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Friday, November 14, 2008

Part 3: The impetus for change

Below is part of three of book, "Learning to be Leaders," published this month by KnowledgeWorks Foundation. You can download or order a copy here or read part one and part two here.

The Impetus for Change

Just before it started the small schools transformation, Cleveland Heights High School was a much different place. While it had always met the needs of exceptional students, more students had entered the district from disadvantaged backgrounds. They sometimes lacked the home support and stable lives that assist student achievement. As a result, Heights High was no longer able to meet the needs of many students.

The school’s sheer size made matters worse. Because of administrative cuts a year earlier, Principal James Reed and Administrative Principal Darcel Williams each were responsible for 1,000 students.

“I didn’t get into the classrooms and, therefore, I didn’t know a lot of the 1,000 kids. I knew maybe 150 of them and those were probably the most troublesome ones,” Reed says.

That was one reason he welcomed the idea of dividing into small schools. “With this transformation, I’d be able to know the kids – see them, hear their conversations, know who their friends are. The only reason why you’re here is contact with the kids. That’s why I got into this,” Reed said.

Williams was handling curriculum and proficiency tests when talk of transformation began.

“When I really began to look at data, it was very surprising to me. I did not know that we had such a large majority of kids that we were not reaching. I don’t think I had ever talked about what our GPA was or how many kids were failing because we tend to take our successes and kind of revel in that. I really never took the time to diagnose what the whole school looked like,” she says.

The district was accepted into KnowledgeWorks Foundation’s Ohio High School Transformation Initiative (OHSTI), and Cleveland Heights High joined schools in urban districts across the state in adopting the small schools model.

Three small schools were planned initially, with two others to follow. Reed was joined by Janet Tribble and Marc Aden as principals. Along with three newly appointed teacher leaders, they were given a year away from other responsibilities for planning, something they say contributed to the ultimate success of the transformation.

Planning for and launching the transformation was a long, painful, passionate – and often surprising – struggle.

The struggle began with the very concept of how the small schools would be defined. While some small schools are based on career options, Heights leaders surveyed the community and opted for a more difficult distinction. Students also shared concerns that a career model would limit their options as students.

“We had to put our arms around an abstract idea like an instructional model and make it live so people could understand it,” says Crystal Maclin, who was a teacher leader at the time.

The first three schools became Renaissance, which focuses on independent exploration, cooperation and collaboration; P.R.I.D.E., which focuses on personal instruction geared toward individual students; and REAL School, which focuses on experiential instruction.

The planners underestimated how emotional teachers, students, parents and community members would be about the change. Looking back, they all believe they could have prepared themselves better. When asked about where the resistance was coming from they respond in unison: “Everywhere!”

“We didn’t have a firm understanding of the change process,” explains Maclin. “In hindsight, all those people were responding to the fact that we were changing their environment.”

Aden says it was “one of the first times in my life when I had to face passion on that level and to have it directed towards you as if you are doing something wrong.”

And it felt personal, says Williams. “In your head you knew logically it wasn’t personal, but it felt personal. It was because people cared so deeply about what they felt you were taking away from them,” she says.

Williams says part of the problem is that teachers are not necessarily trained to create change. “They were clamoring for something concrete – ‘Just tell me what you want me to do. What’s the task?’” Maclin says of the teachers’ mindset.

Meanwhile, Engoglia was serving as a principal under the old comprehensive Heights structure, responsible for the senior class. He and other planners who would design the second round of schools waited for their turn. “It was easier for us because the timeline had been set and there were ground rules to follow,” he says.

As time went on, the small schools model showed some early signs of success. For all small schools combined, the graduation rate increased from 91.5 percent in 2003-04 to 96.4 percent in 2005-06, outpacing the state average. Scores on the Ohio Graduation Tests made dramatic leaps in math and reading from 2003-04 to 2004-05 and were among the highest in the OHSTI cohort. The state rating jumped to effective and stayed there, compared to lower grades of academic watch or continuous improvement each of the prior three years.

With the 2007-08 school year approaching, the uneven starts for the five small schools had begun to level out. For Marc Engoglia, it was time to learn whether high expectations and a better relationship with the staff would be enough to realize his vision for Legacy School.

Year Three: Sharing a Focus on Students

The Legacy office overflows with tardy students on a day at the beginning of the 2007-08 school year. Comfortable with the students and always ready to deal with issues hands on, principal Marc Engoglia tries to sort out the cause.

“Are we all late?” Engoglia asks. He asks each student for a reason.

“The bus,” says one boy, with his head down.

“The RTA bus?” asks Engoglia


“How late?’

“Like 20 minutes late,” he says.

“Mr. Richardson, how are you this morning?” he turns to another student. “Anyone else have a good excuse for being late besides the bus?”

“My cab,” jokes another.

In through the door, coffee in hand and all smiles, walks teacher leader Karen Kastor. “Wow! We have a lot of people in here,” she says. “Hi, Amir. Lorenzo. Terrell, what are you doing here today? Is it a holiday or something?”

As she makes her way toward her office, she leans in conspiratorially to secretary Stacey Warner. “It’s a good thing our kids have a sense of humor.”

A few minutes later, superintendent Deborah Delisle arrives with Brian Loretz, head of security, and a Cleveland Heights police officer. The easygoing handling of tardies gives way to a much more serious issue.

A freshman student has written an English paper making threats against Engoglia and a teacher. Engoglia doesn’t think the threats are real. “I think it was a cry for help,” he explains. “I asked if he didn’t like me and he said, ‘Oh no, Mr. Engoglia, I think you’re cool.’”

But standard protocol is to treat the threat seriously. Engoglia is hopeful that all will end well for the boy, but the matter is now out of his hands. There will be an expulsion hearing to determine the boy’s fate. By year’s end, he and his family will have moved away.

For now, Engoglia shakes off his worries and turns his attention to matters he can control.

Changes in the Classroom

As the year gets under way, Engoglia sees some hopeful signs.

Though the small schools model calls for weekly advisory sessions where students meet with teachers in small groups to discuss student-driven issues, the concept never took root at the Height campus. So this year that time is devoted to collaboration. Every Tuesday, students are dismissed early and teachers meet as teams to work together across content areas.

Teachers have indicated that they want this time, and Engoglia believes it will allow them to formulate research-based models to help improve classroom instruction.

In addition, Kastor has quickly settled into the teacher leader position. Teachers see Kastor as their ally, and she often serves as the go-between on sensitive issues that involve asking more from the staff.

Engoglia relies on Kastor to share the workload and support.

“The principal shouldn’t have to do everything. I try to anticipate staff complaints, and I used to jump on them right away. I’ve learned not to let the negative ones take up all the energy,” he says.

“Karen and I work well together. The staff likes her, too, and that helps.”

By mid-October Engoglia is still spending a lot of time dealing with the minority of students who have personal or behavior issues that threaten their education. One is pregnant and, despite being a good student, at risk of dropping out because home support is lacking. A boy left the PSAT college entrance exam high. A female student has had a run-in with police.

Engoglia is heartened by the scores of students who never require his intervention. The local news media is reporting that one of his students achieved a perfect score on the ACT (he will become valedictorian of his class). Other top students have emerged not only as academic scholars, but also as Legacy School leaders.

He’s proudest, however, of how instrumental Legacy’s staff has been in nurturing students to turn their lives around. On this day, a junior named Mariah pops in to say hello. “Mariah, are you behaving?” he asks.

She laughs as Engoglia talks about her propensity to get into fights as a freshman.

“I was a boxer. I like to defend myself,” she corrects him. “I have a tendency to go astray, but I’m trying to make better choices,” she says, pointing to her head.

Next Engoglia welcomes a master’s student who wants to interview him for a class. He talks about his veteran teaching staff who are “very strong in their content area.” If he’s anxious about the time this is taking, he doesn’t show it.

While this morning is shot, on other days Engoglia enjoys visiting classrooms and is developing good relationships with students by joining them in learning. “I like to know what they’re doing in class. I ask what books they’re reading, I’ll join in science labs and take math quizzes.”

The strategy, and the relative calm of the third year, allows Engoglia to engage with students more fully. “When we first started, I only knew the bad kids,” he says. “Now I know almost all our kids.”

He’s relieved to feel less like a lone ranger. “The first year I was fighting for all the kids,” he says. “[Now] the teachers are doing it, too.”

Engoglia also is pleased with other changes that his staff has embraced.

One example is the use of Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) testing, which allows teachers to get real-time data on how and what students are learning. Last year’s testing was fraught with complications. Now teachers seem to be recognizing that the testing will help them know whether students are learning.

“There’s better classroom teaching going on now,” Engoglia says. “We stopped doing things because we liked them or because we always did them and we started doing things because it’s the right thing to do for our kids.”

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