You’ve Found Your “Why?” But What’s Your “How?”

If you’re reading this, my guess is that you and your school have crystallized a vision for why you do what you do—student learning outcomes, career pathway discovery, etc. In the case of Elk Grove High School (EGHS), our vision is to solidify America’s middle class by educating a generation of highly ethical, civic-minded, economically successful citizens who create a better future for all of us.

Sound familiar? Your vision for student outcomes is likely quite similar to ours. Many schools have a vision for their student outcomes, but does your school cultivate a vision for the process? At EGHS, our administrative team has adopted the philosophy of “Challenge, Support, Patience.” Much more than a catchy slogan, this mantra guides our decision-making every day.

Challenge

Here’s the critical realization that both principals and faculties need to internalize: Students know when our expectations for them have been lowered. Fortunately, as noted by my education hero Rick Stiggins, students are able to reach any target that is clear and does not move. All students must be pushed to their maximum, regardless of where anyone assumes they may finish.

Only about 30 percent of our EGHS parents possess a four-year college degree, but over 90 percent of them aspire to raise children who reach that goal. More than 50 percent of our parents ended their formal education with a high school diploma or less, but virtually none of them would be satisfied if their children were to follow their path.

It’s on us as school leaders to pave the way for the fulfillment of our families’ dreams for their children. At EGHS, even as our school’s poverty rate tripled to over 40 percent, our AP participation quadrupled, and dual-enrollment participation increased by over 500 percent.

Support

Clearly, the mere placement of students into challenging courses is not going to magically transform every child into a Nobel laureate overnight. It is equally critical that all students are actively supported during their challenges by staff who understand that there is much more to each kid’s day than any single course, activity, or sport.

Support for success starts in the classroom. Put simply, students know which staff members are glad to see and teach them, and they rise in response to the warm welcome they receive. This support is particularly critical during those inevitable moments of doubt on the part of a student or parent who feels that the challenge may be greater than their abilities. We must convince our teaching staff to embrace the notion that all students, adequately supported, can succeed in rigorous academic work.

To create the conditions for success, we must also create interventions that identify and bring students along when they are not sure they can handle what we’ve given them. In the school day, outside the school day, whenever. Skeptical staff, students, and parents become believers when support for achievement is present.

Our “Mastery Lab,” a learning center staffed by over 100 teachers and student tutors throughout the day, provides real-time support for students in need.  For students who need more intensive academic and executive functioning support, a referred study program and more than 25 staff-created social wellness groups are there to close the gaps.

Patience

It is where students finish, not where they start, that matters.We forget sometimes that if kids were already mature, prepared, and self-driven when they get to high school, they would not need us. We similarly forget sometimes that student achievement is a journey, not an on-off switch that students or teachers can control.

It is critically important to remember that success does not have to happen overnight and that we, as school leaders, must exercise patience to see the realization of our vision. Despite obstacles of both perception and reality, more than 50 percent of the EGHS Class of 2017 received a passing score on an AP Exam prior to graduation. This year, about 80 percent of EGHS Seniors are enrolled in college credit-earning coursework in math and English, up from about 15 percent just three years ago.

To accomplish our vision, we have prioritized quality assessment literacy practices that emphasize student learning rather than compliance, student growth rather than prior experience, and long-term attainment over short-term struggle. We cultivate a culture that patiently yet deliberately insists on student mastery of knowledge of skills, irrespective of how long the learning may take. In doing so, we’ve created a student-focused environment with increased academic achievement, fewer behavior infractions, and robust student spirit.

We must be the ones to close the gap between our parents’ own experiences and their dreams for their children. Even in the face of opposition, school leaders must create a climate of high expectations for student achievement that puts all of our students in a position to surpass even their own assumptions of their ability.

When we provide the supports and create a culture of patience in the interest of long-term student growth, achievement results WILL follow!

Paul Kelly is proud to be the principal of Elk Grove High School in Elk Grove Village, IL, where he has served for the past six years. Previously a recipient of the Milken National Educator Award as a classroom teacher, Paul was named the Illinois High School Principal of the Year in 2018. Paul is one of three Finalists for NASSP’s National Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter @EGPrinciPaul.

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