Smokey Road Middle School, a Title I school serving 850 middle level students in grades 6–8, is located on the outskirts of Newnan, GA, a historic city of approximately 27,000 residents. The growth and development of the Coweta County School District is largely attributed to its close proximity to Atlanta.
In the first years after the original school, Central Middle, was closed in 1999 and replaced with Smokey Road’s handsome, modern building, the school had a difficult adjustment. With the appointment of Laurie Barron, the instability, lack of trust among the staff members, and poor student progress quickly came to a halt and was replaced by a common mission and goals, shared leadership, and a focus on continuous academic improvement.
The soft lighting and gentle music that is used in many classrooms belie the intensity of activity that takes place in preplanning meetings; during instructional time; and after class when assessment data is analyzed to ensure that the lessons, as well as the followup, are on-target for all students.
|Smokey Road Middle School
|Principal: Laurie Barron
White 61%, Black/African American 33%, Hispanic 4%, Asian/Pacific Islander <1%, Other 2%, Free or reduced-price meals eligible 60%, Special education 15%, English language learners <1%
Numerous examples of collaboration are present in every aspect of daily life at Smokey Road. The remediation program benefits from carefully constructed collaboration among highly skilled individuals. For example, a regular education math teacher pairs with the special education inclusion teacher. Because middle school students must pass Georgia’s Criterion-Referenced Competency Test to advance to high school, it is crucial that both individualized and whole-group instruction take place.
In a creative approach, the Title I math coach was added to the existing two-person teaching team to help ensure that students achieve critical mastery. As a result, three fully certified, highly qualified teachers are in the classroom every day to teach and support students, including highfunctioning special education inclusion students and other students who might need individual attention.
Another example of teacher collaboration at its best is the pairing of two highly proficient band directors who coteach four classes during the school day, a feat accomplished by combining their students into one large group each period. While one teacher leads the class, the other gives individual and small group support or plans for a seamless transition to the next activity. The result is an awardwinning, popular program involving more than 200 students, including 100 sixth-grade students.
The Smokey Road staff is committed to continuous improvement. Many growth opportunities occur regularly through ongoing professional development, but the greater part of this work is accomplished during the monthly grade-level meetings. Topics discussed, such as differentiation of instruction and formative assessments, align with the school and district improvement plans, are job-embedded, and focus on current educational research regarding effective instructional practices.
Proven methods for instruction— for instance, the use of technology and student cooperative grouping strategies—are not just discussed, but are modeled for teachers by the instructional leaders of the school. Furthermore, teachers are assigned “homework” after each session where they have to apply and implement the instructional strategy or type of assessment presented and discussed during the meeting. The staff believes that this approach builds both validation and accountability into the professional development opportunities.
A complementary aspect of interactive professional development occurs through the teachers’ collegial classroom visits and observations. This process offers teachers a creative yet nonthreatening way to acquire feedback. Faculty members enjoy the opportunity to observe one another and gain new insights into teaching methods and curriculum integration while working toward individual professional growth. Completing this process also builds collegial relationships and reinforces the need for professional growth among faculty members.
On the basis of a belief that something within each child can be recognized and celebrated, the school partners with local businesses and mentors to recognize and reward students not only for their academic achievements but also for their athletic talents, exemplary attendance, and superior behavior and citizenship. In a program started in the 2010–11 school year, students are able to earn “CATS Cash” by “getting caught doing something right,” as one eighth grader put it. These positive behavior incentive chits may be cashed in for school supplies; reading time; positive phone calls home; and numerous other rewards, including a monthly drawing for highly desired items donated by local businesses.
In answer to the question, What makes this school work so well? leadership team representatives had no hesitation in pointing out the most successful elements of their school: Each position and job is considered important. The diverse faculty understands the students and matches the diversity in the student population. A strong spirit of collaboration, where everyone works together to meet all of the needs of the students, permeates the school. A wide array of extracurricular activities enables students to build relationships with club sponsors and coaches, giving students at least one adult to turn to for help. Staff members are not territorial; they want to see these kids be successful in all areas, and they work closely together to accomplish this goal. The administrators are always available, have an open-door policy, and encourage the staff to think outside the box when it comes to improving the environment for their students.
Even a short visit to Smokey Road demonstrates that the cohesiveness and collaboration of the staff has paid off tremendously for their students. For the last five consecutive years, Smokey Road met adequate yearly progress goals to qualify as a Title I Distinguished School. Their seven-year trend (2003–10) for academic achievement shows that overall schoolwide performance increased by 19.6 percentage points in reading/language arts and 16.1 percentage points in mathematics, and all subgroups showed vast improvements, including special education and economically disadvantaged students. As one Smokey Road parent summed it up, “Under great leadership from the principal and the teamwork of an outstanding staff, no Smokey Road student is left behind.”
Up From the Trenches
Coming from a broad background as a high school English teacher, coach, and middle school assistant principal, Principal Laurie Barron discusses the experiences that helped shape her into a strong, dynamic middle school leader.
As a young principal with only eight years of experience as a high school teacher and coach and a middle school assistant principal, I quickly realized that the focus in middle school seemed very different from high school. I was the fourth principal in five years in a school that was established only five years earlier. Parents, students, and teachers were all a little skeptical of yet another principal, especially one so young and inexperienced, so I worked to convince our stakeholders, especially our teachers, that I was committed to our school and that I was going to work hard with them to earn their trust.
I truly believe that building and sustaining trusting relationships is the most important role of an effective and influential leader. The best leader serves others, and I actively seek ways to serve my staff. Whether it is helping a literature teacher score mock writing tests or filling in for a teacher who has to leave unexpectedly, I work to foster positive and trusting relationships with all stakeholders. I developed our Homeroom Buddy system, which became an extension of our Teachers as Advisors program, where each non-homeroom teacher partners with a homeroom teacher to foster relationships with students, giving each student personal access to two adults on campus outside of the instructional classroom. I meet weekly with my homeroom to offer advice on career interests, transitioning to high school, and exploring postsecondary options. When teachers, students, and parents see the principal actively participating in the goals of the school and working personally to help others, an atmosphere of trust begins to positively affect school culture.
Establishing trusting relationships and a strong school culture allowed me to begin working on improving shared leadership. Although a school building leadership team (SBLT) was in place, the group felt powerless to effect real change because of the constant change in administrative leadership. I reorganized our SBLT to ensure that each staff member was fully represented, to build on the strengths of our staff’s diversity, and to empower each member to truly affect school improvement efforts. Learning to trust led to willingness to delegate, and sharing responsibilities led to true teamwork. Soon, SBLT members had organized committees with school stakeholders to draft our first mission and vision statements, which led to setting specific growth targets, which led to a systemic change in how we approached continuous improvement. The more I believed in my leadership team, the more they began to believe in themselves, until eventually our school culture supported sustaining improved achievement instead of simply everyday survival.
With a strong sense of trust and collaborative leadership in place, I began to focus on improving practices in curriculum, instruction, and assessment. As a former teacher, I know too well how the principal is often viewed as being out of touch with the reality of the day-to-day classroom and the challenges teachers face. I personally lead monthly job-embedded professional learning that aligns with our school improvement plan and the system strategic plan. Together with my assistant principal, I model differentiated instruction, cooperative learning strategies, and how to use diagnostic and formative assessment to adjust instruction. Administrators then observe those practices in action. Just as we expect teachers to provide high-quality, effective feedback to their students, administrators model this practice by providing specific written feedback to teachers when we visit their classrooms.
We have also drastically reduced special education resource classes in favor of the more-effective cotaught classroom, which has led to an increase of 41 percentage points in special education reading/English language arts scores and nearly 40 percentage points in special education math scores in just seven years. In fact, we have had double-digit improvement in all subgroups in achievement scores and recently made AYP for the fifth consecutive year, earning us the honor of being a Title I Distinguished School.
As I complete my 15th year in public education and my 7th year as the principal of Smokey Road, I look back and realize that I have spent years building a set of experiences, knowledge, and skills hand-in-hand with my teachers and stakeholders that has allowed me to continuously improve myself and to in turn influence a positive change in school culture that has now led to the sustainable success of our school. I am truly proud of the improvement we are seeing in all areas as we continue to work toward our school’s mission: Striving to reach and motivate all students to be successful.
Creating a New Future
Smokey Road Middle School is the successor to Central Middle School and inherited its students, parents, and faculty. The instructional leadership team identified some of the obstacles that Smokey Road had to overcome.
Shaping an identity. From the start, Smokey Road struggled to form an identity that separated itself from its predecessor. Smokey Road also trailed other middle schools in student performance, especially in the area of special education, and did not have a comprehensive and practical mission and vision to guide decision making and improvement efforts. A committee of six staff members, two students, a parent, and a community member were charged with creating a mission and vision for the school. They researched other school mission and vision statements and came up with two different proposals. The staff voted and decided to make the mission “Striving to reach and motivate students” and the vision to be to ensure that each student “attends school, is in a safe environment, feels valued as an individual, and learns the appropriate curriculum.” Now, with stability in leadership and low teacher turnover, the mission and vision permeate all school processes and are the focus of our continuous school improvement efforts.
Changing and increasing expectations. Smokey Road has also had to endure constant state and local system changes in what teachers are expected to do in the classroom. Federal changes prescribed student achievement targets each year. At the state level, teachers had to make monumental changes when the state converted from the Quality Core Curriculum to the Georgia Performance Standards. This not only changed the content that teachers taught but also redefined teachers’ roles and responsibilities in the classroom.
In addition, the school system developed a strategic plan that highlighted specific initiatives and professional development goals for the system. Schools were then expected to ensure that teachers were trained and proficient in such topics as cooperative grouping, differentiated instruction, and the use of formative assessments. Each topic requires teachers to reflect upon and make changes to their classroom practices.
With so much change from so many areas in such a short time, it would be natural for teachers to become resistant toward new ideas and ways of thinking about instruction and assessment. To combat the negative perceptions associated with change and to help make professional learning relevant to teachers, school leaders designed effective, job-embedded professional development opportunities that engage teachers, model expectations, and provide teachers with real-world applications. Through these development opportunities, school leaders and teachers have effectively adapted to necessary changes and have incorporated strategies in daily practice to increase student engagement and achievement.
Meeting demographic challenges. Each year, Smokey Road enrolls one of the highest percentages of economically disadvantaged students and students with disabilities in the school system. Traditionally, students from these populations underperform when compared to their peers because of learning or behavioral impediments or limited background experiences, resources, and learning opportunities. As a result, Smokey Road embraced the idea of moving students from selfcontained resource classes to cotaught classes in a regular classroom environment. With such a high special needs population, some members of the faculty wrestle with how to manage all of the required accommodations for all of the students they teach. Not only has Smokey Road had to find ways to reach and motivate these student populations, we also have had to provide enhanced and challenging opportunities for our students who are already meeting and exceeding expectations.
We continue to seek opportunities to improve parental involvement and communication with families with limited resources, to build needed prerequisite knowledge and skills so students are not academically behind, and to provide more challenging opportunities for high-achieving students. Though we have shown great progress in meeting the needs of our diverse population, we continually work to improve so that all of our students, no matter their background or ability, can experience high-quality, engaging instruction in a safe and supportive environment. PL
|Teachers as Advisers
Each homeroom teacher is paired with a faculty member who is not assigned to a homeroom. Homeroom “buddies” include special education teachers, administrators, the media specialist, counselors, instructional coaches, and teachers of noncore classes, giving each student personal access to two adults on campus outside of the instructional classroom.
Homeroom buddies build relationships and create connections with students that foster improved academic performance and behavior and that support overall student confidence at school. Homeroom teachers and buddies offer weekly advisement to students through grade level–appropriate activities: the sixth grade emphasizes personal and social development, study and testing skills, and organizational skills; in seventh grade, academic skills, goal setting, and relationship skills are primary; and eighth graders work with career interests and planning, transition to high school, and post–high school options.
Administrative Team Mentoring for Attendance
Each member of the administrative team—principal, assistant principals, counselors, media specialist, Title I coordinator, and special education coordinator—is paired with students who have attendance problems. These students often experience serious challenges because of their absences, so this program is aimed at improving the students’ academic performance by increasing attendance and building relationships with adults on campus.
Quarterly Student-Teacher Conferences
Upholding Smokey Road’s mission of “Striving to reach and motivate all students,” all teachers meet with each student in every class every nine weeks to discuss the students’ personal growth and potential in the areas of citizenship, attendance, performance, and progress. The conferences are structured to be positive in nature and coincide with the progress report dates so that teachers may follow up with parents as needed.