Since 2002, the Association for School Curriculum Development (ASCD) has tapped an administrator for its annual Outstanding Young Educator Award (OYEA). In 2009, two talented administrators shared the honor, selected for their different approaches to remaking their schools.
Teachers and administrators use a virtual data wall that they can access at all times to track individual student progress across different indicators, from formative and summative benchmark assessment results to student participation in afterschool activities and leadership groups. The wall drives regular data-focused and collaborative conversations, during which teams develop individualized instruction and support plans for students who aren't meeting benchmarks. In addition, the school's Technology Academy merges project-based learning with technology integration to help students become problem solvers and global citizens. Nichols maintains a Hidenwood Twitter feed and produces video updates to keep parents and community members engaged and informed.
Nichols also supports his faculty. Teachers participate in differentiated professional development opportunities that take into account their current knowledge and skill levels and are tailored to meet student needs.
When faced with the challenge of improving his school's math and science scores, Powell created No Child Left Inside, a program designed to engage students and the broader community in transforming Patuxent into a green school. Through hands-on learning that included testing the pH level of a nearby stream, creating habitats for local animal species, and maintaining a history trail, students bolstered their science and math skills while contributing to a cleaner and greener community, according to ASCD.
Powell also draws parents to school through the Young People Improvement Conference, which he created to help students in grades 3 through 6 develop critical life skills. Meanwhile, Powells Men in Action with a Purpose (MAP) program teaches fathers how to support their children's learning. Powell has trained the fathers in implementing reading strategies, using student portfolios at home to support academic success, and understanding differentiated instruction and data-based instruction.
Both outstanding administrators talked with Education World about their efforts and goals for their students.
Education World: What are your key strategies for turning around a low-performing school?
Brian Nichols: The key strategies to turning around a low-performing school begin with building a strong, positive culture and a sense of community. We pride ourselves on being a smart, safe school. One of the cornerstones of a strong culture is setting high expectations for all students and adults. The high expectations are then matched with strong accountability measures to track progress and ensure that students are exceeding all benchmarks.
Data is utilized throughout the building to not only determine the effectiveness of certain programs but also to decide which interventions will best work for individual students. Students who are not exceeding benchmarks are afforded multiple opportunities and support, which includes extending the school day.
Staffing is another to key to moving a school forward quickly. There is absolutely no substitute for an outstanding teacher, which is why recruiting and retaining the best teachers is a top priority at Hidenwood.
EW: What was the most difficult part of implementing strategies at your school?
Nichols: The key to change is that you want it to be systemic. It has to be bigger than a person, a program, or an initiative. One of the biggest lessons learned in moving a school forward is recognizing that you cannot do it alone. A core group of committed people have the power to not only turn around a school but change the world. Leadership at Hidenwood is not a function of position. It is based on a willingness and desire to move the organization forward and to do what is right by all kids.
One of the most wonderful things about our school is that it is full of leaders at every level. One of the foundations of this leadership is that we believe that greatness is within everyone. It is our responsibility to tap into each persons passion and unleash his or her potential for greatness. This is one of the reasons that we launched a student leadership initiative. Our students have a strong voice and are now heavily involved in school-based leadership activities. More than 75 percent of our students this year are directly involved in student activity and leadership groups.
EW: What are you doing to maintain the schools forward momentum?
Nichols: Our forward momentum really comes down to our philosophical approach to education. Our mission is to motivate, educate, and advocate for all children. We cannot rest until we reach all of our students. The idea of just settling for a predetermined percentage on a standardized test will never be good enough here.
There is always room for improvement, which drives us to continually search for new practices and refine existing best practices. We are continuing to use data and our virtual data wall to drive decision making in regards to students, interventions, and professional development.
All of our classrooms are now equipped with 21st century technology, including interactive whiteboards, document cameras, and student response systems. This allows us to utilize the tools that students love to teach the material that students need in order to be successful. We are also embracing mobile technology as our fifth grade students embark on a mobile phone project that will require them to create content that can be utilized by other students.
Im excited about our future as a community because of the support we receive from our school division and the willingness of all stakeholders to do whatever it takes to meet the needs of all children.
EW: What inspired you to try the project-based approach to improve student achievement? How effective was it?
Michael Powell: Standardized tests are good diagnostic tools; however, I needed to find an alternative way of assessing student learning. I needed a way of addressing the needs of the whole child. This led me to try the project-based approach. After all, I have never heard a student say I cant wait to bubble answers tomorrow, or Can I get some more worksheets? Teachers inspire and build on childrens natural curiosity. Project-based learning leads to authentic learning by utilizing inquiry, constructivism, and discrepant events to ignite a meaningful and rigorous instruction. Project-based learning also uses a cross-curricular approach, which allows for collaborative planning. This approach increases professional development and reduces both teacher turnover and isolation.
Through project-based learning we have created several outdoor classrooms and use our school campus as the context for environmental study. We have experienced several years of making AYP and, more important, we have increased the number of students entering college science programs and narrowed the gap in the number of environmental stewards. We too have reduced our carbon footprint by maintaining our recycling program, planting 1,500 trees, using non-toxic cleaning materials, and using energy- saving devices.
EW: How has fathers involvement in school and their childrens education changed since you started the MAP program?
One particular story comes to mind. A father [of a student] had not seen his child since the day the child was born. When his son sent him the flyer to attend Fathers Day in February, he said he had to come and check on his child. This reunion sparked on-going weekly visits from the father and the student is now on the honor roll.
EW: What are your goals for your students?
Powell: My goals for my students are for them to be life-long learners, have a desire to serve their community and nation, be environmental stewards, and be active participants in our democracy. I believe that the pivotal need for any great society is found in a quality education for all of its citizens.
This e-interview with Brian Nichols and Michael Powell is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.
Article by Ellen R. Delisio