Viers Mill Elementary School: Success for the Long Haul
Hear this posting (~6:55)
If you're looking for a Cinderella story, get to know the people at Viers Mill Elementary School in Silver Spring, Maryland:
One of the [paraeducators] who had been here a long time said, "you know, they used to call this place 'slumville.'" Now, she says "the President's visiting here...." He came to our school for the work we did. He didn't just happen to show up.... It was the apotheosis of my entire career.... The President of the United States--the President of the United states!--is in our cafeteria...because of the work that went on in this building....
That's Susan Freiman, Viers Mill's staff development teacher, describing President Obama's surprise visit to the school last month. She worked hard with her colleagues to turn the once struggling elementary school into a national exemplar where almost every student is proficient on state tests. That is no mean feat for a school where most students are from low-income families and almost half are still learning English.
It doesn't take long for visitors to see just how remarkable Viers Mill is. Last week, Freiman took me through a school buzzing with excitement and academic purpose. She showed me some first grade classrooms where children were already settled and learning just moments after the school day had begun:
Freiman: So these are first grade [classes], and again.... [Children's and teachers' voices]. You just saw them in the hall. They're already working.
Public School Insights: On task right away....
Classroom Teacher: Always. Always on task right away.
Freiman: [Turning to a different classroom]. There's a substitute in here. Tell me if you see a difference.
Public School Insights: No, none. None whatsoever.
Freiman: So if a teacher's out, you're going to see seamless plans. Instruction continues.
Every classroom door is open. There is no hint of disorder. Walls everywhere are covered with student work. Children look engaged and happy.
So is there a dramatic turnaround story to tell here? Did a crusading new principal come in and clean house? Did a platoon of eager young teachers replace jaded veterans? Did the school go from bad to great in a year or two? No, on all counts. Instead, Viers Mill built its own capacity to succeed--step by step--using home-grown talent.
Freiman was quick to correct me when I mentioned her school's transformation. "Growth" is a better word, she told me: "Little by little by little.... It's a ladder of success. It's not 'boomboom!'"
So what's the secret to the school's steady improvement? "It's so easy," Freiman insisted."It is so much to me about focused curriculum, focused priorities and building a culture of respect. So when you have those pieces, you can do things...." It is the school's focus, coordination and consistency, she said, that have fueled steady progress. Staff can work together towards clearly-defined, widely shared goals. And schools shouldn't try to do everything at once, Freiman told me. Work on a limited set of problems until you get the solutions right.
I asked Freiman how she could feel confident in a gradual process of improvement when all the world expects a dramatic turnaround:
Public School Insights: So it's interesting that Viers Mill had this gradual process. What gave you the confidence that it would keep going?What gave you the confidence that you were on the right track? [Maryland State Assessment] scores are clearly one piece of that, but were there other things as well?
Freiman: Yeah. Staff didn't leave. Staff were committed. We had things in place that we weren't giving up on, that we weren't changing, and people were feeling good about what they were learning.
And again, if you saw the reading monitoring tool that they developed and refined.... We called them student learning maps now, but years and years of refining it. Don't give up on things just because you are not successful. Again you go back to the team, and you say....
I'll give you an example: vocabulary. The first year, I was not happy with what I was seeing in the classroom with it.... I [asked], "do you just want to give up on this? Do you think it's worth pursuing?" They [said] "yes!" So I [asked], "What do we have to do, because if you don't want to give up on it, and you're still telling me you don't have time to put it in the day...what are we going to do about it?"
Now, I had some ideas, but I wanted them to come up with the ideas. I don't want to tell them.... So that's when we decided on best practices. Let's feature more ideas about what people are doing--things that are successful.
So what do we want to do, and what are the little milestones in between that we are going to look at to see if we are getting more successful?
By sharing best practices, teachers learned to improve their own teaching over time. More to the point, Viers Mill has never swung from faddish idea to faddish idea, all just to reap quick gains. Freiman had a simple refrain throughout our conversations: "We don't give up on things."
She was quick to give credit to her school district and superintendent for helping Viers Mill in its journey.
Freiman: Montgomery County has done a lot, starting with all-day Kindergarten, reduced class sizes, a curriculum, expectations, very aligned staff development. So all of these things are so important to be able to do what you're doing.
The school district has created the conditions for success. Standards are not enough. New salary incentives or hiring practices are not enough. Schools need curriculum, excellent staff development, time for collaboration, and other tools that support excellent teaching.
Viers Mill's staff eshew dramatic gestures. They immerse themselves in the critical day-to-day processes that get so little attention in policy circles these days. They know that real improvement takes time, and they're grateful to admistrators for empowering them to do what they need to do.
There's so much more to Viers Mill's story than I've mentioned here. A culture of true collaboration. Shared leadership. Individual attention to students' needs. Parent engagement...
We'll get to these and other issues in future installments of this report later this week. A school like Viers MIll Elementary deserves our time and attention.
Click here to browse dozens of Public School Insights interviews with extraordinary education advocates, including:
- 2013 Digital Principal Ryan Imbriale
- Best Selling Author Dan Ariely
- Family Engagement Expert Dr. Maria C. Paredes
The views expressed in this website's interviews do not necessarily represent those of the Learning First Alliance or its members.
Excellence is the Standard
At Pierce County High School in rural southeast Georgia, the graduation rate has gone up 31% in seven years. Teachers describe their collaboration as the unifying factor that drives the school’s improvement. Learn more...
- Transforming Learning
- The EDifier
- School Board News Today
- Legal Clips
- Learning Forward’s PD Watch
- NAESP's Principals' Office
- NASSP's Principal's Policy Blog
- The Principal Difference
- ASCA Scene
- PDK Blog
- Always Something
- NSPRA: Social School Public Relations
- AACTE's President's Perspective
- AASA's The Leading Edge
- AASA Connects (formerly AASA's School Street)
- NEA Today
- Angles on Education
- Lily's Blackboard
- PTA's One Voice
- ISTE Connects
What Else We're Reading
- Advancing the Teaching Profession
- The Answer Sheet
- Edutopia's Blogs
- Politics K-12
- U.S. Department of Education Blog
- John Wilson Unleashed
- The Core Knowledge Blog
- This Week in Education
- Inside School Research
- Teacher Leadership Today
- On the Shoulders of Giants
- Teacher in a Strange Land
- Teach Moore
- The Tempered Radical
- The Educated Reporter
- Taking Note
- Character Education Partnership Blog
- Why I Teach