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Schools that break through the cycle of low student performance may look different to outsiders; however, when the processes underlying the improvements are examined, collaboration, personalization, and a focus on instruction always emerge as the keys to the newfound success. The principles of these core areas are fundamental to creating a school environment where adults are comfortable in probing every aspect of what they do to improve student achievement.

North Brunswick High School in rural southeastern North Carolina is one such school. Just a few years ago, it faced state sanctions, yet with a new principal and minimal changes in its staff, intensive self-assessment and focus on those core areas resulted in dramatic improvements. By expanding instructional leadership, creating professional learning communities (PLCs), and targeting student interventions by creating formative assessments and bridge courses, the school was able to begin to close achievement gaps and improve student achievement and graduation rates. As Principal Bob Grimes said, “We had a mind-set change: from ‘the kids are failing’ to ‘we are failing.’”

North has a diverse student population, and like many schools in North Carolina with similar demographics, in 2006–07, North was named a “priority school,” meaning that it might benefit from voluntary interventions by the state board of education. Overall student proficiency was at 48.6%, meaning less than one-half of all students were proficient on state end-of-course (EOC) tests required for graduation.

North Brunswick High School
Leland, NC
Principal: Sheila Grady

Grades: 9–12

: 803


White... 52%, Black/African American 34%, Hispanic 7%, Asian/Pacific Islander 1%, Other 5%, Free or reduced-price meals eligible 58%, Special education 13%, English language learners <1%

The specifics of how the school went from having less than half of the students proficient in 2007 to having 85% of all students proficient in 2010 bears telling in the principal’s own words. The story is even more compelling in that the principal who guided the turnaround, Bob Grimes, has now been placed in a district leadership position to assist other low-performing schools nearby. The new principal, Sheila Grady, a former North teacher, has embraced the collaborative culture of the school, where more than half of the staff members have assumed leadership responsibilities and everyone is committed to continued student success. As one teacher said, “This is a popcorn school—things are happening—everyone plays.” Grimes, Grady, and the other school leaders are working together for a smooth transition, determined that the administrative change will not alter the school’s culture of collaboration and the resulting academic gains.

Necessary Steps

In June 2007, North Brunswick High School received a composite proficiency score of 49% on EOC assessments. When Bob Grimes became principal in July 2007, his first task was to meet with key personnel and ask lots of questions about North’s strengths and weaknesses and how the staff would react to needed changes.

After initial needs assessments, the staff and administrators at North decided to develop and implement programs that focused on improvement in four core areas: school culture, curriculum and assessment, student interventions, and the development of PLCs.

Supporting these initiatives is a school leadership team that consists of elected representatives from all departments as well as a core group of teacher leaders. In addition to this group, three staff members are responsible for our three main school improvement plan objectives: literacy, struggling students, and formative assessment. The school literacy team, consisting of teacher volunteers, actively engages our staff in promoting our literacy plan. Also, an alternative reform coordinator and a school improvement plan coordinator have been instrumental in pulling together all facets of our school plan for improvement. Although they both teach full time, these teachers have been able to provide invaluable leadership in North’s turnaround process. Last, North also has a faculty advisory team with representatives from each department. This team deals with managerial issues that arise.

That first year of our turnaround process involved a great deal of soulsearching by the entire staff. We were faced with developing a plan for nine different areas ranging from processes and procedures to formative assessment. A team of teacher leaders and administrators was formed to guide the plan and monitor its progress. The team made presentations to the staff; then the staff formed small groups to further develop strategies and goals. By the end of the year, the staff had analyzed each area and, in many cases, put strategies for improvement into place. Since the strategies were developed by teachers for teachers, the “buy-in” was considerable. Through the second and third year of the turnaround process, we have evaluated, eliminated, and added new strategies.

Acknowledging the importance of authentic, holistic, external assessment, North enlisted the aid of the University of North Carolina–Wilmington to develop and utilize a rubric for externally evaluating our progress. This process was developed through the collaboration of teachers, administrators, and professors. A team from the university visited for a day and worked with the staff at North to evaluate progress on our nine reform goals. Team members then presented their analysis.

The administration at North worked hard doing everything to support teachers. For example, when teachers expressed a need for additional computers, we contacted agencies in the community for help. As luck would have it, the local community college was updating all its computers and gave North 140 threeyear- old computers. This allowed us to replace obsolete computers and create a new computer-based credit-recovery lab as well as a guided-study lab that is a place for online tutoring during the school day.

Teachers also expressed a need for foundation or bridge courses in several areas to provide additional help for students struggling in state-tested areas. As a result, teachers worked together in content-based PLCs to develop bridge courses in science, social studies, and math. An examination of test data at the end of the year showed significantly higher test scores by students who had taken bridge courses.

Transition to New Leadership

In fact, our Biology scores grew from an overall 58% proficient in 2007 to 91% in 2010. Significant gains were also shown in U.S. History, Geometry, and Algebra II. In addition, each core subject area has a common pacing guide and utilizes frequent common formative assessments. Countywide benchmark assessments are given at the end of the first marking period. All of this data is analyzed carefully and provides direction for the remaining course time.

By working collaboratively, we have defined our weaknesses and put strategies in place to address those weaknesses. For example, we knew that one of the problems we had was getting students to stay after school for tutoring. We decided that our culture would be one where not getting help was not an option. If students wouldn’t come after school, then we would make sure they got the extra help they needed while school was in session. We implemented guided study classes so that students could receive help as needed. Students with reading difficulties were assigned to a reading class with a certified reading teacher. Student who we knew would struggle in core classes were doubleblocked to provide them with an extra 90 minutes of instruction. All of this was based on available test data that a team of administrators and teachers reviewed during the summer before students were assigned courses.

We also implemented a mandatory tutoring system requiring any student with below a 77% average to stay for tutoring. Students who are athletes or belong to clubs cannot participate unless they attend tutoring. The ZAP (Zeroes Aren’t Permitted) program supports this effort. Students who fail to turn in homework assignments are required to attend a homework completion session during their lunch period.

A team of teachers, led by one of our counselors, developed a pyramid of interventions to pull all of the initiatives together so that teachers have a road map to follow when deciding where to go for help with struggling students. One of the assistant principals reviewed every student’s transcript during the summer and continued doing so during the school year.

As a result of this monitoring and intervention, North had an 82% fouryear cohort graduation rate in 2009. This was the highest graduation rate in Brunswick County and 12 percentage points higher than the state. By 2010, the graduation rate had improved to 85%.

My role throughout this process was guide, cheerleader, and mediator as I ensured that everyone was aware of the big picture. Each week, I published a faculty/staff newsletter with three statements on the masthead: “Promote Literacy…Every Day, Every Way,” “Our Goal: Bell to Bell Engaging Instruction,” and “NBHS Vision: Each Students Succeeds, Every Day!” To reinforce these principles I did two things: I started each day, whenever possible, by visiting each classroom, and I provided teachers with brief topics for discussion in weekly PLC meetings to foster an ongoing dialogue about student learning.

Much of what I did as a principal was shaped by having a daughter with learning difficulties. I saw my school through the eyes of a parent who wants the very best for his child—as do all of our parents. In addition, for many years, my wife and I were foster parents who saw firsthand the horrible conditions that many of our students come from. The fact that they get up each day and function at any level is amazing. I think about this each time I hear a teacher speak derisively about a student sleeping in class or one who is “lazy.” My response is to remind teachers that we need to take the time to find out why this student is so tired or why that student lacks motivation.

For a child who might not know where they are going to sleep, doing homework probably isn’t a priority. Many of our students lack the support system at home that is so critical for academic and social competence. I believe that schools need to provide that support if we are truly going to develop meaningful relationships with our students and community. Fortunately, North’s teaching staff understands that making emotional connections to students is a must before learning can take place. By encouraging teachers to assume leadership roles and giving them the freedom to try new ideas, we are creating a school where each child learns not just the basics, but moves beyond.

In 2008, North was recognized by the state as the number one “school of reform” in North Carolina. This was based on North’s achieving the highest rate of improvement of any of the 77 schools in “turnaround” status. North repeated this feat in 2009, plus had the second-highest rate of improvement in its cohort graduation rate at 18.5% over three years. In 2010, North once again led the state in improvement with a composite proficiency rate of almost 86%. These successes are tributes to the collective efforts of teams of dedicated professionals who come to work each day and ask, What can we do to ensure the success of all students?

Coming Together to Support Students

Representatives from each department within the school, the administration, the student body, and the community form the leadership team. The team meets monthly and the meeting minutes are posted online for students, parents, and community members.

North implemented many vital programs that allowed us to make significant changes. Many programs contributed to our ability to better serve each student, such as mandatory tutoring, bridge courses, independent study, and the ZAP program. The strategy that has been most effective in improving student achievement has been the bridge courses. The development of bridge courses was one of our first actions in the improvement process, and many programs soon followed. Bridge courses required that teachers identify students who might not be proficient on subject EOC tests and place them into bridge courses that prepared students for the tests. The curriculum for these bridge courses was completely teacher designed, providing leadership and collaboration opportunities for teachers. These courses were the leading factor in our school’s improvement over the past few years. Test scores in classes that used bridge courses rose dramatically even in the first year of implementation.

As an additional support, the independent study program was started to assist students who were currently enrolled in EOC courses, and it served as a guided study hall for the EOC courses. ZAP and mandatory tutoring worked together in that students who were missing assignments were required to attend ZAP during their lunches to make up work. Students who had grades below a 77% were required to attend after-school tutoring. This process was strictly enforced if students were involved in extracurricular programs or athletics. These are just a few examples of the many programs that initiated North’s growth.

Currently, we are still practicing all of the same programs that were created to ensure the school’s improvement. Although most of our programs have not varied because they have been so successful, PLCs are constantly changing to improve the successes of all of the other programs. Teachers are given opportunities to be leaders and collaborators through the creation and discussion of formative assessments. PLCs are also where teachers share ideas about pedagogy and content and discuss specific strategies to help individual struggling students. PLCs are the essential foundation for all of our continued successes at North, and this program is continually changing as teachers and students evolve.

Overall, we have created and currently use several programs in our school that make our students successful. Although bridge courses were an initiating force and PLCs continue to contribute to our change, teacher and student support of all of the programs we use at North is what has made them so powerful. PL


Transition to New Leadership

Changing principals, especially after significant student improvement, is a challenge that can often undermine continued progress. According to students and staff members, Sheila Grady, an experienced administrator and a former teacher at North Brunswick High School, has approached this transition with an open door and an ability to listen to all stakeholders. She is clear that her intent is to model collaboration in all that she says and does. Students say that Grady really listens; staff members say that they are not going back to how they operated five years ago and are pleased with Grady’s approachability.

Grady’s responses to the following questions illustrate her approach to continuing the momentum of the school.

How do you feel about assuming the principalship at North?

I am excited and proud to have the opportunity to work with the amazing staff at North. We will build on the successes they have experienced by continuing to implement strategies that have proven to yield success. With the input of the leadership team, staff, parents, students, and other stakeholders, we will routinely evaluate the effectiveness of teaching strategies to consistently implement best practices for the students of North. My number one nonnegotiable is to do what is best for students.

How are you approaching the transition?

North has made outstanding academic growth in the past three years under the instructional leadership of Bob Grimes. Accomplishment and pride exude from all members of the Scorpion family and are evident as I walk the halls of this great campus. Through collaborative effort, the faculty and staff developed strategies for success and have shown that researchbased strategies work when implemented with diligence and purpose. They dedicated themselves and remained focused on the goal of helping each student achieve success daily. Continuing this collaboration is my priority.

What do you see as next steps for the school?

The next step for North is to be a North Carolina Honor School of Excellence, with 90% plus students proficient! To get there, I see three areas that we need to focus on. These are extensions of what is already in place. First, we need to be certain that we are using the strengths of all of our teachers, particularly with respect to student interventions, as there are 15% of our students who are still not proficient. Aligning the schedule to take full advantage of programs such as AVID [Advancement Via Individual Determination] will be an important first step.

Second, I would like to see increased parent involvement. The school has impressive booster support for athletics, music, and JROTC that can be leveraged to support the academic program. To that end, I am in the process of revitalizing the parent advisory council [PAC] that is composed of parents representing the various neighborhoods that North serves. I have found PACs to be an opportunity to build community relationships and promote a positive perception of the school.

Last, I would love to see our professional learning communities shared with the entire district. I will endeavor to provide our teachers with opportunities inside and outside of the school as a way to continue their leadership growth. I want the teachers at North to be risktakers, to venture outside of the box and speak without fear.