National Blue Ribbon Schools Series: All Means All – Imogene Giesinger Elementary School, Conroe, Texas

Four students are working together at a table, two seated and two standing. They are actively discussing a book they are reading and diagramming out the story on a piece of poster paper.

Giesinger students analyze the meaning of a book they are reading as a group. Photo Credit: Giesinger Elementary School.

In the fall of 2014, educators from more than 300 Blue Ribbon schools from around the nation met in the District of Columbia to talk about the hard work that led to their gains and national awards. We sat down to ask some of these educators about what other schools could learn from them.

Imogene Giesinger Elementary School is a preK–4 grade, Title I school located in a fast growing suburb outside of Houston. The school’s increasingly diverse 617 students come from both households that are economically disadvantaged and affluent; they live in homes, apartments and rural areas; two-thirds of the students are white, 19 percent are Hispanic and 9 percent are African American. To meet all of their students’ needs, Giesinger’s teachers compile data on every student from common formative assessments and meet together in Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) to devise and evaluate strategies. Administrators meet with all third- and fourth-grade students to review the students’ results, celebrate progress and set goals.

The school has accomplished the rare feat of eliminating the achievement gap among different groups of students. For example, 96 percent of all fourth grade students were proficient or advanced in mathematics; 97 percent of the students eligible for free or reduced price lunches were proficient or advanced and 89 percent of the Hispanic students were proficient or advanced. In English language arts, 88 percent of all students, 88 percent of students eligible for free and reduced price lunches, and 89 percent of Hispanic students were proficient or advanced.

Q. What is the secret to closing the achievement gap?

Rebecca Page, principal*: We give common, formative assessments in each grade and use district benchmark tests to identify students who are not where they need to be and then fill in the gaps. The teachers know who didn’t get it, and then they go back and organize their students into small groups for guided reading or guided mathematics. Those groups are fluid in the classroom and across grade levels. Teachers are constantly going over the data looking for how they can intervene with students and identify the help they need. They come up with an instructional plan, and I and the assistant principal support the plan and make it happen.

Connie Payne, Title I teacher: We have a philosophy of getting together by grade level and sharing among our teachers. There is always someone at every grade level who kind of lifts you up when you’re down and gives you new ideas of how to approach a student or a learning objective; then you’re back on track.This graphic has a quote from Rebecca Page, the principal of Giesinger Elementary School: “Teachers are constantly going over the data looking for how they can intervene with students and identify the help they need. They come up with an instructional plan, and I and the assistant principal support the plan and make it happen.”

Page: We have high expectations for all of our students. All means all. I or the assistant principal get together with each third and fourth grader to review their results, celebrate progress and set new goals. And they graph their progress.

Payne: If you have high expectations for your students then you have to be current in your teaching because our kids are always changing. Ms. Page is supportive of us being current in our teaching practices.

Q. What support is provided for teachers?

Payne: The district provides excellent professional development and has instructional coaches who provide teachers with a lot of support as they go from training to implementation of best practices. Our teachers realize that improvement is a refinement process. You’re not going to try something once or twice and see an impact on students. Change is difficult. It takes time, and Ms. Page has always been great with that.

Page: Our scores on our common formative assessments and district benchmarks are very public. All the teachers in a grade level say these scores are all of ours. They get together and talk about areas of strengths and weaknesses. It is sharing and open communication about what we need to do to address our students’ needs. It’s what are we going to do together for our kids. Our teachers are very committed.

You can learn more about Imogene Giesinger Elementary School’s success here.

*Rebecca Page retired as principal after school year 2014–2015.

Innovative Massachusetts Schools Foster Deeper Engagement with Hands-On Learning

Two students, a male and a female, work on a science project.

Eighth grade Renaissance students participate in a rollercoaster expedition. Photo Credit: Springfield Renaissance School Teacher.

Flexible scheduling gives students more control of their learning, allows them to explore wide array of topics.

Tinsae, a rising 11th grader who is passionate about computer science, had a little taste of what it’s like to be a teacher last winter: he was allowed to share some of his extensive knowledge of programming with his fellow students at The Springfield Renaissance School in Springfield, Massachusetts.

“That whole week, I got to teach what I loved,” Tinsae said. “I wanted people to be aware of the potential in the IT field. I was really nervous because I didn’t think people would be interested, but it turned out people were really interested.”

School staff helped Tinsae put together the lessons for the programming group, which was just one of many mini-courses offered during two weeks his school dedicates to “intensives.” The intensives, most of which are led by teachers, give students a chance to delve deeply into topics such as video production, LEGO robotics and the science of science fiction. The school uses these courses to give students more control over their learning, by allowing some students to share what they learn and letting all students choose which ones to take.

To help Tinsae deepen his knowledge of IT even more, the school helped him get an internship in which he will try to hack into the computer system of insurance company Mass Mutual to test its security measures.This graphic includes the following text. The title is “Innovation School Autonomies.” Under the title are six bullets, with the following six autonomies listed: curriculum, budget, school schedule and calendar, staffing, professional development, and school district policies.

The Springfield Renaissance School is one of 54 “innovation schools” serving approximately 21,000 students in 26 school districts across the State. Under legislation signed by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick in 2010, the schools operate with greater autonomy in six key areas (see text box) allowing them to try different approaches to increase student learning and close achievement gaps. However, if the schools don’t meet the agreed upon measurable annual goals developed by the innovation plan committee and approved by the local school district, then the school committee may, at the request of the district superintendent 1) limit one or more components of the innovation plan, 2) suspend one or more components of the innovation plan, or 3) terminate the authorization of the school; provided that the limitation and/or suspension does not take place prior to the completion of the second year of operation and that termination does not take place prior to the completion of the third full year of operation.

The innovation schools statute lists 15 eligible applicants that can establish an innovation school, including parents, teachers, principals, and community organizations. Massachusetts previously provided competitive funding to support the innovation school planning process through the State’s Race to the Top award and Gates Foundation funding and now funds these grants with State resources. The schools can be new, conversions of existing schools, or academies that operate as part of larger schools. The first stage of the innovation school approval process includes a two-thirds vote of the innovation school prospectus by the 3-person screening committee that includes the school district’s superintendent, a representative from the local teacher’s union, and a representative from the local school committee. The second stage of the process includes the development of the detailed innovation plan by the innovation plan committee, a two-thirds vote of the teachers in the school that is proposed for conversion, a public hearing, and approval by the majority of the school committee.  The detailed innovation plan must clearly articulate the areas of autonomy and flexibility proposed and how they are expected to improve student achievement.

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National Blue Ribbon Schools Series: Educating the Whole Child – Haines Elementary School, Haines, Alaska

Barbara Pardee (left), Title I reading specialist, and René Martin (right), dean of students, Haines Elementary School. Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education.

Barbara Pardee (left), Title I reading specialist, and René Martin (right), dean of students, Haines Elementary School. Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education.

In the fall of 2014, educators from more than 300 Blue Ribbon schools from around the nation met in the District of Columbia to talk about the hard work that led to their gains and national awards. We sat down to ask some of these educators about what other schools could learn from them.

Haines Elementary School is located in rural Haines, Alaska. The K-8 elementary school has 200 students and shares a building with the high school. About 15 percent of the students are Alaska Natives and 15 percent are students with disabilities. About half qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Haines cares deeply about every student’s success.  The school uses a variety of assessments to closely monitor every student’s progress and teachers meet three times per year to analyze the data and plan interventions. Students who need extra help in reading come to school 30 minutes early for individual or small-group tutoring or to use a computer reading program that has produced strong results. Some kindergartners stay 45 minutes after school to work on their mathematics or early literacy skills. Students identified as needing special education services get the help they need from paraprofessionals and special education teachers within the regular classroom.

Haines also uses several strategies to increase student engagement in school. Teachers use technology across the curriculum and the school provides students with enrichment opportunities as well as individualized interventions.

These efforts have lead to important gains for Haines students.  The percentage of students with disabilities who are proficient or advanced in reading increased 14.3 percentage points between 2011 and 2013; writing scores for this group increased 9 percentage points during that period. Mathematics scores increased by 20 percentage points. During that time, the achievement gap between students with disabilities and those without shrank rapidly.

Over 90 percent of the school’s students are proficient or advanced in reading and writing and 85 percent proficient or advanced in mathematics.

Q. How do you promote high performance among students and close achievement gaps?

René Martin, dean of students: We focus on whole child education, which involves Response to Intervention strategies, engaging parents and making all staff aware of students’ needs. Response to Intervention means that teachers try to meet each student’s needs, intervening early on when they begin to fall behind to get them back on track. The intensity of the assistance students receive is increased as needed, but some students who still need more help may then be identified as needing special education services. Everybody understands everyone’s role. We have stopped pointing fingers, and instead focus on what we can do. We also do a lot of professional development because teachers have to be aware of what is new in theory and practice—the world is different, and children are different.

Barbara Pardee, Title I reading specialist*: We have a lot of special education needs. So we looked across the students’ Individualized Education Programs to see what they had in common. We saw that short-term memory issues were a common thread and students needed help with auditory processing. So we brought in a computer-based program that helps students improve their memory and attentioThis graphic has a quote from René Martin, dean of students at Haines Elementary School: “Everyone understands everyone’s role. We have stopped pointing fingers, and instead focus on what we can do.”n skills and increases the speed at which students process information. It was not easy to implement, and we needed a lot of training. But we got the whole team on board with the priorities and said, “As a school, we are working on this.”

And it’s working. A student told me that he now could hear words when before it sounded to him like mumbling. We actually saw improved performance in math first. Now we use it for all second graders regardless of ability level, including gifted and talented students.

Martin: We formed child study teams and believe that the majority of interventions need to be done for the majority of students. We have managed to decrease our special education population from 20 percent to 14 percent because we provide support for all of our students and don’t push them aside.

Martin: With our early intervention strategies, we are working to make sure that no students fall through the cracks and that every student can move forward and have hope for the future. Because we are small and rural, students don’t even know what is possible. So another thing we are doing is sending students to Juneau to learn about careers.

You can learn much more about Haines Elementary School’s efforts and success here.

*Barbara Pardee retired after school year 2014–2015.

National Blue Ribbon Schools Series: Working as a Team – Prairie Elementary School, Cottonwood, Idaho

A class of students from Prairie Elementary stand in front of hteir yellow school bus before departing for a school field trip.

Prairie Elementary School sixth graders depart for a school field trip.
Photo Credit: Cottonwood School District.

In the fall of 2014, educators from more than 300 Blue Ribbon schools from around the nation met in the District of Columbia to talk about the hard work that led to their gains and national awards. We sat down to ask some of these educators about what other schools could learn from their successes.

Prairie Elementary School in Cottonwood has 196 students, kindergarten through grade six, many of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch based on their family’s income. These students have become more mobile than in the past, as families move more often.  Prairie is one of only two schools in the Cottonwood district; the other is a combined middle-high school. It was the only school in Idaho to be awarded Blue Ribbon status in 2014.

Prairie Elementary joined a five-district consortium to give the school’s 14 teachers (some of whom also work at the high school) more peers to work with and access to additional resources. Lead teachers from the schools in the consortium come together three times annually to plan and prepare lessons and materials aligned with the Idaho Core Standards to share with their colleagues. For example, the third through sixth grade teachers in the consortium are all using online Khan Academy videos as part of a statewide pilot program. The school’s recent gains have been so significant that the State invited Prairie teachers to give a presentation in the State capital on what they are doing that is making a difference.

Q. How do you engage families and the community?

René Forsmann, principal: Everybody is always welcome, and we are fortunate to have a lot of backing from parents and the community.

The picture shows Rene Forsmann, the principal of Prairie Elementary School, on the left, and Sherry Holthaus, one of the school's teachers, on the right.

Caption: Prairie Elementary School principal René Forsmann, left, and Sherry Holthaus, one of the school’s teachers, right. Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education

To improve student achievement, we have to take it on as a team. We are all in this together. Each student means something to the community, parents and staff, and our parents have high regard for teachers. We provide lots of opportunities for parents to participate in our classrooms, on our field trips and through coaching and mentoring. Our drug-free group, Kindness Rocks, provides activities for students and parents, bringing families together to work on art projects, fly tying, bracelet making, bingo night, etcetera. With each activity, there is always a message regarding kindness and anti-bullying.

We have open houses that are attended by 90 percent of parents. During the fall open house, they are given information about the Title I program, after-school program, after-school activities and school expectations throughout the year.

Fall parent-teacher conference attendance ranges from 85 to 95 percent. School concerts are attended by approximately 250 parents, friends, grandparents and community members.

We want kids to be in schools so, when students are absent, a call is made to parents to find out details. We also do home visits when students are absent from school for three to five consecutive days.

Our community stands behind our school, passing a property tax levy every year since 2005.

Q. How do you use data to improve student achievement?

Forsmann: Our work is data-driven. We look at data for individual kids and group students by ability. The important thing is to use the data—to not do data to do data.

We look at the data for each student and break students into different categories at different times of the day. Every student has enrichment time at least once per week, and we use the data to inform what happens during this time. We also use the data to help teachers teach to their strengths and provide after-school support. And we have students involved in accountability as well and provide rewards when they do well. We give awards for attendance, because students have to come to school to learn and succeed.

We have been fortunate to receive grants for technology, so all of our classrooms have iPads, Chromebooks and laptops. We load them with programs that students can use for extra support or advanced coursework. So with the data about students’ abilities, their teachers are able to use the technology to teach students at their current level. We can be there for all students. With many things going on in class at once, teachers have to be guides or facilitators.

You can learn much more about Prairie Elementary School’s efforts and success here.

National Spotlight: Teacher Leadership Changing School Systems


Title: Teacher Leadership Description: This graphic is a visual representation of the pathway to teacher leadership. The top of the graphic is labeled “In the Past.” At the top of the graphic and beginning of the path, there is a schoolhouse with a teacher walking out of the school. Next to the teacher is the text: “Teachers have had limited opportunities to lead in their schools, districts, or states without leaving their classrooms.” The path divides into two paths, one that goes off the graphic to the right and one that leads to the bottom of the graphic. The teacher “in the past” looks like he is about to walk on the path that goes to the right off of the graphic.  The path that continues on to the bottom of the graphic takes us into a section labeled “Today.” There is a second teacher on that path. The teacher has a thought bubble, dreaming of an opportunity both teach and be a teacher leader. The text next to that teacher says: “Research shows that a majority of all teachers want new roles, which allow them to lead without giving up the teaching they love.” That teacher’s path leads to eight teacher leadership opportunities, each represented by an icon and title. The titles of the eight teacher leadership opportunities are: mentor/coach, leadership team member, department chair, curriculum specialist, instructional specialist, lead teacher, advocate for change, and policy leader.Teachers who have opportunities to lead from their classrooms by participating in school decision-making and collaborating with colleagues are more likely to say “teaching is a valued profession in their society,” according to an international study. They also are more confident in their abilities and more satisfied in their jobs.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Teach to Lead initiative is designed to make available more opportunities for teachers to exercise leadership. “Teacher leadership means having a voice in the policies and decisions that affect your students, your daily work and the shape of your profession,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in March 2014, when he announced the initiative, which is a partnership with the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards.

Since then, the Department’s Teaching Ambassador Fellows—teachers who work to elevate the voices of teachers nationally—organized four Teacher Summits and one State Summit at which hundreds of teachers shared their ideas for how to improve their schools. They also created “Commit to Lead,” an online community where teachers can not only share their ideas but also collaborate with others to bring them to life.

State Strategies to Leverage Teacher Leadership

Several leading States are investing in teacher leadership as a core strategy to improve their educational systems.  Federal programs, such as Race to the Top and the Teacher Incentive Fund, have also been catalysts for creating more teacher leadership opportunities. For example, thirteen of the nineteen Race to the Top states either have in place or have proposed new policies that would create roles to encourage teachers to lead while remaining in the classroom. Policies include comprehensive teacher career advancement initiatives, multi-tiered certification systems with tiers for advanced or master teachers, and certification endorsements related to teacher leadership.

  • In Delaware, teachers are among those leading weekly meetings called “professional learning communities” that focus on helping teachers work together to use a variety of data to analyze and adjust their instruction to meet individual student needs. Teachers are also training their colleagues in the Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards.
  • In Florida, districts can select effective teachers who have completed clinical educator training supervising teachers or mentors to supervise pre-service teachers during field experiences or internships.
  • Project SUCCESS in Massachusetts trains experienced teachers to become Lead Mentors for new teachers, especially those in high-need schools and disciplines.
  • North Carolina is recruiting more than 400 teachers to serve on the Governor’s Teacher Network (and continue in their teaching roles) to design professional development and instructional and formative assessment resources for educators statewide.
  • The Tennessee Teacher Leader Council is developing flexible teacher leader models (designed to increase student achievement) for implementation in districts across the State.
  • In Ohio, teachers are playing a variety of key roles—training colleagues, writing curriculum, providing feedback to the State—in the transition to more rigorous college and career ready standards.

“We’re doing all of this to get a really good, strong movement in teacher leadership going because we know the best ideas in education are often borrowed or stolen from another teacher,” said Maddie Fennell, a Teaching Ambassador who worked on the initiative, “and somewhere out there in a classroom are teachers who have the ideas that can really transform the system if we can just raise their voices up to a level where they can be heard by people who are also making policy and can spread what they are doing to a systems level.”


Creating Sustainable Teacher Career Pathways: A 21st Century Imperative, National Network of State Teachers of the Year, December 2013.

Teach to Lead – Be Bold

National Blue Ribbon Schools Series: We Help Each Other – Jefferson Science Magnet School, Norwalk, Connecticut

Jefferson Science Magnet School students on a field trip to a nearby river to learn more about habitats, water and soil. Photo Credit: Jefferson Science Magnet School.

Jefferson Science Magnet School students on a field trip to a nearby river to learn more about habitats, water and soil. Photo Credit: Jefferson Science Magnet School.

In the fall of 2014, educators from more than 300 Blue Ribbon schools from around the nation met in the District of Columbia to talk about the hard work that led to their gains and national awards. We sat down to ask some of these educators about what other schools could learn from them.

Jefferson Science Magnet School is a K–5 grade elementary school located in Norwalk, Connecticut, a suburb of New York City. About 70 percent of its students are Hispanic or African American, and about 68 percent of them are eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch. Jefferson students take part in hands-on science activities at places such as the Norwalk Maritime Museum or a local children’s science museum, and they take advantage of the school’s proximity to the Long Island Sound. The school has won a number of statewide awards for its success in narrowing the achievement gaps.

Jefferson’s overall School Performance Index (SPI) was 81.8 for the 2013–2014 school year, exceeding its State target of 79.5 and with a less than 10 SPI points gap for African American and Hispanic students.  The State considers Jefferson to be a “Progressing” school, a rating only awarded to 235 out of 820 elementary and middle schools across the State.

Q. What did you do to shrink the achievement gaps at your school?

John Reynolds, principal: We made two primary changes. First, we transitioned to the science-based program that really provides kids with deep experiential learning, predominantly with resources within the local community. We don’t just teach content, we create problem solvers through inquiry. What students experience on their field trips each year is related to the following year. There is an intentional sequence of experiences and content that is learned.

Another powerful practice is what we call “Double Dose.” For one hour each day, all students are in groups for customized literacy learning. The groups are based on the results of formative assessments created by teachers.

Instructional teams meet weekly to analyze data at all levels (school, classroom, grade level, subgroup and individual student level) to identify strengths and weaknesses, capitalizing on what students can do well and pushing them to do better. The Double Dose sessions provide remediation for those who need it and enrichment for others. If you’re a successful learner you go with other successful learners. If 10 students need basic skills, they’ll get that. It allows for focused instruction, and the groups are re-formed every six weeks based on students’ progress. Students get help before needing to be referred for special education. (To hear more from John Reynolds about the Double Dose model, watch this video.)

Q. How can you afford to take these trips and hire enough people to run these groups?

Reynolds: Title I provides the opportunity for our children to do these things. We can hire additional staff that makes the Double Dose sessions possible and provide the people we bring in with professional development and materials. We try to have a 10 to 1 student to teacher ratio for that hour.

Q. Your school motto is “We help each other.” What does that mean?

Reynolds: We have a very loving, caring community of teachers. We help each other. We need to look within to what is working, not what’s broken. That applies to teachers and students—teachers helping teachers; students helping students; and the school working with families and the community. We have more than 600 students but it feels like a small place. Students feel loved. As many challenges as our kids have, they come and know they are loved in school and can take risks and get help solving their problems. The science they learn is a byproduct.

You can learn more about Jefferson Science Magnet School’s approach here.

National Blue Ribbon Schools Series: Collaborating Toward Success – Fennimore Elementary School, Fennimore, Wisconsin

A class of students is grouped together, perched on top of a scenic overlook of a state park with a reiver running through the background. A naturalist stands on top of a rock near the students and points to an object in the distance.

Fennimore Elementary School students on a field trip to a nearby river. Credit: Fennimore Elementary School.

In the fall of 2014, educators from more than 300 Blue Ribbon schools from around the nation met in the District of Columbia to talk about the hard work that led to their gains and national awards. We sat down to ask some of these educators about what other schools could learn from them.

Fennimore Elementary, a preK–6 school with 440 students, is located in a rural region in the western part of Wisconsin. Half of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. When Wisconsin increased the passing scores on its statewide assessments in reading and mathematics for school year (SY) 2011–2012, there was as much as a 20 percentage point gap in achievement between Fennimore’s economically disadvantaged students and those who were not disadvantaged. The school adopted what it calls SMART (Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Results-oriented and Timely) goals, focused its grade-level Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) on reaching them and began closely monitoring students’ progress and intervening as soon as they began falling behind.

In 2013, 45 percent of the school’s students were proficient or advanced in reading, up from 34 percent in 2008. In mathematics, 56 percent of its students were proficient or advanced, compared to 41 percent five years earlier. Only one in four students with disabilities was proficient or advanced in SY 2008–2009 as compared to almost one in two in SY 2012–2013. Over that same period, the percentage of economically disadvantaged students who were proficient or advanced in mathematics math rose from 29 percent to 51 percent.  Gains were similar in reading.

The school receives Title I funding, which allows it to hire two additional full-time teachers and one part-time teacher. The Title I teachers are highly qualified and intervene with students needing extra help. The school also receives Title II money that it uses to purchase technology and a Title VI Rural Education grant it used for professional development sessions in the summer and new mathematics textbooks.

Q. How did you narrow the achievement gap in your school?

Jamie Nutter, superintendent, and Carmen Burkum, principal, Fennimore Elementary School. Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education.

Jamie Nutter, superintendent, and Carmen Burkum, principal, Fennimore Elementary School.
Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education.

Jamie Nutter, superintendent: Collaboration is the key. We formed grade-level professional learning communities (PLCs) and created a common language, so that when we were talking about strategies, everybody knew what everyone else was talking about. That created more coherence within the organization so that, for example, our third-grade teachers weren’t all doing their own things. They were working toward the same objectives and goals.

Carmen Burkum, principal: The single most important factor was that we defined success as measureable success, instead of being how we thought we did. We had baseline and benchmark data, and we used the data to monitor our progress. We made sure that, at , the data were not included in teacher evaluations. We told the teacfirsthers we will never include this in your evaluation as long as you respond when students aren’t achieving. Had we included that in their evaluations, teachers would have set that bar low. Saying it wasn’t included raised the standards.

Q. What are you proudest of at your school?

Burkum: I’m proudest of the relationships we have at our school. We’re a small district.  That allows us to really get to know students and their families, and we can really drive the curriculum toward what students actually need. The entire community is very supportive of what we do and it creates a very positive culture and climate in the school.

Q. How do you think about college and career readiness in Fennimore?

Nutter: Our poverty rate is more than 46 percent. But we want our kids to know that just because you’re from Fennimore doesn’t mean you can’t be a doctor, a lawyer or a teacher. You can be whatever you want to be if you have the work ethic. We’ve seen a culture change at the high school. A few years ago we had only two percent of our students in AP classes; now it’s 20 percent.

You can learn more about Fennimore’s efforts and success here.

National Blue Ribbon Schools Series: Creating a Path to Higher Education – Early College High School, Farmers Branch, Texas

Students from Early College High School gather outside of the school to celebrate being chosen as a 2014 National Blue Ribbon School. Students at the center of the picture are holding the National Blue Ribbon School banner that the school received with the award.

Students at Early College High School celebrate being chosen as a 2014 National Blue Ribbon School. Photo Credit: Early College High School.

In the fall of 2014, educators from more than 300 Blue Ribbon schools from around the nation met in the District of Columbia to talk about the hard work that led to their gains and national awards. We sat down to ask some of these educators about what other schools could learn from them.

Early College High School on the campus of Brookhaven College in Farmers Branch, Texas, has 315 students in grades 9–12. Eighty-five percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, and 65 percent are English learners or had previously learned English in school.

The school is the highest performing high school in the district, and 100 percent of its seniors graduated in 2012. Sixty-nine of the school’s 89 graduates had associate degrees by the time they graduated, and 90 percent of them enrolled in a four-year college.

The school receives funding from Title I, which it used for Saturday school to provide extra support for students. To hear more from Michael Arreola about Early College High School’s philosophy and how the school uses Federal Title I funds watch this video.

Q. How do you promote high performance?

Michael Arreola, principal: Many of our students will be the first in their families to go to college, so we have to eliminate mental obstacles. We have student advisories, and in them we focus on growth and teaching students grit, perseverance and resiliency. We teach them the behavioral science behind the mindset we want to instill. We teach them that their future is not determined by IQ or by what people say you are.

In our professional learning communities (PLCs) for teachers, we don’t just discuss strategies but go into the science and the research behind the strategies.

We have high expectations for students and use innovative strategies such as project-based learning and peer mentoring by current college students. We encourage our students to be the very best they can be, and the staff provides a lot of emotional support.

We don’t focus on what’s missing, the TBUs—true but useless. Since not all of our students’ parents went to college we help them learn how to encourage their students to adopt habits that will lead to success in school and college.

With the help of parents, our school is the light that will lead our students to success.

Q. What other strategies do you use?

Arreola: Of course, we focus on academics and the rigorous things students need to do to be successful. All ninth graders are placed in all pre-Advanced

Placement core courses as well as in dual-credit elective courses, and all of our high school courses are designed to have our students completely college ready, according to the Texas Success Initiative standards, by the end of their ninth grade year.

We also celebrate successes. Every Thursday, we have a bell-ringing ceremony. Students who have been accepted to college parade through the hallways ringing a bell to be celebrated by students and staff, and we post acceptance letters on the bulletin board. Younger students strive to be part of this ceremony. We also have a senior walk ceremony, during which we recognize students who have earned scholarships and associate degrees.

We are constantly telling students that what they work for, they can get. We are trying to change family trees—even if the seed we planted won’t grow until the next generation. We are growing citizens. Our valedictorian in 2014 came to the United States in sixth grade as an English learner. He is now going to Harvard and wants to go home to Mexico after college to create opportunities for people there through government and education.

You can learn much more about Early College High School’s efforts and success here.

Tennessee Teachers Learn How Peers in China Team Up to Improve Instruction

Peer observations, feedback and collaborative planning lead to increases in student learning.

In Shanghai, China, in one of the highest performing school systems in the world, teachers routinely observe their peers, give them feedback, work on lesson plans in teams, try out new lessons and collaborate on revisions—all to continually hone and sharpen their teaching.  This is very different from systems in the United States, where teaching historically has been a private activity and in-class observations are conducted mostly to evaluate performance.

Sign with the state of Tennessee on it reading, Teacher Town USA

Photo Credit: US Department of Education

Partners at Vanderbilt University, the Tennessee Department of Education, East China Normal University in Shanghai and 26 Tennessee schools are trying to make teaching more public and collaborative. Supported in school year (SY) 2013-2014 by one of eight TN LEAD grants from the State’s Race to the Top funds, the Tennessee-Shanghai Leadership Collaborative has for the past two years sent principals and teachers from high-achieving schools to observe practices in Shanghai.

The purpose of the TN LEAD grants was to help school leaders do more to improve student outcomes. Several research studies have shown that leaders are the second most important school-based factor in student learning, after teachers. The programs that received grants worked with school and district leaders already on the job as well as those still in training to increase their effectiveness.

State officials said the focus on school leaders would continue benefiting students long after the grants ran out.

Principals at the schools that participated in the Tennessee-Shanghai Leadership Collaborative formed Teacher Peer Excellence Groups (TPEGs) to try to emulate the collaboration among teachers in Shanghai. They were assisted by researchers from Vanderbilt’s Peabody School of Education.

Robin Newell, principal of Mitchell-Neilson schools in Murfreesboro, told Vanderbilt that the collaborative model has already proven beneficial. In SY 2013-2014, when teachers first began working in TPEGs, “we had the highest growth numbers in the district, and we blew our math scores out of the water,” Newell said. “I definitely attribute a great deal of that to the TPEGs …. The collaboration process was more valuable than any professional development I could have sent the teachers to. At the end of the year they said, ‘We can never go back to the old way of teaching—why didn’t we do this sooner?’”

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