A senior at Amityville Memorial High School was recently overheard telling a visitor, “Our school is definitely different from when I was a freshman.” Another student said, “Our school has evolved…a lot!” and a third added, “I heard Mr. Andrews really turned the school around.”
Scott Andrews was a former guidance counselor with no experience in school administration when he became Amityville’s principal in 2004, but he brought a wealth of knowledge and experience in psychology—including a doctorate—to the position. He also quickly recruited Peter Hutchison, a special education teacher, to be an assistant principal. With their combined expertise and experience in working with high-needs populations, they focused on building trust and forging relationships to begin turning around a failing school.
Amityville serves grades 10–12 in Amityville Union Free School District in Suffolk County, NY. The 1950s-era school is relatively small, so grade 9 was moved to a larger feeder middle school several years ago. To offset the disadvantage of having the 9th grade a few miles away; provide continuity in instruction, curriculum, and assessment; and ensure that each student has a personal advocate and adult “touchstone” when they get to Amityville, the district loops 9th- and 10th-grade English and social studies teachers.
Initially, Andrews, Hutchison, and a small number of supportive staff members focused on what Andrews refers to as “the four Rs”: relevance, respect, responsibility, and relationships. Relevance includes aligning the curriculum with state standards and assessments, con- centrating on vertical articulation from middle to high school, increasing academic rigor, and using data to inform instruction. A commitment to high academic achievement has been encouraged among staff members and students through professional discussions, collegial circles, rigorous pedagogy, and celebrations of achievements.
That philosophy places a heavy emphasis on showing respect for students and staff members through recognizing the individuality of all students, celebrating students’ hard work, improving the appearance of the school, and fostering a positive and collaborative culture. The school now encourages personal responsibility and accountability for all stakeholders with firm, fair, and consistent discipline, which leads to positive sense of ownership of the school. Teachers maintain a strong academic focus and emphasize the importance of student attendance at school and in class—both of which are now the norm, rather than the exception, at Amityville.
Throughout the school, caring and compassionate relationships have been established. A culture of trust has been formed among students, staff members, parents, and community members. The positive results are demonstrated by:
- Improved attendance (93%) and graduation rates (87%)
- Improved performance on important state assessments, indicated by a 37% increase in passing rates in mathematics and a 5% increase in passing rates in English and language arts over five years
- Increased percentage of Regents Diplomas earned (from 53% to 85% over three years)
- Increased college attendance rates (from 86% to 93% over three years).
Although Andrews emphasizes that the staff and the community, as well as the students, have played a major part in reinventing the school, it is clear that without his evenhanded guidance, the school would not be what it is today. The assistant superintendent responsible for recruiting Andrews to the district said, “Before he came on board, generally anything you heard about Amityville was negative, but it’s all positive since 2004. He treats people with respect in a nonthreatening way. He accentuates the positive, but deals with the issues. He has raised expectations. He wants success for every teacher and student in the building.”
In line with the school slogan, The best is yet to come, Amityville remains dedicated to continual improvement for the school and the highest achievement possible for each of its students. To accomplish this goal, the staff is committed to maintaining its focus on practical and relevant professional development and continuing their efforts to familiarize students with the postsecondary options available to them. Yes, it is apparent that the best is yet to come for this outstanding school.
|Amityville Memorial High School
|Principal: Scott Andrews
Black/African American 60%, Hispanic 25%, White 12%, Other 3%, Free or reduced-price meals eligible 49%, Special education 7%, English language learners 7%
Principal Scott Andrews reflects on providing the leadership for a much-needed change in the culture of a school where underachievement was accepted as a consequence of the school’s socioeconomic mix.
One month after my arrival, I recruited Peter Hutchison to join me as one of my two assistant principals. On his second day in the building, he surveyed the halls after the bell rang and approached a young man leaning on the lockers. He asked the student if he needed help. The student, not knowing who Mr. Hutchison was, unleashed a scathing barrage of obscenity.
That incident solidified our resolve to use caring relationships, consistency, counseling discipline, collaborative leaderships, and data-driven instruction to transform our school. From the beginning, we stressed the importance of relationship building as the foundation of any successful school or organization, a function of my counseling and psychology background. We forged positive and forward-thinking relationships built on trust, respect, truthfulness, listening, and collaborating to effect continuous improvement in meeting the needs of our students.
Initially, the representatives of the teachers’ union in the building insisted that administrators had to “control” the student body through fear and intimidation, but I responded respectfully that as long as my team served as the administrators, we would not rule by fear. We would use a counseling approach that did not simply respond punitively to student infractions.
Relationship building also had to be strengthened among the adults. When my administrative team observed teaching in the building, we found incredibly disparate approaches to the delivery of instruction. Teachers did not share or collaborate. They had neither unified course curricula nor agreement regarding instructional methodologies. Essentially, the bell rang and the teachers closed their doors and attempted to teach the students who opted to attend their classes.
To change that culture, I appointed subject-matter coordinators in each department. They proved instrumental in developing teachers’ trust and building the necessary comfort levels within their respective departments to effect change. The coordinators led initiatives for collaborative curriculum building that were based on backward planning, common course assessments to ensure authenticity of instruction, and individualized instruction.
Another challenge was that many of the professional development opportunities for staff members did not align with improvement goals. To remedy that, we created professional learning communities, enabling us to bring entire departments together for half-day professional development activities that facilitate instruction within teachers’ respective classrooms. Teachers participated in pre- and postsession peer conferencing and personal reflection. Giving teachers relevant and immediate opportunities to share their success and failures proved to be a powerful tool for improving instructional practices.
Expectations for success among staff members and students and equitable practices were other areas that required attention. Early in my tenure, I asked the guidance chair to list the colleges and universities that would be sending representatives. Shockingly, not a single college representative had visited our school in the previous five years. Drawing upon my experience in guidance, I helped with a total overhaul of the guidance program. We soon went from “chasing” students in the halls during the spring of their senior year to hand out applications for Suffolk Community College to implementing a full-fledged, comprehensive guidance program that required annual personalized planning for all students.
During my first week at Amityville, I visited the AP U.S. History class and was taken aback to see that the make-up of the class did not reflect the school’s population. Although I knew that changes would occur gradually, providing high-level educational opportunities to all students became a major priority. With the collaboration of teacher coordinators, counselors, students, and parents and guardians, we dramatically increased the availability of rigorous courses. In addition, we eliminated honors-level courses in favor of Regents courses and AP or college-level courses, creating more heterogeneous classes.
In cases where teachers and staff members did not live up to our expectations, my leadership team and I took the necessary steps to remove them from our learning community. Although such decisions were made with great difficulty, we made them. In all instances, we treated everyone with dignity and respect. By establishing trusting relationships with all of our stakeholders, we set the foundation for continuous success at Amityville.
An open-door policy enabled me and my leadership team to provide consistent direction and to exercise a positive influence over all aspects of the educational program. Through ongoing discussions regarding best practices in conjunction with our subject-matter coordinators, we reached consensus on all significant components that would improve the delivery of instruction to our students. Day-to-day implementation of relevant professional development and high-quality classroom instructional practices improved the overall organizational structure, consistent with our commitment to improve all aspects of the school’s educational program.
A Team Effort
Members of the leadership team at Amityville explain the most important actions they took to improve student achievement.
In the 2003–04 school year, the school was most certainly not an inviting environment for learning and education. Students in all grades were permitted to leave campus, the curriculum was inconsistent from class to class within subject areas, teachers handed out work sheets and then worked crossword puzzles during teaching assignments, and student achievement was abysmal. The physical plant was dirty, leaking, and malodorous—in short, almost a hazard to student and staff health and safety.
The first step in raising student achievement was simply getting students to come to class. The campus was declared “closed,” meaning that students could no longer leave at will. The expectation that all students would be in class was clearly communicated to students, teachers, and parents. The administrators convened a series of meetings with department coordinators—the senior lead teachers in curricular areas—encouraging them to take ownership of their departments and the associated curricula and to help the members of their departments develop lessons and activities that engage their students in learning.
In June 2004, the administrators and coordinators met to review results from the New York State Regents assessments. The results were disaggregated by subgroup at both the department and teacher level. Individual exam questions were reviewed to identify areas of weakness on the part of both students and teachers. The coordinators then met with staff members over the summer to review curriculum, align it with the state standards, and develop a consistent delivery model.
At the request of the coordinators, the administrators purchased Examgen test generator software and databases of questions from past Regents exams, and all teachers received training to use it. Teachers used the software to create common unit, quarterly, and mid-term assessments, further contributing to a consistent delivery of curriculum to all students.
When the 2005–06 school year began, a revised, more-rigorous curriculum was in place, and the department coordinators were working closely with their teachers to ensure that lessons were engaging, teaching was consistent with state standards, and good classroom management strategies were in place. But discipline and behavior issues continued to plague the school. Progress was made in those areas through such programs as Awareness Weekend, a freshman transition program that was developed in conjunction with Rebecca Dedmond at George Washington University, a diversity awareness partnership and student exchange program with a predominately White school, presentations by Suffolk County police officers about gang activities, presentations on the dangers of drugs and alcohol by the Nassau County District Attorney’s Office and the Amityville Police Department, and annual preprom reminders about the dangers of drinking and driving.
Communication received a lot of attention early in the new administrators’ tenures. Before their arrival, the relationship among teachers, students, and administrators was strained. The administrators immediately began changing the perception by dispelling the notion that students should be afraid of administrators and began inviting students into their offices to meet them; encouraging teachers to develop positive and empathetic relationships with their students; and giving students a pencil, a piece of paper, or whatever school supplies they needed. Student leaders were trained in peer mediation techniques and are on call to help mediate disputes between fellow students.
As we persist along our path of continuous improvement, the Amityville leadership team continues its work in the following areas:
- Programs and support for English language learners and special education students
- Professional development and schoolwide emphasis on literacy
- Instructional technology, both equipment and training
- Postsecondary education, including the early college dualenrollment program
- Physical environment and beautification.
Those changes, identified as part of the Breaking Ranks foundation, have contributed significantly to turning Amityville from a “school in need of improvement” to a growing and enthusiastic school community “in good standing.” PL
|Amityville Awareness Weekend
Amityville Memorial High School’s awareness weekend starts at 3:00 p.m. Friday afternoon and lasts until 11:30 p.m. Saturday night. During this event, approximately 120 students, who are selected through a needsbased process, and 18 staff members spend 32 hours together in a structured, yet pressure-free, environment. Attendees sleep at the school and participate in activities that are designed to help them develop their socialemotional skills and get to know one another. Students are grouped into “families” that have an adult and a student facilitator and participate in activities and communication exercises that break down walls and build bridges, such as hearing a keynote speaker, participating in panel discussions, acting in a cooperative play, sharing their thoughts and feelings in a community setting, and role-playing.
The participants gain insight into one another and themselves, but the weekend also fosters a sense of acceptance and respect that creates a ripple effect throughout the school long after the weekend is over. According to Jason McGowan, organizer and teacher, “The bond that occurs between students and staff helps our building be a physically and emotionally safe place. A by-product is that it reduces tension among the students and fosters and enhances the respect they have toward each other.”
The program has recently been expanded from the original ninth-grade awareness day to include a senior awareness day and a second awareness weekend in the spring.