Paul Lawrence is principal of Magee Elementary School, a K-4 school in Simpson County, Mississippi.
Magee Elementary was a school in crisis when I began as principal in 2015. The historically low-performing school had received an F grade from the state in 2014. Over the next three years, we improved our grade to a B and were able to maintain that accreditation level this past year as well. Our steady progress reflects a schoolwide effort focused on data-driven instruction, targeted professional development and stronger student engagement.
Here are five tactics we have used to help drive our school turnaround.
After years of seeing students struggle, our teachers didn’t have a lot of faith in their ability to turn around student performance. Accordingly, one of our first objectives was to help teachers believe in themselves and in our students. We supported this process by setting clear goals, providing regular professional development and creating strong professional learning communities. Using this structure, our teachers were much better positioned to learn and implement best practices.
Focus on literacy
We actively participated in Mississippi’s state-funded literacy training, which includes Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling. This program ensures teachers are well versed in the essential components of reading instruction, including the need for systematic phonics instruction in the early grades. As part of this initiative, literacy coaches began by collaborating with our teachers nearly every day, at first, but we then shifted to once a month after we began demonstrating solid progress.
Align to standards
We also made sure our teachers learned how to leverage i-Ready, the math and reading instructional program we began using in 2015. That first year, we had a lot to learn, but teachers soon began to embrace it once they understood how it aligned instruction to our state standards and supported differentiated learning. In addition to providing students with individualized instruction, the program gives teachers a variety of resources to deliver lessons as a targeted intervention with a small group or individual students.
Dive into data
We also ensure that everything we do, including goal setting and lesson planning, is driven by data. Each week we review the data provided by i-Ready, including a report on each student’s progress, specific strengths and weaknesses, and time on task. Our PLCs reflect on this data during their weekly meetings to help identify which students are struggling with which specific skills, as well as those who are ready for acceleration. Many take it a step further and convene regular data chats with students. These conversations help students feel ownership of their learning and provide teachers with even more feedback.
Importantly, we have focused on improving both classroom management and student engagement. We have trained teachers on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, while teaching students to be respectful, responsible, and ready to learn. This approach provides a framework for creating a productive learning environment that rewards positive behavior. Students not only learn the school’s behavioral norms, but understand they will receive the support they need to be successful. In addition, we motivate students through a variety of schoolwide and grade-level incentives and celebrate student progress with colorful displays throughout the building.
In the past four years, proficiency in math has risen from 12% to 47% and English language arts proficiency has increased from 17% to 44%, as measured by the Mississippi Academic Assessment Program. The success of our school's turnaround is also reflected in the active learning taking place in our classrooms and the renewed confidence of our teachers.
Meanwhile, our kindergarten students, many of whom begin school without any preschool experience, have demonstrated strong gains from the beginning to the end of the school year, outpacing the state average. By continuing to foster close collaboration among our teachers and promote high levels of student engagement, we expect to continue on our upward trajectory this school year.
In conclusion, these five tactics created a culture of higher expectations where both student and teacher ownership of data and shared accountability became the norm. These changes resulted in higher test scores and increases in accountability levels at Magee Elementary School.