Early this fall, I found out that Soaring Eagles Elementary School, where I’m the principal, won its second National Blue Ribbon award.
It was an incredible day. I got to appear in newspapers and on TV explaining how proud I was of our powerhouse staff. Together, we’ve won a string of state and national awards for academic excellence while working with a comparatively large share of students living below the poverty line in Colorado Springs.
That’s led to a lot of questions about the secrets to our success. Colleagues, here they are: just researched best practices.
Over the years, we’ve zeroed in on the common threads that educational research show help make successful schools. We’ve also read thinkers like Dennis Sparks, Peter Senge, Michael Fullan and Robert Marzano. We boiled it all down to student engagement, a great curriculum and high-quality teachers. No miracles.
We responded by committing to improving those things. Our staff literally built curriculum maps and calendars. Teachers became the experts on our “scope and sequence” — essentially, our roadmap for our students’ learning — and they worked to understand more deeply what they were teaching and why. They adjusted their assessments and learned to set specific objectives for each lesson.
As a school, we put special focus on our most struggling learners. Title I funds help us hire paraeducators who work with students as they work on literacy skills, and those students get an average of two hours a day of small group instruction.
As an administration, we’ve also refined our own strategy for helping teachers improve. Every probationary teacher receives 16 spot observations and two formal observations to support their growth. We decided that my most important job was to be an instructional leader, and we prioritized my spending time in classrooms.
I bet some of you are shaking your heads and thinking, we’ve done all of that, too. I challenge you to go on a quest. Don’t ask yourself if those ideas are present — ask to what degree they are implemented. Part of why I spend so much time in classrooms is to make sure the best practices we’ve decided on remain front and center.
By now, I’m confident in our strategy. It was only reinforced when I swallowed my pride and looked deeper at a school that was doing even better than we were.
As administrators, our jobs are so all-consuming that we don’t often seek out outside exemplars. Too often, we insist that we are too busy and believe that we already have the knowledge we need. When we fall short, that means we sometimes say crazy things like “Our kids can’t …”, and “Our community doesn’t …”, and “If I only had …”.
I’ve operated that way myself. When state test scores are published, I always check to see which schools outperformed ours. One of my colleague’s schools showed consistent growth and greater success. It was also clear that the school was overcoming some of the same obstacles that other Title I schools face.
At first I did the natural thing: I assumed that there must be some underhandedness, or that the school’s higher test scores were a fluke. But their teachers continue to outperform mine, and I eventually asked my colleague if I could visit.
After several visits it was clear to see how and why their students were succeeding. They had focused instruction, planned objectives, and consistent execution. All of their students were visually tracked on a data board which guided discussions around what each student needed.
They were focused on doing the basics really well. Seeing “great” in action, and being open-minded, helped us improve.
But there is no need to chase the latest programs to do it. Supporting your staff, helping them improve, and really implementing the practices that have been shown to work will get the job done.
Kelli O’Neil has worked in education for 31 years, and worked for Harrison School District #2 for the past 21. Soaring Eagles Elementary received the National Blue Ribbon Award in 2009 and 2016 and the Title I Distinguished School award in 2011. Soaring Eagles serves as a host site for turnaround schools in Colorado.