A Recipe for Success: Embracing Schoolwide Strategies to Promote an Academic Culture

Guest post by Susan Harrison-Rollins

I’m often asked for the recipe to a high-performing school. It’s a question that’s hard to answer. Of course, the recipe begins with a dedicated staff ready to embrace the many changes that come with education. And it helps to have a motivated group of students who have accepted a culture of learning. A school becomes a high-performing school when it has, through a clear and shared focus, high standards and expectations for all students, effective school leadership, high levels of collaboration and communication, frequent monitoring (of both learning and teaching), focused professional development, and a supportive learning environment with high levels of family and community involvement. Beyond these things, and maybe most important, it is paramount to devise a set of schoolwide strategies that become embedded and essential to the academic culture. 

First Steps: You can’t change learning and performance at scale without creating a strong, visible, and transparent common culture of instructional practice.

Initially, the idea for systemic schoolwide strategies came from our state’s new teacher evaluation system, the Nevada Educator Performance Framework (NEPF). I knew that we needed to provide teachers specific ways for them to perform as highly effective educators. I sat down with my administrative team and our learning strategist to determine strategies that would support the new evaluation system and align with our project-based learning curriculum. Our plan: Using staff development days, we would model practices and strategies to be used schoolwide in every class. Working with the School Improvement Team, we determined the following schoolwide practices that would be implemented after extensive and systematic training in every classroom, with every teacher:

  • Close reading
  • Close writing
  • Socratic circles/questioning
  • Composition notebooks
  • Common lesson planning
  • Curriculum lesson templates/online lessons
  • One-to-one devices used daily (Chromebooks)
  • Collaboration—every five to seven minutes
  • Collaboration logs—monitoring common strategies
  • Instructional rounds—every two weeks with rotating staff
  • Project-based learning—mini PBLs/quarterly PBLs

Instructional Rounds: Monitoring to Ensure Consistent Practice

After training our teachers, we decided to include instructional rounds as a monitoring tool for our newly introduced strategies and initiatives. Much like rounds that doctors make in hospitals, we structured observations as a way for teachers to learn, grow, and monitor their own teaching. The teachers and administrative team visited classrooms every two weeks, with rotating staff, to observe common practices.

Teachers are grouped for instructional rounds purposively, and the teachers we visit are also intentional. For example, I often schedule a group of new teachers together, bringing them to visit more experienced and competent teachers so that they can appreciate the seamless integration of strategies. Or, I might group a reluctant teacher with teachers that have embraced these changes in order to see a growth mindset in action. Grouping teachers is as important to the monitoring process as the strategies that are being observed.

The goals of instructional rounds were twofold: 1) to provide teachers the opportunity to view a variety of classroom instruction across the curriculum, analyze and evaluate student accountability, and recognize how to move teaching forward to increase equitable instruction; and 2) to strengthen the purpose and outcome of collaboration within the student-centered classroom and promote higher-level questioning and critical thinking. In other words, teachers would be given time within the instructional day to observe classroom instruction and collaborate on trends and next steps to meet the rigorous requirements of the NEPF.

New and Improved Growth Mindset

What started as a few schoolwide strategies and practices has evolved into a growth mindset and recipe for success for both teachers and students. Our classrooms are project-centered, open-ended, real-world, student-centered, constructive, collaborative, creative, communication-focused, researched-based, technology-enhanced and 21st-century-reform friendly. Our monitored strategies have resulted in an increase in student achievement, closing of the achievement gap, deeper learning and understanding, and more engaged learners. Through focused monitoring, we have been able to provide innovative and consistent delivery of instruction to meet the needs of all learners.

What is your recipe for success? How do you promote an academic culture in your school?

Susan Harrison-Rollins serves as the principal of Sig Rogich Middle School, a 2015 Blue Ribbon School, in Las Vegas, NV. She is completing her 38th year in education and is the 2017 Nevada Principal of the Year. 

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