Failing no more: How principals, teachers at two area schools led their campuses out of MDE's ratings basement

November 16, 2018 10:56:33 AM

Mary Pollitz - [email protected]


In August, Franklin Academy Principal Tawan Williams walked into the school library where her teachers sat waiting. 


With a sense of pride and optimism, she delivered the long-awaited news -- Franklin, an elementary school in the struggling Columbus Municipal School District, was a C-rated campus. 


That moment, Williams said, was so much better than the same meeting in 2017, when she told teachers the school had slipped to an F. 


"I remember when I had to have that meeting with them to say that we were an F," Williams said. "It just took the air out of the room. (This year), there was laughter, there was clapping and there were some tears. It was a sense of relief, knowing that they worked hard and it took everybody. That helped with morale."  


Williams, who took the helm at Franklin in 2015, and Julie Fancher, second-year principal at Henderson Ward Stewart Elementary in Starkville, both led schools the Mississippi Department of Education rated as Fs in 2017 to C ratings just a year later. 


MDE releases accountability scores each year, which are based predominantly on student performance on state benchmark testing. 


When Franklin slipped to an F in 2017, Williams said it came as a shock to her and her staff. She said keeping up staff and faculty morale was difficult, but somehow the bad news last year helped lead the school to a higher status quickly.  


"Nobody likes being on the bottom," Williams said. "To say we're an F, that's hard to say. That hurts. That was a driving factor. Most of us, we're competitive. We weren't competing against anybody else. We were competing against ourselves. Because we knew we were better than that and that the work teachers were doing was more than F-worthy."  


After examining student data from state assessments, Williams asked teachers to do the same. In previous years, Williams said that's where the process stopped. Now, teachers are holding students accountable for their state testing scores. She said honing in on student responsibility was the biggest factor with the school's improvement. 


"Once the teachers knew where the students were, they actually had individual conferences with the students," Williams said. "Any time we did a benchmark (practice) assessment, that was always the conversation. That was driving the force, keeping it in the forefront of the students' minds."  


After ensuring students were aware of their success and shortcomings, Williams said she started to notice student growth. The teacher and student conferences continued throughout the year, to make sure students knew what was working and what wasn't.  


"When you meet and talk about data, look for the small successes," Williams said. "A lot of times you want to focus on what's not going right, but first, identify what they're making improvements in, then attack the skills that need to be addressed. We had to make those small steps and know that if we were doing it the right way it would lead to big gains. And that's what we did."  


Outside of the classroom, Williams recruited other faculty members who could help tutor students and alleviate the stress from classroom teachers, who identified "struggling" students who needed extra help in certain subject areas.  


"We looked at their strengths. Like the physical education teacher, we knew she was strong in math, so she worked on fluency in math," Williams said. "The librarian did a lot of support in reading and reading interventions. Everybody had a part." 


Williams supporting her staff and faculty also played a major part.  


"Having that personal relationship with your boss is important," fourth grade teacher Julia McDill said. "It helps your own work ethic. She wants to build a good relationship with her teachers and to have a good working environment. She's always letting us know that she appreciates the work that we do. She's our example and she does a great job getting to know the students on a personal level and it kind of helps us want to the same."  


After growing exponentially last year, Williams said the work at Franklin Academy is far from complete.  


"Now, we have to improve on that," Williams said. "It's not enough to improve, you have to keep improving and that's the scary part. We're doing more of the same. We're still having those student conferences, and putting a big focus on growth. Even in the hallway, I'm having conversations with students about where they're scoring." 




Fancher focuses on school culture  


Fancher took the helm as interim principal at Henderson Ward Stewart Elementary in October 2017 days after MDE publicly announced the school's F rating. It soon became a permanent gig. 


To raise that rating, Fancher immediately posted on her office door proficiency goals and targets for state testing. 


She knew with her previous experience as the director of assessment and intervention with Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District, HWS -- rated a B in 2016 before plummeting to an F -- could again become successful again.  


"I like to be a humble person, but I wasn't overly nervous," Fancher said. "I had built relationships with the teachers and I knew we had good teachers here. We were an F and we were devastated, but we were not (really) an F school. I really felt like I knew the quality of teachers we had here and they were dedicated. They were all on board and they did not want to be an F. I had the utmost confidence in the teachers."  


Where Williams focused hard on student accountability, Fancher zeroed in on school culture. Faculty morale, especially, had to change before students had any chance of tackling their scoring targets, she said. 


"Being an F, I hated it so terribly bad for the teachers and the community because I knew what was going on here with the teachers," Fancher said. "It was what it was, but we knew what we had to do. We had to go forward."  


In order to improve student performance, Fancher said she focused on English Language Arts, creating uninterrupted reading blocks for students and had interventionists focus on struggling students. As a result, HWS students exceeded all of Fancher's set goals for the subject on spring 2018 testing. 


"We teach our kids to learn to read, because if they can read to learn, it helps us with reading and math," Fancher said.  


A key component for Fancher was to ensure each staff and faculty member knew they had her support.  


SOCSD Superintendent Eddie Peasant said the relationships Fancher made with her teachers and students was evident by her success in such a short amount of time.  


"I'm really excited to have Mrs. Fancher in the leadership role she's in," Peasant said. "She's been a really energetic leader who has really created a climate of excitement and a really awesome learning environment."  


Fourth-grade teacher, Tassie Rosamond, said Fancher's positivity and support for her teachers radiated from the principal's first day on the job.  


"If she had to meet with kids, if they needed tutoring, she would work with them," Rosamond said. "She was even 'Fanchie the elf on the shelf' at Christmas time. Nobody in this school had experienced that before. She would come in the room and sit down, she would talk like an elf. I've never had an administrator do that. She's amazing."  


Fancher's hands-on approach instilled teachers with a sense the HWS faculty and staff were all in the battle together, Rosamond said. 


"I always feel like she is in my corner and has my back," Rosamond said. "She is willing to do whatever possible to help me. I've never had an administrator in 28 years of teaching that has given me their cell phone number. She has been very transparent. She gets the job done but she does it with a smile."  


Since last year's ELA goals were met, Fancher has pushed teachers to focus on math in every aspect, even while the students are playing in P.E.  


"When we're doing jumping jacks, we can count by 2s, 5s and 10s," Fancher said. "You can do measuring in P.E. We are implementing all of those standards in our special classes and while the kids think it's just fun, we're measuring how far we can throw a football or how fast they run. They're laying on the gym floor and even making angles."  


To Fancher, being a C is not good enough. Although in the end, she added, the accountability ratings are important, it isn't what she's working toward.  


"We have already set goals for next school year. We're not happy where we are," Fancher said. "We know that looking at our numbers, we know that we can be better. As long as we're building positive relationships with teachers and students and community members and sustain growth and gains, then I'll be happy."