Putting students in the center
How one Metro Nashville school is using PLCs, coaching cycles, and data analysis to turn itself around
By Dr. Euna McGruder and Trellaney Lane
As educators, we’re called to do whatever it takes to help our students achieve. But unfortunately, not every strategy is successful, and sometimes, good intentions are just not good enough.
As one of Metro Nashville Public Schools’ (MNPS) identified Priority Schools, Robert Churchwell Elementary has certainly seen its share of challenges. Prior to the 2014-2015 year, the school had gone through three principals in almost just as many years and was suffering the effects of high teacher turnover, inconsistent instructional priorities, and initiatives that were never fully implemented. Due to a lack of demonstrated improvement during this time, the school was even eligible for takeover by the state.
At the start of the 2014-2015 school year when I (Trellaney Lane) took on the role as Principal of Churchwell, it was clear that, despite best efforts, there were many things happening at Churchwell that just weren’t yielding the improvements in student achievement we needed.
But thankfully, it’s a different story now, because we have a very different Churchwell.
In a concerted effort to turn around Churchwell and its lowest-performing schools, I, (Dr. Euna McGruder) was appointed as Executive Director of Priority Schools by MNPS at the start of the current school year. It was clear at that time that there was something exciting happening at Churchwell, and its future looked much brighter than what data from even the past year showed.
A Vastly Improved School
Since the start of the 2014-2015 school year, Churchwell has made remarkable gains, including scoring at the highest levels in core content areas based upon Tennessee’s indicators for statistically significant growth. Additionally, the school met three of its four Annual Measurable Objectives (AMOs) in third- and fourth-grade content areas and also attained satisfactory status under MNPS’ Academic Performance Framework, which measures academic progress, college- and career-readiness, achievement gaps, and school culture.
Perhaps the most telling sign of the school’s rapid growth and upward trajectory, however, is that, due to the considerable increase in student achievement, Churchwell is no longer eligible for state takeover
But these successes didn’t just happen overnight. It took creating clear, measurable goals and laser-focused, actionable plans to reach them.
Laying the Foundation
Despite the sense of urgency we felt to turn around the school, we knew it would never happen all at once. Instead, we committed to changing and growing just a little bit more each day, and approaching the work ahead of us with intention and discipline.
To guide and support us in this effort, we teamed up with Insight Education Group, who specialize in supporting the growth of teachers and school leaders. Dr. Sonja Alexander, our project lead from Insight, served as a vital thought partner each step of the way, and continues to help us think strategically about every action.
Building Better Systems
Our first step toward success was to take stock of all of the systems and structures in place, understand why they weren’t producing the right results, and figure out how to fix them.
It didn’t take long before we recognized that we needed to focus on implementing systems that worked together to support student achievement. Specifically, we focused on three key areas:
- Professional Learning Communities: Though Churchwell’s teachers had participated in PLCs in the past, they weren’t always effective in supporting teachers, nor was there a clear link to student learning.Alexander specifically supported us in restructuring PLCs around a set of fundamental questions: How do we expect students to learn? How will we know when they are learning? How will we respond when students experience difficulty in learning? How do we respond when students do learn?
By organizing PLCs around these questions and setting expectations for teachers to generate high-yield strategies through collaboration, the time spent in these meetings has been maximized and has directly impacted the quality of instruction at Churchwell.
- Coaching Cycles: In previous years, there was no clear expectation for instruction or system through which teachers could seek support. To put it plainly, we needed to determine how we do business at Churchwell. A product of our work was to build a framework that clarified instructional processes and tightened the coaching cycle. We now have a clear and shared vision of excellent instruction, and teachers can count on coaches to provide high-leverage strategies that can be directly implemented in the classroom.
- Data Analysis: Perhaps our most significant efforts have been in relation to data. In order to help our students achieve, we needed to know where they were and where they needed to go—and then determine what strategies would help them get there. The leadership team set expectations that included analyzing and applying student data in lesson planning. It’s exciting to see how the entire school community is now committed to making decisions based upon data.
Teachers Making it Work
While these practices have helped us make great gains, none of it would have happened without the dedication and tireless work of Churchwell’s staff. Whether it’s by coming in on Saturdays to plan lessons, working with students during their lunch breaks, or volunteering to take on additional duties, our teachers continue to model a commitment to excellence that students clearly feel, too. A very high bar has been set at the school, but teachers still go above and beyond for our students.
A few years ago, most people probably would not have predicted that Churchwell would be on the upward trajectory it is today. But we—along with school’s teachers and staff—committed to doing whatever it takes to improve. That means putting students at the center of everything, everyday.
Dr. Euna McGruger is the Executive Officer of Priority Schools for Metro Nashville Public Schools. A graduate of Tennessee State University, Dr. McGruder returns to Nashville with 24 years in school and district leadership experience, including several years of school turnaround experience. As a principal in both Dekalb County Schools in Georgia and Baltimore City Public Schools in Maryland, she led significant academic achievement gains in three different schools facing great challenges. In addition to her hands-on work as a school leader, she recently spent time in Newark Public Schools in New Jersey as a mentor and coach for principals charged with school turnaround.
Ms. Trellaney Lane is the principal of the Robert Churchwell Museum Magnet Elementary School in Metro Nashville Public Schools. Ms. Lane started her career as a teacher and assistant principal. Ms. Lane has a bachelor’s in humanities, a masters in elementary and early childhood education, an education specialist degree in administration and supervision, all from Tennessee State University. She is a doctoral candidate at Tennessee State in administration and supervision.