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Friday, November 21, 2008

Part 6: Looking for solutions

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

Looking for Solutions

It’s a dreary, rainy day in early March and the staff of Legacy School is gathered in a third-floor classroom to begin the small school portion of their professional development day.

Divided into five teams that will become the new PLCs, they are reviewing student work, journals and essays about books. They have just learned that the work they are reviewing is that of fourth and fifth graders. Many had believed it could be from their own classes.

The conversation is serious and focused on helping students, and the principal, teacher leader and a number of teachers take part. It is the kind of conversation small schools are meant to foster.

“What do we do? Go back to basics? Identify common errors? We need to up our standards and not accept something just because they wrote a lot,” says Hillary Hurst, an English teacher. “Kids will use IM and text language, but we need to put in directions that spelling and grammar matter.”

“We can’t resort to going down to their level. If you don’t give them the opportunity to write versus Scantron tests, they are not going to improve,” says Stephanie Loncar, a science and Freshman Seminar teacher.

“Do they use any method for writing? Do they use the five-paragraph structure?
If students are afraid to write, have them start with something simple. An ‘I Am’ poem. Have them just answer five questions and see how that goes,” suggests Loncar.

After lunch, teachers watch a video on how PLCs work at Adlai Stevenson High School. Although it’s a comprehensive high school, it has nine different bell schedules and has been using PLCs for 30 years.

“It takes a lot of flexibility by everyone in the building to operate on multiple bell schedules,” says Engoglia. “We catch heat when we want to change the schedule by five minutes without a week’s notice.”

The video touches off a debate about the small schools transformation at Heights.
“Are we ever going to be closer to small schools? When will it be just our kids?” asks Nina Santalucia, who teaches English.

The small schools model calls for students to take all their classes within their own school, but Heights students regularly cross over into other schools – an attempt to accommodate their desire for more electives.

Engoglia says the younger students are more likely to stay within Legacy. “For the most part, that’s happening in ninth and 10th grade,” he says.

The Ohio Graduation Tests, and the increased focus on test scores sparked by the No Child Left Behind Act, often find their way into discussions about how teaching has changed at Heights. Because the testing was introduced at about the same time as small schools, the two often become intertwined.

“I think education falls apart when you teach toward the test,” says math teacher Jim Voytas. “That’s what we’re doing right now. My kids are no better off than they were five years ago.”

“It’s worse in English because they’re telling us exactly what to do,” says Linda Spizak.

“Curriculum should never be driven by schedule or tests,” says Voytas.

“Do we teach to the OGT?” asks Blair Chirdon, who teaches chemistry. “Because if we do, we stink at it.”

Everyone agrees there’s a lot still to be done, but they also are confident that they’re working in the right direction.

The goal is for the PLCs to spend the remainder of the school year researching what’s happening around the country on five key topics. “We hope to implement [solutions] next year based on what we learn, not on what we think,” says Engoglia.

A few weeks later, the PLCs report on their research. The process seems to have been instructive for everyone, and plans are put in place to implement some changes the following year, including a monthly e-mail newsletter and curriculum update, a student court to reinforce positive behavior among peers and student critiques of homework.

The teachers discuss what constitutes school culture. They debate creating a new grading policy.

Both Kastor and Engoglia are pleased. “We started the conversation,” Engoglia says. “It’s something to build on.”

Choosing Legacy

Engoglia glares at his computer. It’s OGT week and two weeks before a much-needed spring break. He and his family are heading to Naples, Fla., to visit his in-laws. First, he has to survive OGT.

“I’m not having a good couple of days,” he says. “Thirty kids didn’t show up for OGTs.”

The five tests, which seniors must pass to graduate, are as important for schools as for students. The results not only dictate a school’s standing on state report cards and for NCLB purposes, but they help shape the community’s impression of the school’s effectiveness.

Engoglia and his staff have been working to make sure as many students as possible show up for the tests and do well on them. His office is filled with boxes of calculators, drinks, granola bars and pencils.

One of the missing walks in.

“Joe? Where you been? You’re an hour and a half late. You know we have testing going on?”

“I thought if I’m late I can’t take the test,” says Joe.

“So you might as well miss the whole day?” Engoglia replies. “You’re going to take it now. Go to your locker and get a pencil.”

This scene repeats itself over and over throughout the morning as he calls to get kids into school.

As the school year winds down, Engoglia feels that Heights campus is getting to the point where it can build stability. Contract negotiations are under way and professional expectations are part of the discussion. And a building that once seemed to have a revolving door for principals now has a solid team in place. Engoglia is hopeful.

Engoglia is also pleased with the number of eighth graders who have chosen Legacy for next year. In the past, only 20 or so asked to attend Legacy and the rest were assigned. This year, 75 chose Legacy. “That’s a good sign,” he says.

Testing the Theory

As the year ends, teachers and administrators across the Heights campus are given cause to reflect when preliminary OGT results are released. As hard as they have been working, results are mixed. While Heights students are outperforming their counterparts in many similar districts, math and science scores across the building are disappointing.

At Legacy, there are bright spots. Scores have gone up in most subjects, with 84 percent of students passing in reading and 78 percent in writing. In social studies, 73 percent of students passed, a 20-point improvement over last year.

Engoglia attributes part of the success in social studies to Mary Kay McDade, whose classes looped, allowing her to have the same students for two consecutive years.

Kastor and Engoglia review the OGT data and prepare to share them with teachers. For Engoglia, they are further proof that he is right to keep expectations high for the faculty.

“When we push the teachers, we get the results,” says Engoglia. “And guess what? Literacy was a big push and that’s reflected in our OGT scores.”

While Legacy staff reflects on test results, three of the new schools are preparing to graduate their first classes of students who spent their entire high school careers in small schools. Together, the classes of 2008 received scholarships totaling more than $9 million. They have accepted scholarships to attend four-year universities in the amount of $4.1 million. In addition, seniors received more than $114,000 in scholarships from local community organizations in Northeast Ohio.

Legacy will graduate its first class of students who spent all four years in the school in 2008-09, and Engoglia is focused on planning for the new school year. While the eight-period day was not approved, a handful of teachers have said they are willing to give up their lunch to work with students who need special help.

By summer 2008, Engoglia learns that Legacy has met an additional two and possibly three indicators for the state report card. In addition, the district gave each small school 10 stretch goals and Legacy met seven of those.

Next year marks the first class of seniors who will graduate as four-year students of Legacy School. “The incoming junior and senior classes are really proud to be Legacy students and they have an identity with the school. I’m really proud of how hard they work and the leadership they’ve shown already,” Engoglia says.

It also helps that many of the incoming seniors are developing into leaders who could ultimately improve the school’s culture.

Kastor has 128 juniors and seniors volunteering as mentors and tutors for next year’s freshmen. They have chosen to attend extra training sessions during the final week of school to be ready to welcome next year’s class.

Meanwhile, Engoglia’s relationship with most teachers is good. He’s encouraged by the teachers’ response to the PLCs and excited about some of their ideas for the fall.

Kastor thinks Engoglia has grown since his early days as principal.

“Marc is not afraid to share power,” she says. “He knows his own limitations and knows how to use the strengths of the people around him. He’s learned that he can’t do it alone and that success requires collaboration. He realizes that you can’t do the same thing and expect different results. He is not afraid to take risks, to walk out on a limb and try something new.”

Kastor is excited about the coming year. She’s comfortable with her leadership responsibilities now, so next year she’ll head back into the math classroom to teach one class in addition to Freshman Seminar.

Both Legacy leaders are optimistic that handling discipline will get easier. The five principals continue to work on a new behavior plan to roll out in the fall.

Some of the students who consumed Engoglia’s time this year have made headway. Corey has been expelled, but he’s enrolled in summer school and sent Engoglia a letter pledging his commitment to improve his behavior and performance.

Mariah, the student who earlier in the year claimed to be a boxer and who got into a lot of trouble as a freshman, has a 3.4 GPA going into her senior year and has developed good relationships with other adults in the school that help keep her on track.

“Mariah has a good relationship with me and Karen, but she’s also found others in the building to help and that’s contributed to her success,” he says.

Engoglia knows those relationships are the key to student achievement. He’s survived the ups and downs of Legacy’s first years by focusing on the goal of helping students learn, Kastor says. “Marc never loses sight of the fact that he is there for the kids.”

As the new school moves forward, Engoglia is not alone in working toward that goal. The students of Legacy School will be supported by a team of educators who have risen to the challenge of new roles – a team of leaders.

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