When Jerry Smith became a principal six years ago he had been teaching for 22 years, so his administrative style is firmly rooted in the belief that the important stuff goes on in classrooms. When he took over Luella High School outside Atlanta, he began thinking about how he could propel fundamental change in what was then a traditional comprehensive high school. When a third of the students and a big chunk of the staff relocated to a new high school the district opened to ease crowding at Luella, Smith knew the moment was ripe for even bigger shifts.
“We said we’re going to put anything and everything on the table and try to do this differently,” Smith said. He was appalled that the current system prioritized churning out graduates, many of whom weren’t actually “college and career ready — life ready,” as the school’s mission statement boldly pronounces. And, the school certainly wasn’t doing a good job by its gifted students or those who were struggling, Smith said.
“If you are truly going to reach every student you have to see education as a personal thing for every person who walks into the building, including the adults,” Smith said. He and a team of teachers set out to try to reconfigure how this big high school could structurally put student relationships with teachers at the center, and value mastery of content above all else. The school ultimately won a Next Generation Systems Initiative grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to jump-start their efforts.
It soon became clear that one of the biggest obstacles to instructional changes of the sort Smith and his team were trying to engineer was the school schedule itself. Comprehensive high schools like Luella offer a wide variety of classes, everything from Advanced Placement courses to art, band, career and technical courses. All the choices is one of the strong suits of high school right now. But the variety of classes and the teachers required to teach them, along with contractual barriers to how many periods a teacher can instruct in a row without a break, and things like lunch and bus schedules, make altering the schedule a huge challenge.
“Our schedule is a function of what we’re trying to create,” said Diana Laufenberg, executive director of Inquiry Schools and a former high school history teacher at Science Leadership Academy. Laufenberg is working with schools across the country to transform pedagogical models toward more inquiry-driven approaches. She says what Smith and his team in Georgia are trying to do is some of the hardest work in education.
There are plenty of charter networks and magnet programs gaining acclaim for their innovative teaching models, but most school-age children go to existing public schools. Laufenberg compares the situation to city building. A city can’t modernize by constructing new buildings but ignoring the underlying infrastructure. When a road is rutted, it doesn’t work to just build a new road. The original road must be fixed. In the educational context, existing schools need system-level change if the system as a whole is going to shift.
“When you are trying to do a transformation, if you don’t have some kind of major lever, you have varying levels of success of your program,” Laufenberg said. Changing the master schedule, while difficult, is a major signal to everyone connected to the school that pedagogy is shifting. “If we don’t match our minutes to our mission, [teachers are] not going to shift.”
At Luella High, three teachers of the same subject, sophomore English, for example, all teach during the same period. The students in those three sections can then rotate between teachers, depending on their individual needs. For example, one teacher might lead a literature discussion with a larger group of students while another teacher helps a smaller group with their writing and a third is working with students applying their knowledge in a project.
“What’s different for us is that we’ve designed a model that is basically a rotational model, but it doesn’t look the same in math as it does in foreign language, as it does in English,” Smith said. It’s like the “station rotation model” in elementary school, but it changes depending on the grade level, content, discipline and the needs of the students in that cohort.
“What we’re not going to do is say we’re a personalized learning school and say one model works for everyone,” Smith said. “That’s crazy.” He has designated personal learning coaches moving between cohorts to help teachers identify student needs and to think through how the professional learning community of teachers working together might improve the model.
“The rotational model is meant to give kids some choice and to let them be in different settings, because we all know we perform differently in different settings,” Smith said. The other big part of the model is constant formative assessment to determine how well students are picking up knowledge and skills. And every four weeks students take a summative assessment designed by teachers and tied to the standards. That assessment gives the instructional team a snapshot of where each student stands at that moment in time and where students need more work. The rotation and groups can be adjusted accordingly.
“It’s sloppy, but hell, life is sloppy,” Smith said. His team is slowly changing the instructional approach grade by grade. They started with ninth grade and are now working to modify 11th grade. Smith says this model requires that students take ownership of their own learning, and that transition has been one of the hardest to make at Luella.
“That’s probably the most difficult and weakest area we have because society has taught children to be spoon-fed and if it doesn’t work out someone is going to rescue you,” Smith said. “Well, we’re not doing that.”
In addition to a schedule that allows for the rotation model, Smith also wanted to create opportunities for interdisciplinary work and was trying to be mindful of how many exams students would be taking at the same time. He also wanted to keep all of the 19 AP courses Luella offers, including the section of BC Calculus that only had eight students enrolled.
To achieve a schedule that accommodates all these competing priorities, Smith has had to give up some things, and he’s planning to hand schedule the entire building next year. Existing scheduling software isn’t designed to handle the priorities Smith wanted and would “break the pedagogical model” if relied upon to do the scheduling.
WHAT IT TAKES
Leading a school transformation like this one is hard work and requires constantly pushing toward the vision. When Luella started this work Smith said he got reactions from across the spectrum. Some parents were distrustful of the changes, while others thought they sounded like a good idea. Some teachers left because they didn’t agree with the new pedagogical focus, but others have thrived and led the changes. Smith said he tries to be as transparent as possible with the community about why decisions are being made, while always holding firm to his central principle — the school should be serving all its students better.
“The systems of schools are so habitual, shifting practice has to be as concerted as quitting smoking,” Laufenberg said. “You need to have a plan for your bad day.” She said there are days when even the teachers most committed to inquiry-based teaching are going to want to lecture. And that’s the equivalent of sneaking out for a cigarette. Changing is hard and when people get tired they will want to return to the status quo. She’s worked with teachers at Luella to develop inquiry-based lessons to keep in their back pockets when it gets tough.
Laufenberg has watched many schools start a school transformation project with energy and vigor, but when leaders run into outside pressures from the district or can’t pick their way through the complex system they run out of momentum. It’s a common story, so common that many teachers expect new programs and approaches to fail in a few years, or to die out when the superintendent takes a new job. And, since change is uncomfortable, many just wait it out. That’s why it’s important not to toss away good teaching practices just because they’ve been around for years.
“I see a lot of people really turning into everything that’s new is better and everything that’s old is bad, which it’s not,” Laufenberg said. For example, inquiry is currently in the spotlight, but it’s not a new idea. Similarly, advisory is an old idea that works. It’s always a good idea to provide a care structure for kids as they move through school. “We don’t need to get rid of that just because it’s old,” Laufenberg said.
For his part, Smith doesn’t expect this work to ever become easy because it revolves around people, and people are messy. “What we see as order is really chaos and what we see as chaos is really order,” Smith said. He doesn’t want it to become orderly because that’s not the natural state of human systems.
Individual success stories of students are what help keep him going. One boy with severe autism had been educated on his own in a rubber room in seventh grade. His mom didn’t think he could handle a big high school, but Smith wanted to give him a shot. The student turned out to be incredibly gifted at math and loved playing in the band. A clear moment demonstrating his growth came when he asked to direct the band at the last home football game, a step outside his comfort zone that was uncharacteristic.
“When he walked across the stage [at graduation], we had taken a child who was in a rubber room in seventh grade and had given him a shot at life,” Smith said. Many adults worked hard to get that student to graduation and they all felt a victory when he was successful.
On the other end of the spectrum, Smith will always remember a young woman who seemed to be perfect from the outside: good grades, cheerleader, the class valedictorian. But unbeknown to many of her friends and teachers, she had a very difficult home life. For her valedictorian speech she decided to talk publicly about her depression and bulimia in hopes of changing someone else’s reality.
“We’ve got a long way to go in this work, but we are making progress and people are seeing that we’re making progress,” Smith said. He’s seen an uptick in ACT and SAT scores, attendance is better and discipline referrals are down. Those are all traditional markers of school improvement, but Smith isn’t kidding himself that those things necessarily mean students are leaving school prepared for college, career and a good life. Every year he surveys seniors about how prepared they feel for those three things as they leave his care.
On a five-point scale, 30 percent of seniors rate life preparedness as a one or two. While some people might just see that as a matter of perception, Smith sees that as an indicator that he and his staff need to keep working to do better by students at Luella High.