Printable pdf

Are you in need of a less stressful environment in your busy life? Forget yoga, forget meditation— spend a day at Haymon- Morris Middle School in Winder, GA. This highly successful Title I middle school is tucked behind the high school in a rural area 50 miles northeast of Atlanta. The staff is dedicated to creating a culture where it is believed that a calm, serene school setting results in less stress for both students and staff members and leads to more fruitful learning. The school day opens with a classical music selection, such as a Mozart or Vivaldi composition, which, according to one eighth grader, “helps you keep your focus.”

At the start of school each day, students go to their lockers, which are located inside their Home Base classrooms instead of the hallway to avoid the chaos that accompanies this activity in some middle schools. This tranquil atmosphere continues in various ways throughout the day, including early morning sustained silent reading and silent passage in the hallways as students transition from core academics in the team area to arts and physical education in a different part of the building. There are no bells—the goal is to prevent the disturbance of other grade levels that may be on a different schedule.

But make no mistake; plenty of energy and enthusiasm is displayed in the academic classrooms; in art, music, and physical education classes; and during student support activities and the daily staff planning activities. Principal Sheila Kahrs, the 2010 MetLife/NASSP National Middle Level Principal of the Year, believes that “the culture of the school fosters and encourages respect among all the groups of people who work and study here. Teachers have respect for one another and for each student. This is what we teach our students as well.”

Haymon-Morris Middle School
Winder, GA
Principal: Sheila Kahrs

: 6–8

: 800

: Rural

White 71%, Black/African American 12%, Hispanic 11%, Asian/Pacific Islander 5%, American Indian 1%, Free or reduced-price meals eligible 54%, Special education 10%, English language learners 3%

The staff members see their leader as a visionary who fosters an everevolving learning community and maximizes all resources in the best interest of the students. The leadership team meets weekly to discuss instructional issues. By including gradelevel and subject-area coordinators, this team represents the entire faculty and is affectionately referred to as the “thinking group.” All new ideas, including innovative programs or changes to current practice that affect the whole school, must pass muster with this diverse and demanding team prior to implementation. More often than not, ideas, regardless of their origin, quickly morph into student support programs. Examples include Homework Help, which takes place during Home Base at the beginning of each day, and Extended Learning Time, a daily remediation/enrichment program for all students. Through the hard work of the entire staff and the support of the leadership team, students in all three grades have numerous out-of-school opportunities to get the help they need through such programs as Thursday Math, afternoon interventions, Saturday School, Criterion Referenced Competency Test prep, high school prep, and afterschool programs.

Striving to improve teaching and learning, the school has implemented many of the recommendations of Breaking Ranks in the Middle, using common assessments, differentiated instruction, an advisory program, and a continuous professional development model. A weekly meeting focuses on staffwide professional development or grade-level, vertical, or subject-area planning. Curriculum is brought to life with quality instructional strategies that are created through common planning and teamwork. To allow the necessary collaboration to take place, teachers are scheduled for 90 minutes of common planning time each day, enabling them to meet as a team on a daily basis.

Each teacher is assigned approximately 15 students during a regularly scheduled student advisory period where they discuss nonacademic issues—such as cyberbullying, peer relationships, high school preparation, career choices, and conflict resolution— that students identify through an interest survey. One of the objectives of the program is to give students an opportunity to form a positive relationship with an additional adult in the building in a nonthreatening environment, so the teachers “loop” with their students, keeping the same advisees over a three-year period.

As a complement to the advisory program, Haymon-Morris has a thriving mentor program involving more than 30 community volunteers who provide guidance and encouragement to students in the areas of academic, personal, and occupational achievement. Mentors meet with students once each week on school grounds to play games, help with homework, prepare for tests, and share personal experiences. One volunteer who has mentored a student each year since the school opened simply stated, “I know that I made a difference in their lives.”

The school opened with the vision that a middle school could foster true excellence with teachers who understand the very intricate needs of the young adolescent and believe that all students can succeed. After five years, the data reveal that the collaborative efforts have paid off: 95% of the students are meeting or exceeding the state standards in English/language arts and 80% in mathematics at all three grade levels. Those results are a testament to the successful implementation of the school’s distinctive middle level philosophy.

The teachers are committed to high expectations and achievement and mastery in all aspects of student learning, and the administrators and the leadership team provide the ongoing vision and the resources to make that happen. As a result, the principal and staff continue to break through the obstacles and challenges that arise on a daily basis, striving to ensure student success in learning and in life.

Always Learning

Recognizing the close tie between strong principal leadership and high achievement in the school, Principal Kahrs shares how she believes her background, experience, skills, and knowledge have had a direct impact on the success of the school.

Student Support Program

As a veteran educator, I have had experience teaching at all levels of public education, including elementary, junior high, high school, and university levels. For the past 16 years I have worked exclusively at the middle school level as a teacher, an assistant principal, and a principal. My formal education includes an undergraduate degree in early childhood, a master’s degree in music, and a doctorate in curriculum and supervision. I hold current certification in K–12 music education and state certification in school and district leadership. As a result of that unique combination, I have been able to bring a perspective to leadership that focuses on the individual while maintaining a vision of the bigger picture.

The teachers are the heart and soul of the school because they realize the vision of the school every day with their students. I have learned that the selection of the staff is vitally important to the success of the school. Teacher recruitment and selection is a year-round process, and we take great care to hire only the best teachers who put students first. The interviews for new staff are conducted by a committee of administrators and teachers who focus on individuals who have a passion for working with children. Teachers communicate our vision to candidates and take their role very seriously so that we can continue to hire staff who will share in our vision, work ethic, and love for children.

I have learned throughout my teaching career how important it is to have a school culture of collaboration, mutual support, and a commitment to excellence. Most of our waking moments are spent with our colleagues, and each of us has a responsibility to make our school environment one in which each of us feels welcome, supported, and appreciated. Teachers share ideas and open their classrooms and their practice to one another for mutual professional growth. I model this behavior for staff members, and I believe that we truly have become a community of learners as a result. It is our goal that every individual has a place where his or her voice can be heard.

I believe in continuous professional learning and growth in establishing and nourishing a caring workplace for the staff and a challenging supportive environment for our students. We, as a faculty, continue to enhance our ability to reach children by keeping abreast of current literature as well as being grounded in the basic tenants of the middle school learner. All new faculty members are exposed to the literature of middle school, including This We Believe (National Middle School Association, 2010) and Breaking Ranks in the Middle (NASSP, 2006).

The opportunity to open a new school gave me the advantage of forging a school vision with my staff members and establishing the norms that will guide this school for years to come. We also spearhead vertical teaming for our cluster of schools. Knowing where our children are coming from and where they are headed helps guide our curricular and instructional focus. It is our goal that teachers not only know our students as individuals but also know their abilities as students. To this end, all teachers keep a data dashboard card for each student, which includes test scores, reading levels, and academic achievements.

I take seriously my responsibility to create opportunities for the faculty to become leaders and have created an organizational structure that enables teachers to assume leadership roles within the school and district. Leadership is the tool for depth and growth of our school community.

Haymon-Morris has been built by developing relationships among all of our stakeholders, including school personnel, students, parents, and community members. It is those relationships and our love of children that guide our practice every day.

Whatever It Takes

The instructional leadership team, which is composed of grade-level and subject-area coordinators who represent the entire staff, used the “whatever it takes” school motto as a springboard to explain what other schools can learn from Haymon-Morris.

Haymon-Morris faculty and staff members are a family; that atmosphere begins with the positive attitude of the administrators and trickles down to every facet of this school. The school culture is doing whatever it takes to meet the needs of students. When we see a student or teacher need, we are willing to change or revamp existing programs to meet those needs. The following programs demonstrate our commitment.

New teacher program. The new teacher program is focused on the professional culture of our school and addresses the needs of novice teachers as well as veteran teachers who are new to our building. Every year, the class of new teachers receives an assigned mentor outside of their team and subject area and has access to job-embedded mentors through established vertical and horizontal collaborative planning structures. Morning meetings exclusively for new teachers are held regularly in the first months of the school year to address various professional learning needs. New teachers meet informally in shorter afternoon meetings that allow teachers to address individual topics and logistical issues encountered throughout the school year.

The new teacher/mentor program ensures that teachers feel welcome and comfortable and learn the written and unwritten ways of the school, with the primary goal being meeting all the needs of our adolescent learners. This opportunity for acclimation and bonding leads to a new teacher retention rate of nearly 90% each year.

Teacher-to-teacher observations. haymon-morris middle School As teachers, we are always looking for ways to improve classroom instruction. We know that the greatest resource in our schools is our teaching faculty and that teacher observations reveal best practices and effective teaching strategies, so all teachers are required to observe four colleagues. What began as informal observations have transformed into the walk-through model. Our goal for the 2010–11 school year was that each teacher walk through classes on each grade level, including noncore and special education classes. This snapshot of our school will provide insight into the actual progress toward our goal of increasing student achievement. The observations provide the feedback necessary to move from good to great and allow our teachers to use the most valuable and influential professional resource we have— one another. Research tells us that the greatest impact on teacher improvement comes from trusted colleagues. Our staff takes that responsibility seriously by maintaining an open door and an open mind to share and learn from one another’s successes and challenges.

Vertical planning. For students to excel, it is essential for teachers to understand the knowledge and experiences they bring to class as well as what will be expected of them in future years. Through vertical planning within the school and with the elementary and high schools, teachers at Haymon- Morris have this understanding.

Monthly subject-level meetings afford the teachers the opportunity to discuss curriculum, assessments, and expectations, ensuring that all students receive what they need. Further, when doing yearly teacher-to-teacher observations, sixth- and eighth-grade teachers observe at the feeder elementary schools and at the high school. Finally, at least once a year, fifth- and sixthgrade teachers meet to share information. Through these efforts, teachers ensure students’ smooth transition into and out of Haymon-Morris.

The professionalism of our teachers starts with the common goal to do whatever it takes, which is set forth by our principal and assistant principal on a daily basis. They both work diligently to support all teachers in their efforts toward student achievement, and as a result, teachers support one another in the same manner. The entire faculty shares the same vision for each student, which is summed up in the vision that our school was founded on: “Where caring, patience, and consistency inspire excellence.” PL


Student Support Programs
In an effort to meet the diverse needs of their students, the faculty and staff of Haymon-Morris developed several programs that are offered within the school day, including Extended Learning Time, Homework Help, and Team Time.
  • Extended Learning Time (ELT) was created to give students opportunities for remediation as well as for enrichment. Each day, students are assigned to such classes as basic math and basic reading remediation and critical thinking skills in science and social studies. Initial placement in an ELT class is made on the basis of scores on the state Criterion Referenced Competency Test (CRCT) or according to the appropriate response to intervention (RTI) tier. In addition to frequent progress measurement, ELT is used to meet several of the other requirements of RTI, such as small group instruction and probes for understanding. Every nine weeks, teachers revaluate students’ ELT placement using benchmarks, probes, and other data to ensure that every student is receiving the support he or she needs to be successful.
  • Homework Help, a voluntary program, is available every morning to provide a safety net for students before they get behind in their classes. Teachers from each grade level staff a room where students can go to get assistance with the previous night’s homework, discuss subject-area concepts, or receive help with longer-term academic difficulties.
  • Team Time was created when the after-school remediation program lost its funding. Typical of the generosity of the staff at Haymon-Morris, teachers give up part of their planning time to work with a small group of students to bridge gaps in learning and give students the opportunity to correct or to make up missing assignments. A major benefit of using students’ academic class time is that students do not miss their nonacademic Connections classes, a tremendous motivator for the students to use the time wisely.
All of these alternatives have evolved over time; are evaluated on an ongoing basis; and have been adjusted, as needed, to meet the needs of the students.