On August 6, our school district held our annual Institute Day at a local church with a nationally known speaker. The speaker was good, but what made the day was the announcement by our superintendent, Dr. Phil Hammonds, that Brighton School met its AYP goals again and now was officially out of Alabama's dread "School Improvement" classification after eight years.
The crowd immediately rose to their feet to give the Brighton teachers and administrators a standing ovation. Several local news stations had already been informed of the announcement and were standing by to capture on camera the tears and yells of the Brighton faculty. I can honestly say it was a moment I was not prepared for, as this seemed so far from our reach four years ago when my principal, Margie Curry, and I first came to Brighton.
In fact Ms. Curry and I had been agonizing over our scores for the past few weeks prior to this event as we tried to determine if we had made AYP by looking at our raw data. Our scores had slightly dropped for the Special Education subgroup, and we had not made the large gains overall we'd made the previous two years. I cannot tell you the relief and joy I felt that day as Brighton’s success was celebrated.
Our faculty went back to school for another celebration of cake and ice cream while the local daily newspaper and another news station came for interviews. It was quite a moment. However, it did not take long for me to begin to wonder whether we would be able to do this again next year and the year after that?
I guess this is the mindset I have developed as we have all experienced the relentless pace of requirements built into the No Child Left Behind law. Every year the Annual Measurable Objectives increase until we reach (theoretically) 100% competency in every measured area in the year 2014. My persistent question now is how do we sustain change and continue to improve? When you have lived in the world of NCLB sanctions (in our state, that's School Improvement status), you never want to go back. One our teachers coined the phrase for our school last year, “Onward ever, backward never.” Our assistant principal made buttons with this slogan for our teachers to wear on Institute Day.
So, how do we keep from going backward? My thoughts are that it is time for our teachers to take full responsibility for our outcomes. We started encouraging ownership last year as we began Professional Learning Teams, and our teachers began working together in earnest to improve our school. After being under the guidance of a Peer Assistant from the State Department of Education for three years, now we are on our own. I believe we have to take what we learned from our state peers on how to improve test scores and now dig deeper to improve learning as we strive to meet the needs of all of our students.
My job is to take the huge notebook left by the state peers, designed to help us continue these practices, and assist the teachers as they build the capacity needed to sustain our success.
My first effort was to conduct our schoolwide data meeting. In the mood of celebration, but also knowing the need to present our data in a very realistic manner, I chose a George Carlin quote as our theme: “Just because the monkey is off your back, does not mean the circus has left town.”
A friend blew this quote up for all to read as the teachers entered the door. I brought circus snacks and everything was printed on very bright paper. Teachers were asked to sit in specific groups as we looked at our grade level data and completed data analysis sheets. It turned into a very positive meeting where I observed teachers taking ownership of the discussion.
I concluded the meeting with the charge that it is time for us to take this challenge “own.” I purposely spelled the word o-w-n, to emphasize the need for us to take ownership of our school. For the past three years, everything has been very top down. When you have been labeled a failing school for a long time, you do not have the option to question those who come to help.
I do so appreciate the help we have had from the SDE and our district; we would have never made the improvement without their support. I have to commend the Brighton teachers, too. The majority of our faculty took what they were asked to do and did it with no questions asked. I have often wondered if I would have been so cooperative. Probably not.
During my time as national teacher of the year, I was quoted on a Starbucks paper cup as saying: “Our schools can be fixed!” This was my dream for Brighton and to be a part of this experience has been the most rewarding and challenging time in my career. However, the challenge is about more than just fixing schools — it is about creating schools where success can be sustained. This is quite a challenge and I wonder daily if I have the energy for this work.
There is a part of me that would like to retire and leave on a high note. But I can’t leave. The reason I cannot leave is because of the children. I have mentioned often the children who were in the Kindergarten class with the snakes. This group completely captured my heart during a visit to Brighton in 2003, as I observed the less than adequate education they were receiving. Last year, these very same students (who are Brighton’s most at-risk population) had the highest scores for a special education subgroup. I am determined to stay until they have successfully completed all grades at Brighton, and I now believe this can be a reality.
The circus has not left town, but we now have our chance to make this school, if not the "Greatest Show on Earth," a great and lasting educational experience for our children and the Brighton community.