peace and Leadership and Self-Deception from the Arbinger Institute, and Checking for Understanding. And then we lead out much of the professional development in our district as this CAL team. We go out in pairs and work with different groups. For example, I work with PE and health teachers across the district. My coach works with second grade teachers across the district. That has been really beneficial for me and for the school, in addition to everything that Reading First gives us as well. I just want to mention again how much Reading First brought us.
Public School Insights: I also understand that the school is very college-focused.
Alexander: Yes. Another thing we have done is a “College for Every Student” program, which came out of Rick Dalton’s work with the Foundation for Excellent Schools out of Vermont. We grabbed a hold of this idea that somebody in our lifetime…Like for me, my junior year of high school a counselor came to me and said “You are going to college. And we are going to move you from this class to this class because this one is going to prepare you more to go to college.” I was like, “Oh wow, this guy believes in me.” And all of a sudden I believed in myself and that I was going to go to college. I'd never really believed it before. I relate it a little bit to The Blindside and Michael Oher having a family believing in him. In my case, I had educators. Educators believe in kids all the time. And it is amazing the impact that we can have upon them.
So a conversation got going with someone from the Lee Pesky Learning Center in Boise about the program College for Every Student. They have partnered with us for these past three years on this project, sending a liaison to work with us.
In planning the project, we thought about our third graders first. Our initial third-graders have now become fifth-graders. And this program is just a really neat thing to watch. We think it is working really well and helping kids believe in themselves.
We decided that we were going to target 25 third-graders for the program. We would meet with them once a month and do three things with them. First, we would give them a pathway to college—talk about college and goal-setting and how they're going to go to and graduate from college.
Second is that we would engage them in leadership through service. They would serve others. For example, they started a recycling program at the school. They go and mentor younger kids—third graders will mentor first graders, fourth will mentor second, fifth will mentor third. They are reading buddies and get together periodically, about once a month, to spend time together, reading and talking about what they’re reading, how things are going and what they like to do. That is a really neat opportunity.
And third, we would give them mentors. Each of these kids would get a mentor to meet with them once or twice a month and talk about goals, or just check in with them. We have the adults coming in to the school—about 75 of them, with some mentoring a couple of different kids. We have some college students coming in, and even our janitors. One janitor left our school for another building but still comes back to mentor his mentee, who is now a fifth grader. He started with him two years ago, and he still comes back to meets with this kid because he believes in getting him through. And these kids have got to see that they are going to finish—finish elementary school and then get through middle school and high school. In the population we serve, a lot of kids think, “I'm just going to end up working in the fields” or “I am going to have my Quinceañera when I turn 15 and then I'm going to be eligible to get married and have kids.” So a large part of it is using these mentors to try to break that mindset and get these kids to believe in their futures.
We also do college visits with the third, fourth and fifth graders. And this year it was awesome, showing up at Boise State University and walking around campus with these guys who just won the Fiesta Bowl. Here are these third through fifth graders looking at how big and cool that is. And knowing that someday they are going to go somewhere like here.
So we put all these pieces together, and the next thing you know we are making AYP and are really growing. And now we are really enjoying how well they did, and having our story told.
We were recently named one of three Distinguished Schools in Idaho for 2009. What I think was really great in this award is that they really recognized our growth—they saw that. Certain schools are always doing really, really well, but it is great when we see schools that grow. The kids may not always have the highest scores, but man, they sure went a long ways. So we are enjoying that recognition right now.
Public School Insights: What would you say have been some of the challenges the school has faced in the improvement process?
Alexander: One thing is mobility. You know, I would never consider moving my children during the middle of the school year, except maybe Christmas break—and we would stay after Christmas for two weeks to take finals and then move, because we would want to wait until the semester ends. But our families cannot afford to do that. They are just going where the work is. And migrant workers may come and go—they may leave for a couple weeks at a time. The test scores of those kids do not always count against us—if they come in after our October cutoff date their scores don’t count in determining AYP—but at the same time the situation does hurt us because we have to catch those kids up. They have not been around to know our program. They come in at a weird time and if they are a fourth-grader reading at the first-grade level, we have to deal with that. If they would have been with us from first grade, we could've worked on that and gotten them closer so that they could get extra resources within the grade level versus some sort of pullout situation. So that really is one of the challenges we face. It makes it really tough.
Public School Insights: As I'm sure you know, the Obama administration has called to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, currently known as No Child Left Behind. How could that law be better structured to support the work that you do at Sacajawea? What should be kept, what should be changed?
Alexander: I will be honest; I am not as informed as I should be as to those policies. But I really do like No Child Left Behind in the sense that because of this law we have identified kids—individual students—who might have fallen through the cracks. I mean, some of our parents would love to be back in class with their kids. There is actually a neighboring district that has a parent going through first grade because she made it through school somehow without ever learning how to read. Now she is trying to get caught up. It is an amazing thing. So there are people who have missed out in the past and I am glad that we are identifying individuals and their growth. And that is part of the way I would like to have policymakers think about reauthorization—growth models.
Also, I think having to have every subgroup of students make it all the time is hard. Sometimes you have to change your focus a little bit. So we may say, “Okay, we've made it in reading, we are going to put some more resources in math.” Then we make it in math, but then a subgroup doesn't make it in reading. That is definitely something we need to identify. But could we just identify it and keep moving forward? Because that is what we need to focus on. If one subgroup doesn't make it one time, why do we get hammered if all of these other groups that were not making it all of a sudden do make it?
I also think that resources need to available to be used locally and that we should have some opportunity for resources without lots of demands. As a principal, I need to be in classrooms at least a couple hours a day. But if all I am doing is paperwork and trying to make sure I'm writing things correctly to get money, I'm not spending my time the best way possible.
And we could maybe streamline a little of the way we tell our stories, so that our public understands it. If we are always writing our stories in a different ways then I do not think the parents of our constituents, the people we serve, are being respected. But I think AYP is doing that, to some degree. I hope that streamlining, and that consistency among schools, continues.
Public School Insights: Are there any questions that I should have asked you, but that I did not?
Alexander: Not that I can think of. I love my school. I really do. I love this school, I love these kids. And the only way to break the cycle of poverty is through education, and it is my job to help this generation right now do that.
We had an article in the newspaper the other day about teachers. Some of the teachers in the state still got raises last year from their steps in their lanes—for their new experience and education credits. I think that is great. They need to get what is due to them because they worked hard, gained a year’s experience and have grown. I know that the economy is in a tough spot—I have not had a raise in a couple of years. But teachers do work hard. And honestly, in our district, most of them earn below the poverty line. We need to continue to work to pay them more.
I chose to go into education because I felt it was honorable. Playing professional football would have made me paid more, but I get more satisfaction out of doing this than getting more money. But at the same time we have missed where the priority is—our future.
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The views expressed in this website's interviews do not necessarily represent those of the Learning First Alliance or its members.
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