Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Excellence is the Standard

National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) on Pierce County High School, Georgia

Story Posted November 27, 2012.


  • In 2004, only 55% of students graduated; in 2011, 86% of students did 
  • Four years ago, just 54% of students were proficient and 20% were advanced on the science graduation test; in 2011, 22% were proficient and 75% were advanced (all tested areas show a similar trajectory)
  • Ten years ago, the school was among the failing high schools in Georgia; by 2011, it was among the top 10% of high schools in the state for student achievement in every area

Results matter. Whether in a classroom or on an athletic field, student achievement drives the success that builds pride in the community and the school. As results improve, the bar keeps getting higher. Nowhere is this truer than at Pierce County High School in rural southeast Georgia. The school’s 965 students, almost half of whom are from economically disadvantaged families, have demonstrated what a focus on student learning can accomplish. In 2004, the school ranked at the bottom of the state in students passing the high school graduation tests, and only 55% of the students graduated. In 2011, 86% of the students graduated and the school ranked 17th in the state on the graduation exams.

Although that is a significant accomplishment, seeing how the level of student proficiency has increased is even more striking. On the science graduation test four years ago, 54% of the students were proficient and 20% were advanced. In 2011, 22% were proficient and 75% were advanced. All the tested areas demonstrated a similar trajectory. The decision to not settle for proficiency has been embraced by teachers, students, and parents. They believe that standards-based instruction requires mastery of concepts; once that mastery has been achieved, student performance excels. When asked whether they teach to the test, teachers emphatically respond that they do not; they teach for student learning. They also say that the need to always be better stems from the tone set by Principal Anthony Smith’s values and leadership. He disagrees, saying that it is not his leadership, but rather it is the collective power of the group.

Teachers describe their collaboration as the unifying factor that drives the school’s improvement. Traditional all-school faculty meetings are rare. Instead teachers meet in monthly focus groups to study issues in education, such as grading and differentiated instruction. The focus groups look for ways to improve student achievement. They are teacher friendly, constructive, planning and learning groups.

Group recommendations are shared and reported to the “better-seeking team,” which is composed of administrators, department chairs, and teacher leaders who act as an issue-specific task force. Decisions are made only after everyone has had input. As one teacher said, “I’ve never seen a unilateral decision made here.” The keys to this model’s success are full collaboration and thorough study of the research. Decisions are made solely on the basis of student needs.

This unique leadership model has led to fully supported changes in grading over three years that require a “no zeros” approach to assignments and the opportunity for retesting. The process also led to an instructionally based master schedule that simultaneously accommodates a 90-minute block for extended instruction and 45-minute “skinny” periods for classes that require yearlong study. Demands of AP and vocational classes are easily accommodated in this hybrid schedule, resulting in greater opportunities for students.

Students recognize this increased access to a variety of courses and echo their teachers’ commitment to excellence. They set personal goals, noting that their teachers set high standards. They know that effort counts and take pride in seeing how successful the school has become. Juniors point to the previous year’s results, which are posted throughout the building, saying that their goal is to beat that class. Parents point to the additional opportunities that are available and feel that each student, whether gifted or challenged, is receiving an education at Pierce County that will serve them well as adults.

Let Them See You Care

Being principal of a school for more than a decade while steadily increasing student achievement requires skill and determination. Anthony Smith clearly articulates how his leadership evolved over time.

I have served Pierce County High School as principal for the last 10 and a half years. This was my first principal position, and I was the fourth principal in 5 years. Because of this turnover, I inherited a school in which there was little leadership. The teachers were working but there was no direction or plan for educating students.

Some of the issues involved in my first several years as principal included a negative teacher atmosphere; the death of six students; a textbook curriculum; a 53% graduation rate; low test scores on the Georgia High School Graduation Test, especially in science and social studies; racial issues; drug problems; fights; and a lawsuit against me for allegedly breaking a girl’s arm. The difficulties helped us come together as a staff.

The one thing that we did immediately at the high school was talk about performing at high levels in all aspects of the school. We started looking at schools and school systems that were performing at high levels. We also targeted schools with similar demographics to compare our performance with like schools on the state graduation test, the SAT, and the end-of-course test. Of great importance was that within the first several years, we were able to hire many new teachers who were on board with the drastic changes needed to make a difference in student achievement. I made several good hires, and I know that it immediately made a big difference in our school. We needed and got the best teachers, administrators, and staff members. Throughout, we continued talking about being the best in the state in the classroom, on the athletic fields, and in the arts.

Relationships are a must for all successful organizations. I think having a good rapport with staff members starts with having a strong work ethic. I don’t ask teachers to do more than I do. I have constantly worked longer hours and been available for my teachers in school matters as well as in personal matters. As the old adage goes, “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Having good rapport with students is equally important. My perception of student behavior has evolved during my tenure at Pierce County. Early on, there were many incidents that were not conducive to a successful school. Therefore, I was very determined to get things into order. We were very strict in all discipline matters and treated all students the same. My approach has changed over the last several years. I now try to build strong relationships with my at-risk students before negative behavior appears. I purposely greet and talk to these students by walking around before the beginning of school. I do this to give them a good start to the school day. By building relationships with the students, I am able to have a strong impact on the school day not only for them but also for the teachers and the other students whom they come in contact with. Encouraging students to do their best at school is not common in many of our families. Therefore, it is very important to me that we all expect excellence from our students.

Communication is vital to successful schools. Our professional learning community, called “focus groups,” has been one of the most important factors in our improvement. Teachers meet during their planning period once a month to discuss, present, and receive information on student achievement and other school issues. This arrangement has allowed teachers across the curriculum to work together, discuss big and small issues, and make decisions that will benefit all students. The culture immediately improved because teachers were given the opportunity to be a part of the solution to school issues. Some of the ideas that arose from these meetings have included our bell schedule, the reward system for students, grading practices, credit recovery, common course teams, and lunch remediation.

Focus groups are all about communication. All of our teachers know what is expected when they arrive to school. We expect all students to be in the classroom when the bell rings for class. We expect all students to be engaged in the classroom during instruction, and we expect students and teachers to be respectful of one another. If any those expectations are not met, we have a system in place that addresses and corrects these matters.

Education is a great job. I enjoy going to work each day because I have the opportunity to say something or do something that will make a difference in a student’s life.

Systemic Support

Systems that support high levels of student achievement were put in place at Pierce County through meaningful collaboration. Staff members’ descriptions of these systems reveal their commitment to working together for their students.

Many strategies for creating a culture of success have been implemented at Pierce County. Ten years ago, the school was among the failing high schools in Georgia. By 2011, we were among the top 10% of high schools in the state for student achievement in every area. In recent years, several high schools have inquired about the reason for our success. We believe our success is a result of several systems that have been implemented over the last 10 years.

One system that contributes to academic success is the learning culture within the school. The expectation that everyone at Pierce County must learn at a high level is the norm. Monthly focus groups have been a key component in creating a culture that is centered on student learning. Through our guidedstudy process in these meetings, teachers are able to stay current in their practice. Also at these meetings, we are constantly asking if we are doing all we can to meet the needs of our students. The focus is on excellence. We feel that by working together, we can always get better. Our results bear this out.

Another system that has contributed to improvement is common-course teams. The idea of high school teachers giving up their classroom autonomy for the good of the entire course team was unheard of when we began teaming four years ago. Teachers work in course teams and share the same course syllabi, unit plans, and curriculum maps. Teachers are given planning days throughout the year to work together in course teams to develop units and assessments and to analyze student progress toward meeting and exceeding content standards.

The development and implementation of common assessments is another system that is related to common-course teams. [Many] times throughout a course, all teachers who are teaching like courses give the same exam and meet to analyze students’ progress toward meeting standards. All students— whether honors, remedial, or special education—are given the same assessment to provide a clear picture of how all students are progressing in knowledge of standards. Teachers meet after each assessment to discuss which standards were mastered and which require remediation and to collaborate on ways to reteach the standards that were not mastered by students. Plans for differentiating instruction around student mastery of standards are also discussed at this time.

Another system that has been in place for several years at Pierce County is coteaching, whereby special education students are placed in mainstream courses, exposing them to the same content as general education students. This has resulted in great gains in the graduation rate and achievement of the special education population.

Systematic, schoolwide student motivational strategies are another factor that has resulted in improved student achievement. The school uses such strategies as “prep rallies” and nightly test-prep sessions prior to tests. Students who attend the test-prep session earn days off from school if 90% of the class attends all sessions. Teachers volunteer their time to review material at test-prep sessions, and the school provides a meal for those who attend. Before test-prep opportunities begin, the school has a prep rally designed to emphasize the importance of doing one’s best. Also, inspirational speakers from the community come in and describe what it takes to be successful after high school.

Another motivational strategy is lunch remediation, which is designed to motivate students to complete all assignments. Because we know that zeros are grade killers, our teachers do not give them. Instead the school has lunch remediation, and students must participate in it until all their work is completed. This has helped to establish a culture of success by motivating students to do their work instead of losing social time. Another strategy that motivated students is weekly progress reports for seniors. Seniors who are passing all subjects can sign out 20 minutes early on Fridays. Lastly, Pierce County utilizes a credit recovery program. If a student fails a course with a final grade of 60 or above, the student may choose to go through credit recovery instead of repeating the entire course.

Another important system that is used to foster excellence at Pierce County is our honors program. Honors courses feed our AP courses. Early honors courses progress toward AP courses in 11th and 12th grades. This has helped us not only meet state standards but also exceed them by leaps and bounds. The school’s 2011 average SAT score was above the state average. The program has helped make Pierce County competitive at the national level, and it was named a National Advanced Placement School of Distinction in 2011—one of only eight schools in Georgia to receive that recognition.


For more information, contact Leslie S. Emery (emeryl@nassp.org).

Reposted with permission. The original story can be found here.

Copyright 2012 National Association of Secondary School Principals. For more information on NASSP products and services to promote excellence in middle level and high school leadership, visit www.nassp.org.