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We’re here and committed to our school!” Those are the words of the parents, business leaders, and staff members who serve on the site council for Columbus Unified High School. Although poverty (45%) and unemployment (25%) are widespread in this rural Kansas community, the community members are fierce in their loyalty to the school. Last year, 97.8% of the four-year cohort of students— including special education students, who compose 12% of the enrollment— graduated. This is a school that takes pride in knowing that each student will graduate prepared for his or her future.

With the advent of accountability requirements, the tenured staff, although always student-centered, recognized a need for improvement. Student academic achievement as measured by state assessments was poor although annual targets were being met. Principal Steve Jameson felt that just meeting the targets was not good enough. He knew that because of the economic realities of rural life, the students’ future opportunities were inextricably linked to graduating from high school with strong reading, writing, and math skills.

Columbus Unified High School
Columbus, Kansas
Principal: Steven R. Jameson





White 88%, American Indian 7%, Hispanic 2%, Black/African American 2%, Other 1%, Free or reduced-price meals eligible 45%, Special education 12%

As Jameson was considering next steps, he participated in Breaking Ranks professional development training and became a certified trainer. That training gave him a process and a road map to present to the staff. He first shared the framework with the building leadership team (BLT). The BLT immediately embraced the ideas and, after discussing them with the entire faculty, team members began the process of school improvement by completing detailed self-assessments that examined the school’s strengths and challenges. The data from the selfassessments were examined in small, collaborative study groups that were facilitated by BLT members, who then back to the leadership team, which then reported to the entire faculty. This collaborative model for data-based decision making is in place today.

Many of the programmatic recommendations from Breaking Ranks II were already in use at Columbus Unified, but they were not used effectively. For example, an advisory period called “seminar” was part of the school day, but because of its structure, it functioned as a study hall. The collaborative study groups refocused the purpose and outcomes for this daily class; now seminar classes are used for tutoring, completing independent study, discussing high school issues, planning career goals, and tracking progress toward graduation.

Seminar teachers become personal adult advocates for the students in their seminar classes and are responsible for tracking the students’ academic progress and interventions; communicating with their parents and other teachers; and as one teacher stated, “Being their mom at school: a nag and a support system.” Teachers spend all four years with their seminar students.

Students also participate in independent reading during seminar. As the collaborative study groups redirected the advisories, it became clear that the school’s sustained silent reading program wasn’t achieving its goal of improving students’ reading. The teams decided to implement the independent reading program and make it part of the seminar period as well as a graduation requirement.

Literacy Support for All Students

Jameson and his long-time assistant principal and collaborator Tony Shearburn are committed to setting an example of how to work together. Shearburn has worked with the leadership team and the school intervention team to ensure that every student has an appropriate education program. Given Columbus Unified’s limited resources and heterogeneous classes, that can be a challenge, but the school has creatively worked with the community to broaden choices for the students. Labette Community College offers advanced dual enrollment courses at the high school in English, social studies, and science. And Coffeyville Community College’s satellite vocational/technical center—which offers programs in welding, auto service technology, collision repair technology, and business computer technology—is housed on the high school campus.

Interventions for struggling students include tutorials, math and reading support classes, credit recovery programs, and a freshman transition class for students who are identified in eighth grade as being at risk. Special education students are included in general education classes; special educators often team teach classes with content-area teachers. Computers are available and the school is Wi-Fi configured so that students and teachers can take advantage of software that supports the curriculum as well as online intervention and distance learning programs.

His Breaking Ranks experience made Jameson realize that to keep the students as the school’s first priority, he had to be flexible and willing to individualize. He said that it was his “job to make sure that all students—from the neediest to the most gifted—were challenged. This meant [that] I have to make adjustments for each student, that schedules at times have to be changed and favorite programs modified, that we have to push kids to get out and experience new things, [and] that we owe broad opportunities to each student.”

The Long Road to Success

When asked to explain how his experience, knowledge, and skills affected the success of the school, Principal Steve Jameson began by talking about his longevity.

I believe one of the biggest things that have allowed me to have an impact at Columbus Unified is that I have been an administrator here for 14 years. These days, being in a school for 4 or 5 years is considered a long time, so I am a rarity. I believe that if you want to have a long-standing effect on a school, you must stay long enough to implement your ideas and then be there to make the changes needed. I have done that, and my assistant principal has also.

My whole life has been involved with public education. As a child, I watched my father, who was a strong school administrator, and learned many skills from him. As a teacher, I believed it was very important to be involved in the school improvement process. I was on the professional development council and the district technology committee. My principal was also a good mentor in the school improvement process. He worked hard to get the whole staff involved in the process. I have implemented some of the programs we used at that school here at Columbus Unified.

My knowledge about school improvement has been developed over many years. My first two years as a building principal were in a very small district. That was a great experience because a principal in a small district is usually in charge of everything. I learned a great deal about the school improvement process in those two years.

While being the principal of Columbus Unified, I have continued to gain knowledge. I am involved in my professional organizations, attend a variety of seminars and workshops, and read professional literature. It is important to stay current on educational issues and adapt programs to meet your school’s needs.

One of the programs that helped me the most is Breaking Ranks. During the 2004–05 school year, the Kansas Association of Secondary School Principals offered a train-thetrainer program and also held statewide Breaking Ranks study sessions. I successfully completed the trainer program. That is when we implemented many of the strategies at Columbus Unified.

I believe that Columbus Unified is successful because I care about all my students and am willing to work hard and do whatever it takes to get the job done. These are not exactly what some would define as skills, but they play an important role in the success of any administrator. Students perform much better in a caring environment, and I work hard to set the example. Also, working hard is important to success. If I can set the example for my teachers and students, they will be more willing to put out extra effort.

Experience, knowledge, and skills all blend together and affect one another. I have been blessed with the opportunity to have great experiences, to gain knowledge, and to develop my skills as an administrator.

Safety Nets

Members of the leadership team at Columbus Unified focus on providing safety nets so that all students have the skills they need to graduate from high school.

The leadership team meets regularly to monitor all aspects of school life. We have identified three obstacles that the school had to overcome on the road to school improvement.

Lack of Parent and Community Involvement
Parents have multiple challenges that prevent them from become involvement in their children’s education, such as:

  • Few resources to properly support their children
  • Limited understanding of the importance of education
  • Inconsistent access to communication from the school.

We have taken a number of steps to get parents more involved in the education process. Teachers have taken on more of a caretaker role by providing students with the support and guidance that usually come from the home environment. The parentteacher conferences have been made more parent friendly and outreach is active. Many parents don’t have access to e-mail, don’t read the local paper, and don’t receive the letters that are sent home with students, so the school uses a variety of methods—such as SchoolReach, the district’s Web site, PowerSchool, and conventional mail— to reach parents.

Student Apathy
Students’ expectations and commitment to school mirror those of the community and environment in which they live. Challenges include:

  • Attendance and graduation issues
  • Students living on their own and transient students
  • Unhealthy lifestyles of families and students.

We have changed our schedule within the last few years to deal with student attendance, moving our instructional assistance time from the beginning of the day to between the first and second blocks. That change has also enabled us to use the time more effectively for reading. The school is also in close communication with the parents of students who have attendance issues.

Columbus Unified offers a wide variety of learning opportunities to keep students interested: 13 athletic teams; competitive academic teams in chess, the scholars bowl, and the math league; and vocational programs that win local, state, and national competitions. Other clubs are related to the curriculum or special interests, such as music, service, and student council. We encourage students to be involved because we know that if a student has a connection to school, he or she will do better academically.

Columbus Unified put in place an extensive array of interventions that are designed to support every student. The student intervention team monitors at-risk students who do not have IEPs. The team’s goal is to help ensure that all students graduate with the skills they need to be successful. Usually about 35%–40% of the students have student intervention plans. Some just need to be monitored, but others need more-extensive interventions. Interventions are evaluated every year for their effectiveness and adjusted to meet the changing needs of the students.

Credit recovery. Columbus Unified uses an online instructional program for credit recovery. Instead of making a student take the same class over, he or she is enrolled in the online program and reports to the alternative learning center to complete the course. The student progresses with his or her cohort group in the core classes but learns the skills needed and makes up the required credit.

Support classes. The school ofcolumbus unified High School fers several support classes. A class is offered at each grade level to teach study and organizational skills and provide tutoring for the students most at risk. A reading class is offered for the juniors who still have not showed proficiency in the reading standards.

Extended school term. At the end of each semester, students who failed are evaluated. Some are determined to be eligible for an extended school term and have the opportunity to raise their failing grades to passing grades. Students who received failing grades during the fall semester participate in the after-school online program in January; students who received failing grades in the spring semester participate in the mornings in June.

Long-standing practices, such as hazing freshmen, affected the overall climate and culture. The administrators spent a lot of time teaching parents and students about the detrimental effects to the school’s culture and to the learning environment that were brought about by past traditions of hazing freshman. This problem has finally faded away and created a morewelcoming environment. The personal adult advocate program has also gone a long way to personalize the school for each student to help ensure that they feel safe and respected in a climate that is conducive to learning.

The staff has chosen to use the challenges not as excuses but as motivation to continue to become a better school. The staff works hard to do what is best for students. Great schools are good schools that work to improve, regardless of their challenges. PL


Literacy Support for All Students
A great deal of research shows that one of the best ways to improve high school students’ reading ability is to have them read. Many schools have implemented a silent sustained reading program. Columbus Unified had a program for seven years, but some students were not reading. To motivate all students to read more, the faculty developed an independent reading program with the following guidelines:
  • The school provides independent reading time twice a week during seminar.
  • Students receive grades by completing reading comprehension tests and literacy skills tests, using Virtual Prescriptive Learning, or participating in reading circles. Adjustments to how grades can be earned have been made over time to ensure that all students read.
  • Personal adult advocates monitor the time and are responsible for recording students’ grades.
  • Students can earn 0.25 credits a semester for independent reading. Two independent reading credits are required for graduation.

Columbus Unified uses the Accelerated Reader tests and the literacy skills tests from Renaissance Learning to assess students’ reading and comprehension levels. The Renaissance Learning reading program was chosen because it is research based, it is easy to administer to all students, and it provides instant feedback. A school can set up an independent reading program without that product, however, as long as there is a way to determine the students’ reading levels and validate their reading comprehension.

Reading circles are a very positive aspect of the program and a good tool for improving reading. They support students who have trouble reading on their own and challenge advanced readers. Reading circles allow students to express themselves and share opinions about the books. Most importantly, they give teachers opportunities to lead in-depth discussions that increase student comprehension. The resulting positive interactions have gone a long way to strengthen the academic climate of Columbus Unified.

Our general guidelines for reading circles are:

  • Any teacher may host a reading circle. Any student may join the group. The reading circle is conducted in seminar on independent reading days.
  • The teacher may offer a book to the group or let the group choose from among a few offerings.
  • Students elect to be in the reading circle. (Usually no more than 15 are in a circle.)
  • Students can read the books aloud or follow along as professional readers narrate on a recording. Students who are strong readers may be assigned reading between meeting times.
  • Assignments may include but are not limited to attendance, participation in discussions, written assignments, and comprehension tests.


  • L in, C.-H. (2002). Literature circles (ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English, and Communication Digest No. 173). Retrieved from
  • Schutt, A. (2005). Literature circles. Retrieved from the Colorín Colorado Web site:
  • SEDL. (n.d.) Building reading proficiency at the secondary level: A guide to resources. Retrieved from