Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Principal of the Year Focuses on College Prep, Common Core Skills

Get It Right's picture

In this podcast, Alan Tenreiro, recently named the 2016 Principal of the Year by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, discusses Common Core and the multifaceted process of building a culture of high expectations that emphasizes college and career readiness for all students.

Mr. Tenreiro is principal at Cumberland High School in Cumberland, R.I., which has seen increases in its academic achievement, graduation rates, and the number of students moving on to higher education. The high school has increased its Academic Placement offerings and expanded STEM courses to help student gain skills for success after graduation.

Download as MP3

Following is an edited version of the transcript:

Welcome to Get it Right, Common Sense on the Common Core, a podcast series from the Learning First Alliance. Across the nation we’ve embraced the possibility of college and career ready standards and their potential to transform teaching and learning. In community after community we see the potential these standards offer to help all children learn the knowledge and skills necessary for success in the global community.

As these standards come online we see teachers, administrators, parents and communities working together to align the standards with curriculum, instruction and assessment. And we see some communities struggling to move the standards into practice, focused almost exclusively on setting and to the high stakes decisions tied to it.

The ultimate success of college and career ready standards requires that states and districts work together with principals, teachers, students and parents as work progresses. We know this collaborative implementation process doesn’t happen overnight, it requires time; time to align the standards with teaching, curriculum materials and professional learning opportunities, time to engage parents and community leaders to understand why these changes are so important, and time to get it right.    

To help those committed to the standards ensure their proper implementation the Learning First Alliance is spotlighting communities and individuals who are working hard to get Common Core implementation right. Today we are speaking with Alan Tenreiro, Principal of Rhode Island’s Cumberland High School, the 2016 NASSP Principal of the Year. Thanks so much for being with us, Alan.

MR. TENREIRO: Great to be with you.

LFA: Start by telling us a little bit, Alan, if you would, about yourself and your school.

MR. TENREIRO: Well, I come from a family of educators. I attended Rhode Island College and, in my State of Rhode Island and also Northeastern University in Massachusetts. I spent seven years teaching social studies and coaching soccer for even more than that and was made an Assistant Principal at Smithfield High School in 2006, and in 2012 I was named Principal here at Cumberland High School. And I’ve also served as a member of the Pawtucket school committee and urban school district in Rhode Island from 2003 to 2014 and, you know, just recently honored by the National Association of School Principals.

Cumberland High School is a suburban school of 1,300 students. We certainly offer a very comprehensive education. We’re about 27 percent economically disadvantaged, 16 percent students with disabilities, our largest subgroup is a Hispanic subgroup of about 8 percent. And our English language learners only make up about one percent. We have more than 140 teachers and staff and offer a very comprehensive program with more than 22 advanced placement courses and we’re sending more than 90 percent of our graduates to college.

LFA: Well, congratulations, first, on being named NASSP’s Principal of the Year. What was that experience like for you?

MR. TENREIRO: Well, what was the experience like? That was, it was just a tremendous honor for me. It’s hard to put into words, it’s very few times in my life I think I’ve been speechless but, to be able to walk into a surprise ceremony with the senior class of 2016, which was a group of freshmen that I came in with here at Cumberland High School. And to hear them cheer and clap and give me a few hugs as a I walked down the aisle, that was a pretty inspiring, inspiring event.

LFA: Good for you, good for you. So, you just said in describing Cumberland High School that you have a 90 percent college going rate? Is that right?


LFA: What do you attribute that to?

MR. TENREIRO: A number of things. I think that raising our expectations was crucial to our success here at Cumberland High School. I think when I first came in there’s a real urgency to make sure that this high school was, again, a flagship not only to this community but of the State. And we had graduation rates that were trending to dip below 80 percent. So we’ve done a lot of work around high expectations and college and career ready standards. And, of course, the high levels of supports that we are able to provide students.

LFA: Talk to us a little bit about your work at Cumberland and potentially across the District and maybe even across the State to the extent that you’ve been involved in it, to align college and career ready standards throughout your school. And particularly what you think that is doing to help, if you think it is connected, can you, to keep kids on track to high school graduation and college attendance.

MR. TENREIRO: Well, the focus is certainly no longer just on being diploma eligible or on merely fulfilling the graduation requirements that are set here at the high school. I think that the focus is now on postsecondary readiness. The readiness of students to really assume whatever postsecondary challenge that they choose. And I think the Common Core standards are, not only fewer standards but they’re deeper, we’re able to go more in depth. There’s an emphasis, I think, on the 21st century transferrable skills that students are going to need moving forward.

LFA: So, tell us, Alan, a little bit about the process of Common Core implementation, what that looks like for you and your teachers.

MR. TENREIRO: We have worked hard with school leaders, school committee members and teachers to establish certain school wide standards that are aligned to each content area, so that we can focus our curriculum on those transferrable skills to ensure that kids have success after graduation.

Some of that process...You have to get down and study those standards, and we worked with teachers to develop at our high school what we call our Cumberland High School measurement standards, informed, of course, by the Common Core and other national standards. And teachers worked collaboratively together to define four to six measurement standards in each content area that are then shared by all classes in that content area. And they worked hard at developing common scoring guides to go along with those measurement standards and their work over the past year and a half has really been in the development of common performance based assessments that are aligning to those measurements standards and truly measuring the outcomes that we expect in those standards.

LFA: And what about the experiences for kids? So, as you do all of this work to align curriculum instruction and now assessments to the standards, what are the differences and experiences you’re seeing kids have?

MR. TENREIRO: All our assessments are standards based. And success here at the high school for them is truly defined by the achievement of those expected standards. And then we report out on academic progress and achievement separate from what we call at the high school "learner qualities," which are things like work habits, character traits and behaviors. So, that consistency, I don’t know if that’s something students would point to but I think it’s something that’s very important, transparency of what the expectations are and common understanding of what expectations are.

But I think if you talk to kids, they would clearly identify the expectations are higher at the high school. We have a strategy here at the high school of open enrollment where there’s no teacher’s signature or other factor that will keep a student from taking a course that they considered to be challenging. They’re able to sign up for that course if they feel that they’re up to the challenge. We’re not going to stand in their way to do that.

There’s a real focus, I think, on a growth mindset at the high school, so we’re trying to see a change in the way students and teachers are talking to each other about what counts and about learning.

LFA: Let’s talk a little bit about, like you’ve, just by what you’ve just said and that you’ve changed a little bit about the way that you’re reporting student results, whether that’s in a career readiness score or in your report cards themselves. What have you changed there and what results are you seeing from those changes?

MR. TENREIRO: The move to a standards based system is one where you meet with some challenges, there are a lot of underlying values and traditions and understandings about what grading and reporting is. And, you know, grading and reporting is just one piece of the puzzle, but I think it’s the sort of the lynch pin to the waterfall of thinking around what proficiency based learning is really all about.

But our report card has changed from a simple letter grade that identified progress for students to now having that letter grade but also reporting out on a one to four scale, students performance on the four to six measurement standards per course, and it also provides information on a student's learner qualities. We have five learner qualities that are on our report card. They are attitude and mindset, collaborative worker, quality producer, respectful citizen and self directed learner. And those students can meet or not meet those learner qualities. And so, we sort of have this triangulation of data on our report card and our transcript is going to do the same thing.

LFA: And how are parents and the business community responding to those kinds of reports? Is there a newness to that that people are getting used to? Are people excited about that? What’s been the reaction from the parents and from others in the community?

MR. TENREIRO: So, parents, I think, needed to see the new report card to have them really understand where we were headed. And so we had made a mock up and a sample and certainly had a number of sessions with that, but, you know, you don’t get every parent to parent meetings, obviously, and so this first round, this year in the first quarter when those went out, we’ve had a very good reaction.

I think they liked the feedback of the new report card. They’re able to pinpoint areas of improvement that students have on the various transferrable skills that are in our measurement standards. I think they’re getting a clearer picture and feedback on how the student is performing, especially in regards to the learner qualities.

You know, one of the more powerful things we did in the beginning, when we made the move from a traditional system to one that was more standards based, is home visits where myself and a superintendent would go to our home in the community and we’d have 30 or 40 parents show up and we’d talk and answer their questions for two hours or so, and some had cookies, some didn’t. But it was a powerful way to have conversations with folks.

LFA: But, let’s go back to the open enrollment, what does that actually mean in terms of kids at different grade levels taking whatever courses they believe are, that are rigorous enough for them or that they think they can handle the rigor of? How does that work?

MR. TENREIRO: So, when I first came to the high school there were a number of levels, four or five different levels of students from Honors down to what they called College Prep and Applied, different versions of an Applied level. So, one of our first moves was to detrack the high school. And we still have Advanced Placement courses, of course, but we just have an Honors in what we call a college prep level. And that the tracking effort is important, especially around expectations. As we move forward to where we’re actually creating a system, because we are standards based, that instead of earning honors designation because your course is called honors, the student, based on their performance against the standards, if we can perform at a level of distinction no matter what their class is called, that you can actually earn Honors designation.

Because we’re trying to create a culture where students are not fighting against each other for thousands of a point differences in GPA. Or as one college rep that I talked to called it, these artificial distinctions between kids that are the same. And so, part of that is also this concept of open enrollment. That if you are up to the challenge and that, and understanding that all that comes with that, and that we’ll provide supports, that you can take any course in our program of study. Obviously there are some prerequisites, right? I mean, you’re not going to take Spanish Two before you take Spanish One, but, when it comes to a higher level rigorous courses, they are open to all students.

And we’ve seen a dramatic shift. We had 106 students four years ago that took tests, and this past year we had 531 that took AP tests. And what that meant for us is 50 more students that scored a three or higher on those AP tests and earned college credit while in high school. And, you know, that is, that’s important. And, you know, those students that didn’t earn a three or above, for them, the journey is most important, that they were able to pass a course and take a college level course and succeed and be successful, and, you, a lot of the research out there points to the idea of a college persistence rate that they will be persistent in college if they can experience success in college level courses at the high school level.

LFA: It seems like beyond the increased expectations that you have for kids, the things that you’re doing around the reporting, the things that you’re doing to get kids into a mindset that they’re capable of college level work and then really experiencing college, that you’re also changing, kind of, the physical structure or design of the school or have some ideas about that. So, can you talk to us a little bit about what you have in mind?

MR. TENREIRO: Well, the great thing about Cumberland High School is that we definitely are a college-style campus. So, we’re a very large three building campus and, you know, current facilities like our cafeteria are set up, you know, like a college cafeteria would be with so many choices for kids. But, you know, we’re also working at, as we think about personalized environments and the type of activities that take place in those environments, we need to think about these rows of desks and chairs and how we’re configuring rooms.

And so, we’re looking at models, around flex models and station rotation models, different ways of grouping furniture because, you know, you don’t have to buy furniture to reconfigure your room. And so, some of the work is just around reconfiguring the current set-ups that we have. But we also did recently design a room of the future that has, you know, comfortable furniture, has some high top tables and chairs, has workstations that are all on moveable wheels so that you can wheel that furniture around into different configurations.

You know, the room has all the technology that you’d need and that room of the future, for us, is a, sort of a sample, a view for our community and our stakeholders so that they can see where we want to take our learning environments to, sort of, match the function of learning that we are, we’re trying to drive toward.

LFA: Well, you’ve got a lot going on there. It’s not a surprise, actually, talking to you, to understand why you were named Principal of the Year. That’s an extraordinary amount of work, an extraordinary amount of progress and it sounds like an exciting place to be.

MR. TENREIRO: Yeah, it is, that is for sure. You know, it’s very hard, I think, there are so many Principals across the country that are doing this work and I, you know, very often they do it, they don’t want the credit but they do very little credit and they do it very little support, whether that’s ongoing professional development support or preparation. And they’re just doing amazing things to personalize learning for students. And it’s just an amazing honor to be honored that way. But I think it’s really an honor that tries to highlight all of the good work that 100,000 principals are doing in the country.

LFA: Well, congratulations. It does seem incredibly well deserved and it’s a pleasure to have you on and talk with you about it. So, thanks for your time today, Alan.

MR. TENREIRO: Okay, thank you.