How One School Went from Struggling to Thriving

Guest post by Jessica Ainsworth, Garrick Askew, and Lee Collins

In 2011, Lithia Springs High School (LSHS) needed help. The Douglas County, GA, school had been lagging behind state and national benchmarks long enough to be identified as a Priority School (schools among the lowest 5 percent of Title I schools in terms of academic achievement).

But with the arrival of a grant, a new principal, and a dedicated administrative team, LSHS turned things around and has seen increases in the graduation rate, job placements, and college acceptances.

The Background

LSHS serves an urban, majority-minority, socioeconomically disadvantaged population of students. The tie binding LSHS’s students to the urban sprawl is its free and reduced lunch population, which hovers around 78 percent.

To address the academic struggles at LSHS, the school received a School Improvement Grant (SIG) in the amount of $6 million from the state of Georgia. In addition, the school welcomed a new principal, Dr. Garrick Askew, in 2012. Askew joined an existing administrative staff at the school, including co-authors and assistant principals Dr. Lee Collins and Jessica Ainsworth.

While the administrative team had made efforts to implement improvement initiatives, limited progress had been made during the first year of the SIG grant. They decided the approach would be different for the 2012–2013 school year.

STEM competition 2015

Photo courtesy of Jessica Ainsworth.

The Mane Thing: Birth of a Focused Vision

To begin, the team collaborated with stakeholders to define the areas of the school where changes would occur to increase student engagement and achievement. The target areas were curriculum, interventions, assessments, attendance, behavior, and communication. Thus, the Mane Thing, a six-pronged initiative that reflects a clear purpose and vision for academic success, was born.

Since funding existed to support STEM classes, the team focused on making the magnet a legitimate program, providing a first-rate experience and creating opportunities for students. Finally, a focus on the unique needs of the students through programs—including a Project Success Academy, flexible learning time, PBIS: Legacy of the Lion program, and an onsite Night School—became a critical priority.

Supporting Their Greatest Asset Through RTI(T)

The LSHS administrative team believes the greatest asset is their teachers. Knowing the implementation of extensive change would be difficult, the team created the Response to Intervention for Teachers RTI(T) program. RTI(T) uses a systematic support system by school administrators to differentiate professional learning and support.

The Wallace Foundation’s five practices of effective principals serves as the basis for The Mane Thing and RTI(T):

  • The need for vision
  • Positive climate
  • Shared leadership
  • Effective instruction
  • Managing data, people, and processes

The RTI(T) process looks something like this:

  1. Data is collected, such as walk-through observations, self-assessments, lesson planning, and student achievement.
  2. School administrators analyze the data to determine specific areas of every teacher’s strengths and areas of opportunity.
  3. The administrative team designs specific interventions with teacher input using the resources available including, but not limited to, online learning, book studies, peer coaching, or clinical observations.
  4. Administrators work with teachers to implement the interventions and monitoring each teacher’s progress.

This cycle repeats throughout the school year and incorporates teacher voice as well as opportunities for innovation, which has resulted in improved teacher retention rates from 60 percent three years ago to 93 percent this school year.

One LSHS administrator expressed her belief in the RTI(T) program saying, “I have never worked at a school where teacher support was so important. We are committed to designing professional learning to positively impact our students.”

robotics 2015

Photo courtesy of Jessica Ainsworth.

The RTI(T) pyramid of interventions also links to the Georgia evaluation system, but has the flexibility to link to any state evaluation system. The tiered system allows teachers to experience specific support or master elements to become coaches for other professionals.

One teacher stated, “Professional learning at Lithia is different; I work with two teachers to increase more effective lesson planning while I receive coaching on differentiation in advanced placement classes.”

The Result of Path Changers

The Mane Thing and RTI(T) are leadership strategies that continue to bring school change to LSHS. With the school personnel’s clear purpose, they become “path changers”—preparing students to take the road less travelled, making all the difference in their lives. The situational awareness and focus of the leadership team continue to make an impact on student achievement.

In three years, LSHS made significant strides:

  • Their College and Career Readiness Performance Index (CCRPI) score has increased 13.6 points on a 100 point scale.
  • LSHS ranks higher than the state high school average.
  • Across the district, LSHS experienced significant student growth in seven of eight areas.
  • Out of 48 schools receiving the SIG grant in Georgia, Lithia experienced the most growth, capturing 32 percent of its potential.

The administrative team says that “this is not an accident,” but their success is directly linked to their “exceedingly concentrated effort around instructional leadership.”

In addition to numbers, evidence of success exists in a multitude of anecdotal examples of improved culture and climate and stories of individual student performances. Because of high expectations with structure and support, teachers and students embrace a sense of efficacy. Their opinions of each other improve due to their synergistic efforts.

Parents, community members, students, teachers, and administrators now all believe they do something at a different level at LSHS—and that makes all the difference.

You can learn more about implementing this effective change process in your school when Ainsworth, Askew, and Collins present a session on this topic at Ignite ’16 this February 25–27. Register today!

Dr. Garrick Askew is the principal of Lithia Springs High School, Dr. Lee Collins is the Assistant Principal for Curriculum and Instruction of Lithia Springs High School, and Jessica Ainsworth is the former Assistant Principal of Lithia Springs High School, who now serves as Assistant Director of Assessment for Douglas County School District. Ainsworth was named the 2015 NASSP National Assistant Principal of the Year.

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