Forest Grove High School (Transformation Model)

Forest Grove High School is the only high school in the town of Forest Grove and serves over 1900 students.  Starting in 2002, the school hired a new principal, who set high expectations for student achievement, emphasized data-driven decision-making and provided targeted professional development for all teachers.  Prior to 2002, fewer than half of students were meeting or exceeding standards in reading, and less than a third were proficient in math.  By 2008-09, 76 percent of students met or exceeded proficiency in reading, 83 percent met or exceeded proficiency in math, and in both subjects Forest Grove students outperformed their peers at the state levels. Between 2003 and 2009, the percentage of Hispanic students meeting or exceeding standards jumped from 19 percent to 60 percent in reading and from 13 percent to 73 percent in math, while for low-income students the percentage increased from 18 percent to 63 percent in reading and from 10 percent to 73 percent in math.  Forest Grove received the state’s “Closing the Achievement Gap” Award four years in a row, and has reduced the dropout rate from 7.7 percent in 2002 to 2 percent in 2008.  

U.S. Department of Education: Can you talk about the transition plan implemented when you first came on board to Forest Grove? How did you phase in your approach?

Former Principal John O'Neill (JO): When I first came on board, the then-Superintendent identified school improvement goals that he wanted the school to pursue. Goals included increasing the graduation rate, decreasing dropout rate, increasing reading and math scores for all students, and providing personalized learning for students. We focused on rigor, relevance, relationships, and of course, results.

I came in already having had experience in raising school achievement at the high school level. So I did have a frame of reference of effective practices that could be pursued at this new position.

To start, we held a planning retreat that spanned 2 full days, where we brought in all major stakeholders – department chairs, building site council parent representatives, the local school committee, classified staff representatives, board members, the entire school administrative team, and a district office representative. We spent the time looking at student data and identifying growth areas.

This large planning meeting was importance because it allowed us to take on the larger issues of school improvement and also get to the details. Everyone got to say their piece. We left with a unified vision of shared high expectations for students, and a commitment to communicate with stakeholders that we represented to share why we are doing what we are doing.

We had also received a Small Learning Communities (SLC) planning grant. We used the planning retreat to identify the goals for the SLC, the instructional strategies we would use. We then applied for and received the SLC grant.

ED: What were the biggest challenges, or obstacles, to implementing your strategy?

JO: The biggest challenge initially was communicating the vision for higher expectations, the need for higher expectations for students to compete in the global economy. We had a lot of people saying, “This is Forest Grove. [High school] is good enough for Forest Grove.”

A vast majority of parents here aren’t college graduates, and there was no sense of urgency in getting kids to college. We had some pushback from parents because we started requiring math and reading classes. The parents would ask, “Why does my kid need to be in this class? He’s not going to college anyway.”

But, I had a very strong Superintendent who stood unwavering in his support and commitment to higher expectations. I was a new principal, so his support mattered – the Superintendent carried the political clout in the local community and he had developed relationships necessary that I could build off of that as a new principal. His voice of support made the difference.

Once we started getting the rapid student achievement growth, then we had buy-in.

The next challenge we faced was to dispel the belief, held by some, that what we do at the school site would not have any impact on student achievement. As an entire staff, we reviewed Bob Marzano’s work on what works in schools. We reviewed school level, teacher, and student factors that impact achievement. And we made it real clear that we may not have control over the student level factors, but we do have control over teacher and school level factors. And we made that commitment to work collaboratively to improve these factors.

We used the research out there, and learned from others. We read Doug Reeves. We went to the National College Board conferences to look at what other schools were doing to make sure students were getting the exposure to rigor that’s needed at the college level. We also presented at the Model Schools Conference.

ED: What was your staffing situation at the school? If you had existing staff, how did they react and how did you get them on board with your plan?

JO: We had a lot of senior staff, and lots of retirement. In the last 8 years, we’ve hired almost 50% of our current staff. Through the interview process, we worked to identify student-centered teachers, those who were comfortable with using formative and summative assessments to monitor and adjust based on student performance.

We also kept our mission out there. Our mission is “to provide a superior education that challenges our students to achieve academic and personal excellence and to become world-class citizens." We posted it all around the school, in every classroom, every hall, every common area. It’s been our mission for the last 10 years. I inherited it. And it serves us well.

ED: What supports and/or resources did you receive from the district, or from the state?

JO: I didn’t have any additional resources. All the growth FTEs I received, I put into mandatory math and reading support classrooms. Our Small Learning Communities (SLC) plan is heavy in professional development, and we focused on raising student academic levels in math and reading. Once we got there, we focused on sending honors and AP teachers to regional and national trainings held by the National College Board.

ED: How did you partner with parents/family/the community? How did you ensure buy-in, and what was the process of communicating with them?

JO: We use the school web site extensively. We post school improvement goals, as well as various resources open to students. We also communicate through mailers and the online newsletter. 40 percent of our students are Latino, so we host quarterly meetings in Spanish for Latino parents and families. We have two classified Latino community liaisons that work with families to get them engaged.

Counselors use a computer program called Naviance, which is a conduit to college and/or vocational school planning, and share it with students and families. We also paid for the ACT’s PLAN assessment and ACT PLUS for our students. The ACT PLAN allows us to test freshmen and sophomores, giving them individual data on college and career planning. The ACT PLUS allows us to make sure students are leaving high school with the skills necessary for college, so that they’re not stuck in remedial courses.

Our vision is that parents are informed of the programs the activities, the support available at the school, and they’ll know what will support academic achievement for their students. We want parents to become fully aware of the doors of opportunities that are available to children upon graduation and the support available at Forest Grove during their four years.

ED: What have you done to ensure your work is sustainable?

JO: Our PLCs are sustainable. Our teachers work together to develop common summative assessments that are tied to our targets and goals. Course by course, PLCs compare student results and track progress.

We noticed over the years that bringing in outside expert on a given topic isn’t enough to sustain a type of change. We studied all the research that’s out there, and the work done by Richard Dufour at Adlai Stevenson High School. The school has had changes in school leadership, but they’ve also had 20 years of student achievement. We want to replicate that success.

It also comes back to having that shared vision, across the entire staff. I’m leaving the school this year, but the assistant principal who is taking over is very aware and active in our efforts. It will contribute to an ongoing continuum of success.

ED: What advice do you have for principals embarking on the important work of turning around a school?

JO: First of all, it can be done. Higher expectations can be achieved. It takes an unwavering commitment and focus on the part of the high school principal to walk the talk and realize that people respect what you inspect, and if you closely monitor school achievement toward specific, smart goals and periodically communicate progress on achieving goals, success can be realized.

At Forest Grove, we haven’t implemented anything that hasn’t been replicated from some other school or program. We didn’t invent anything – we looked at the research. We took the best tenets and “Forest Grovized” it, made it our own.

We’ve made it clear to our teachers that all of our plans and strategies are written in chalk.  We are always open to revision and we are in a continuous improvement process. Everything is meant to be revised and updated with higher and higher targets.

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