For her leadership in the areas of teacher quality and educational equity and reform, the Learning First Alliance has named Stanford professor and accomplished author Linda Darling-Hammond as our 2013 Education Visionary Award winner.
One Tough Team
Story posted August 13, 2009
• Dramatic improvement in student scores on state standardized tests--a 15% gain in reading and 14% gain in math over a three year period in which overall state performance remained fairly stable
• Most demographic subgroups significantly improved, narrowing achievement gaps
When Stephanie Smith became the principal of Seaford (DE) Middle School four years ago, she was told to accept the fact that the school would never be able to change its status as a school that needed to improve. She didn't accept that. In fact, Smith took the incident as a personal challenge, disdaining the very thought of setting low expectations. To improve performance levels, she set the expectations high.
Her defiance paid off: [in 2007] the school [was] rated "commendable" and the staff members, students, and parents are justifiably proud of their accomplishments. Student achievement has improved, the school climate is more positive, and the school reaches out to parents and the community.
Early in her principalship, Smith accepted a $25,000 grant from the Wallace Foundation to train her staff members in the tenets of distributive leadership. She admits that she momentarily thought to herself: "Wait a minute, I just got the job and now you want me to let the teachers run the show?" But she knew no other style of leadership, and she understood that the school would never improve without collaboration. Seaford is now in its second full year of implementation of the training, and shared leadership is clearly evident in every aspect of the school's programs.
A schoolwide emphasis on changing the school's climate also contributed to Seaford's improvement. The school adopted a positive behavior system to give staff members ways to reward students for appropriate behavior and to emphasize pride in their school. In addition, Seaford reached out to parents and community members, drawing them in to support the school's new atmosphere. As a result, staff members find that they're less likely to leave Seaford and more excited to be part of the changes in the school.
Smith believes that raising expectations for all students and encouraging minority participation in challenging work are responsible for much of Seaford's success. It's especially important because Seaford is an agricultural region with a growing immigrant population. Eight percent of Seaford students are English language learners, 21% have special needs, and 63% are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.
Staff members cite two programs as especially important [to Seaford’s success]: an AP incentive program that promotes involvement in rigorous courses and Supporting Parents for the Education of African American Kids (SPEAK), a community-based support group for Black parents and students. As a result of Seaford's emphasis on challenging course work, the state chamber of commerce recognized the school with its Superstars in Education award.
Strong leadership and the full participation of students, staff members, and the community are getting outstanding results. Students' academic achievement continues to improve-the school has seen a 15% gain in three years in its reading scores and a 14% gain in mathematics over the same time period.
"I look for the potential to lead, not just follow," Smith said about hiring new staff members. It is a topic she knows a great deal about: she hired 45% of her current staff. "Part of what makes my staff so successful is that they want to be a part of leading our school." The feeling of personal responsibility for leadership permeates the building and has become part of the culture: when the leadership team was asked what would happen if Smith accepted a different position, they replied that they would carry on because they have the autonomy to lead.
Autonomy and an emphasis on taking personal responsibility to make a difference began early in Smith's tenure. "When I started four years ago as principal...there were two things I did not want to hear," Smith said. One was, "That's the way it has always been done" and the other was a complaint without an idea for a solution. Given the school's status at the time, the first admonition seems logical, and the second forced staff members to think about situations and solutions before coming to Smith. "[it] helped them to realize that I was principal, not the all-powerful Oz," said Smith.
Involving teachers in solutions is a hallmark of the school's progress and style. The leadership team--made up of parents, teachers, and staff members--focuses energy in a positive way and helps Smith guide the school. In addition to helping teachers integrate technology and collaborate across disciplines, the leadership team organizes summer institutes by content area. The department-specific institutes allow departments to wrap up the school year, analyze data, and use the data to prepare for the upcoming year.
Data-driven decision making at Seaford starts at the opening inservice meeting each year and continues with regular data sharing about student progress during the school year and through the summer institutes. Professional learning communities and veteran staff members plan professional development through monthly content-area meetings. "These meetings have evolved into data-driven discussions as to what is working in classrooms to improve student achievement," said Smith. Grade-level meetings and data are used to inform, establish, and evaluate specific goal areas of the school improvement plan. Each staff member is part of a small team that tackles a specific area or goal of the plan. Seaford's staff is lively and diverse, and individuals eagerly accept classroom leadership roles in which they can plan, implement, and tweak curricula. Peer observations and classroom walk-throughs are commonplace, and teachers use one another's lesson plans and share successes and shortcomings.
Students have a voice at Seaford too. Each feeder elementary school picks two students to participate in the principal's advisory group once they reach Seaford. Students remain in the group for their three years at Seaford and meet with the principal throughout the year.
Collaboration also extends beyond the school walls: a parent-community involvement committee provides leadership and advice about ways to include parents and community members in the school, and SPEAK offers monthly family dinners, sessions on parenting skills, group activities for the students, and a Saturday academic support program.
Perhaps the most significant sign of Seaford's distributive leadership is the school's collaboration with the Delaware Academy of School Leadership through the University of Delaware and the grant from the Wallace Foundation.
The University of Delaware Southern Delaware Professional Development Center also provides content-area teaching specialists who meet with regular and special education teachers at each grade level to focus on vocabulary strategies, differentiated instruction, and curriculum mapping.
An often-understated prerequisite of student engagement is teacher engagement: helping teachers feel that they are a part of a collegial body, a school community. To promote teacher engagement and give incoming teachers a chance to learn about the school from their peers, Seaford's veteran teachers created a two-day summer institute for new teachers.
The orientation has been especially helpful because of the number of staff members who have joined Seaford in the past several years. The institutes have enabled new teachers to become part of the school more rapidly and start the year on solid footing. The staff credits the institutes and the yearlong pairing of veteran mentors with new teachers as key contributors to dramatically decreasing teacher turnover and increasing student achievement.
Transitions for incoming students are equally important, and Seaford starts the year with Operation Smile, an orientation for new sixth graders. Students are placed in a traditional middle school structure with teams, have their own wing of the building, and have very little need to mix with older students. Operation Smile allows new sixth graders to get acclimated to middle school, see that high expectations are the norm, and appreciate that support systems are in place to help them achieve. The support available to students includes:
• Meetings with counselors each marking period to review grades and talk about the supports that are available
• Mentors and role models provided by SPEAK
• Writing workshops that provide additional practice and guidance
• Math Mondays--sessions that pre-teach concepts for the week
• Preparation for the state assessments
• Boost Up, a program that helps students who are attempting honors courses for the first time.
Staff members attribute the change in the atmosphere of the school to two things: a sense of ownership among students--the feeling that the school is their own--and the positive behavior system. Staff members actively encourage positive behavior through various teaching activities; electronic newsletters to families; and positive postcards, e-mails, and phone calls to parents and guardians. The staff is happy to report that positive attitudes are positively contagious!
Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment
Seaford has been successful in reducing the achievement gaps between student subgroups. From 2006 to 2008, students in grade 8 have shown improved performance in reading, writing, and mathematics on Delaware's state assessments. Most of the demographic subgroups have shown improvement. To discover the stumbling blocks to student success, Seaford implemented a deliberate program of test preparation and teacher post-test review. The school attributes its current success to improved alignment of curricula, better instructional strategies, decreased teacher turnover, increased collaboration, and a new schedule that provides more time for classroom instruction. In addition, the school began several initiatives:
• A schoolwide writing program that helps all students and teachers work on vocabulary development. Mathematics teachers have found that the program helps students with word problems.
• An enhanced emphasis on academic rigor through the addition of an honors curriculum. The participants in the honors program reflect the diversity of the overall student population. A support teacher helps students who want to try honors classes. Students are encouraged to move into honors classes as quickly as is reasonable.
• Targeted assistance from the mathematics specialist as well as summer courses for enrichment in higher-level mathematics, such as Pre-Algebra, Algebra I and II, and Geometry.
• An AP incentive program to encourage minority students to participate in the most challenging courses.
• Programs to help struggling readers, such as Wilson Language and Read Naturally.
Seaford has supported instruction through a significant investment in professional development. Curriculum mapping has also been a priority at Seaford, and cohesive and common assessments have been or are being developed in each core area. Teachers in each of the four content areas receive four workdays during the summer to review data, set goals, and look at the curriculum.
Seaford's emphasis on embedded content-area professional development and peer observations has led to improved instruction. Data-driven decisions have led to differentiated instruction and new support programs. Staff members readily admit, however, that they are still rethinking and refocusing instructional content and strategies. The gap between the scores of the majority and the subgroups--Black students, students in the free and reduced-price meals program, and students with special needs--has closed significantly, but there is always more to do.
After being told to expect to never be able to get her school out from under school improvement status, Smith led the school to being recognized as commendable. A novice principal a few years ago, she was recently recognized as the state principal of the year. Her refusal to accept low expectations and her reliance on teacher leaders to propose solutions to challenges has certainly set the tone at Seaford. It is clear that the staff is committed to the success of all students and that communication and collaboration have led to achievement gains. The principal plays no small role in that effort, but Smith prefers to point somewhere else: "I attribute the jump in scores to the students' belief that they could do it" and to her own belief that "tough times do not last; tough teams do." The students, teachers, staff members, administrators, and community members of Seaford make one tough team.
For additional information, please contact:
Principal, Seaford Middle School
This story came to LFA's attention after being published in the print edition of NASSP's June 2009 Special Edition of Principal Leadership magazine on Breakthrough Schools. (Read the digital edition of the journal here.)
Story reprinted with permission of NASSP.
Citation: James Rourke and Elizabeth Boone. May 2009. Seaford Middle School: One Tough Team. Principal Leadership, High School Edition, May 2009, p. 32-33.
Copyright (2009) 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 http://www.principals.org/.
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