Sousa Middle School (Transformation Model)
Sousa Middle School in Washington, DC has long been considered one of the worst schools in the District – in 2008, only 23 percent of its students were proficient in reading, 17 percent in math. After implementing the Transformation Model in the fall of 2008, reading proficiency at Sousa rose to 39 percent, and math to 42 percent in 2009 -- the biggest achievement gains of any D.C. middle school.
U.S. Department of Education (ED): Can you talk about the transition plan you implemented when you first came on board as principal?
Principal Dwan Jordon (DJ): My initial plan was to form a strong leadership team. So I brought in a new team of two assistant principals, two instructional coaches, and a special education coordinator. We have staff focused on intervention and providing wrap around services to students.
I didn’t have the opportunity to bring in a new team of teachers when I first started, so I didn’t know exactly what I’d be getting. I set up individual meetings with each teacher to discuss their data.
A lot of these things, you have to learn on the fly. There are a lot of schools that set up staff development calendars for the whole year at the beginning of the year – we tried to veer away from doing that, because we want staff to have input on setting up calendar, and because you never know what’s going to happen in the year.
We did set up a structure, but we were flexible at the same time. We knew the first year that we wanted to provide more time with instruction, so we doubled time for Language Arts and math. We also tried to build on teachers’ knowledge and skills, and to make sure that the leadership was focused in supporting them.
ED: What were your most challenging obstacles to implementation of your turnaround strategy?
DJ: Getting teachers to shift their mindset was the toughest part. The first year, we had major challenges. We had teachers that just didn’t have the capacity to be excellent, and teachers that weren’t willing to work collectively.
There was one teacher that first year, who kept teaching the concept of fractions incorrectly. So, we had the instructional coach and other leadership staff work with her, to show her, this is how we expect the concept to be taught; these are the questions you should answer, the process you should follow. We formed a strict pacing guide and curriculum, and the teachers who did not have the capacity to teach well had to follow these guides.
But looking at the long term, these teachers were not a good fit with school. They were using the pacing guides and curriculum because leadership was making sure it was being done. But it wasn’t what the teachers wanted to do. In the 2nd year, I focused on building a collective teaching force, bringing in teachers that were on board.
I like to give teachers the autonomy to run their program, be creative, and build a sense of positive culture. At the same time, I also make very clear the mission and expectations, what type of results I expect. It’s a leadership challenge, to send out the message constantly, but give teachers the autonomy.
To make sure everyone’s speaking the same language, the leadership team sets the example – we don’t send out mixed messages. We hold each other and other staff accountable. An example of this is our morning meetings. Every morning, all instructional staff meets from 8 to 8:40 to set the tone for the day. So we know exactly what’s happening at the school every day – if a teacher has a bad morning, we know. We have a constant focus, a constant message.
ED: What is your process for recruiting highly effective teachers to the school?
DJ: We used every avenue, list-servs, postings, working with the Central Office at the district. We created a profile of the type of teacher we needed: willing to invest major time and energy, able to create a positive environment, those who have the passion, similar to mine, for educating kids. Almost anyone who sent in a resume that demonstrated passion and capacity got an interview. So we did a lot of interviews.
Every teacher we considered, we had them come in and teach a class. We’d pull selected students from the school into the interview process, so that we could see how they dealt with different types of students.
ED: What supports did you have, from the district or from other resources?
DJ: Our school is designated as a Full Service School, and so the district supports us to implement the model. We have two instructional coaches, a clinician in the building, and a wrap-around coordinator, who would align any services that a child may need, whether it would be child and family services, health and human services, or even resources for a school uniform. We also have a “5 to 1” mentor for the five children that were experiencing the most difficulties both inside and outside the school, and a positive behavior intervention support model put in place.
ED: How do you partner with parents and communities? How did you ensure buy-in for the changes you were making, and how did you communicate them?
DJ: When I came in my first year, Sousa did not have a legal PTA. So, we decided to take the legal route and establish a formal PTA. But, that first year, we didn’t have a lot of parent support.
This second year, we made a conscious effort to involve the parents and community members. We walked the community, had many events with food – we definitely fed a lot of parents and families! Sousa is what’s called an “Arts Catalyst” school, where we focus our curriculum around different arts. Naturally, we have a number of showcases every year – concerts, dances, performances – and we made sure students all participated. This way, it was more likely that parents would come, and we could engage them that way.
We also formed a Community Relations Committee, which was focused on forming community partnerships and strategically reaching out to the council person to support the school.
A lot of parental involvement is required in the way we are governed. Parents are members of our Local School Restructuring Team, or LSRT. The LSRT makes decisions on the budget, on teacher issues. We’re required to have parental involvement on every decision that we make.
ED: What have you done to ensure that your work is sustainable?
DJ: It’s a three-step process – you work hard to have the significant improvement, then you might have flattened performance the next year or two, then it’s followed by more improvement.
Our first year gains were a direct result of more instructional time, pull out for students, and the instructional model we used, called “I do, We do, You do.” Now, after seeing those gains, this is where it gets tough. In the second year, we worked to incorporate new knowledge into old knowledge, focusing on research-based practices to continue to move the school.
We asked questions like, what does good instruction actually look like in the classroom? It’s hard to really focus on this in the first year. One thing in math, for example, is how do we teach students so that they have a conceptual understanding rather than just procedural understanding? A focus on conceptual understanding may not show immediate improvement in test scores, but I think the consequences will be worth it.
The community wants to see improvements year after year. But, Chancellor Rhee understands that flattening happens after the first year of amazing gains. She said to me, “Just don’t go backwards.”
The way that I am, I want to prove that three-step process wrong. I want to show significant improvement every year. That’s my goal.
ED: What advice do you have for principals embarking on the important work of turning around low achieving schools?
DJ: It’s hard to do, and it is a long term process. You have to know that the first year you can focus on structures, the things that you will see immediate gains, but the work is not done. It’s hard to build a staff with capacity to sustain improvements. First, the staff needs a collective vision – everyone needs to be passionate and energetic about it. If you have that, your school will continue to grow. What sustains you through those flattened periods is this strong, positive culture and a focus on continuous improvement.