Lee High School is a little gem hidden in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Student scores are soaring, the number of students attending is increasing, and amazing things are happening for all students. All this has led to Lee High School being identified as a REWARD SCHOOL by the Michigan Department of Education in August 2012.
A little more than two years ago, however, Lee was not considered a “gem,” but instead was placed on the state’s PLA (persistently low-achieving) school list. David Britten, Superintendent of Godfrey Lee Schools, chose to look beyond the stigma of the PLA designation, however, and take advantage of the opportunity to apply for a School Improvement Grant (SIG). His goal was clear; he knew they needed the funds necessary to put into place programs and practices that he knew would improve student outcomes. And Lee High School had needs. This small, urban high school is home to four hundred students, of whom approximately 76% are Hispanic, 10 % Black, and 14% are White. With ninety percent of Lee’s students eligible for free/reduced lunches and thirty percent of its population comprised of ELL students, their challenges were not unlike other urban high schools across the nation.
Mr. Britten gets a little upset when he hears people say, “Money won’t solve the problems in education.” He believes Lee did need funding to provide what they knew students and teachers required to improve learning. At the same time, he and most other educators admit that in some cases grant funds are not well spent, or not spent, at all! So, what sets Lee, who received a relatively small SIG grant, apart and led to significant success in a short period of time?
Steve Hoelscher (Leadership Coach), Lee teachers, and David Britten would use one word to describe the difference: Focus. The Superintendent, who also served as the high school principal last year,
believes that one of the keys to success was distributed leadership, but that didn’t occur automatically. Britten states, “My background was twenty-two years in the military and my leadership style was one of building teams, but with a strong leader. I realized that I was hampering them (teachers) from taking leadership. They were willing to follow, but were not learning to lead. I had to be honest with the teachers and intentionally move out of the role of always being the leader. Because of my dual-role as Superintendent and Principal last year and not being physically in the high school as much, it gave us an opportunity to develop leadership capacity.”
Another area of Focus was coaching. Godfrey Lee identified coaching as a critical support piece when staff members wrote their SIG application. But not just any “coaching” would support increased student learning; Lee educators knew that coaching must be comprehensive and truly be coaching, NOT consulting. Lee’s plan called for three onsite coaches who were each in the building three/four days a week. The leadership, literacy, and math coaches focused on building relationships and used Cognitive Coaching to support teachers in their classrooms. Last spring Lee also added a data coordinator/coach to their team to help teachers use data to support their practice.
Brian McKanna, teacher, identified another focus area as classroom instruction and assessment. Brian states, “We started to identify students (through the use of assessment data) earlier and add interventions earlier . . . in the ninth grade. We also changed the school climate through setting clear expectations.” Teacher Deb Truszkowski says she has increased student engagement in her classrooms through the use of cooperative learning and by having students graph their own progress toward the standards. In her words, “students need to be involved in choosing a learning goal and remained focused.”
Tom DeGennaro, teacher, believes that changes in teacher practice were key to the school’s success. He states, “Coaches introduced the staff to different ways of addressing the learning of students. We looked at things like cooperative learning, cutting lecture time down, more ‘hands on approach’ for the students, less teacher focus in the class room and more focus on the students. That is to say less focus on what we taught and more focus on what the student has learned.” DeGennaro also sticks by his tried and true focus of building relationships with students. He says, “When the kids like to come to your classroom and feel safe to think outside of the box, they are not afraid to venture out and ask questions, to make mistakes, and to find answers. Then you’ve got something. You have captured those kids and are able to get them to develop a love for learning.”
Administrators also used the teacher evaluation system to focus on change in teacher practice. “The key,” Britten states, “is we used it as a developmental process and as a result we noticed that conversations between teachers were also becoming more and more powerful. This, combined with coaching, changed teacher practice.” Coaches and administrators reviewed teacher-developed student assessments with an eye toward Bloom’s Taxonomy and found many assessments were only requiring low-levels of thinking (recall). When this was made visible to teachers, they sought ways to deepen students thinking.
In the end, the demographics of Godfrey Lee’s school district, only one square mile, didn’t change. Household incomes didn’t go up and parents’ level of education hadn’t increased, but teacher practice has changed and so has student achievement! No longer at the bottom in the Top-to-Bottom ranking, Lee High School is now ranked in the 63rd percentile of the state’s schools based on ACT scores and graduation rates. And teachers and administrators have plans to continue this trajectory into their future as they remain focused on success.
Author Note: Coaches, Steve Hoelscher, Debbie Schuitema, Gary Bundy, and Steve Barbus are employees of the Institute for Excellence in Education, a non-profit, SIG Service Provider based in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan.