The Challenge

Elementary school principal Don Ross works to overcome both the powerful legacy of his predecessor and his faculty's resistance to school reform. He hopes a combination of compelling data and persuasive reasoning will begin the needed shift in the paradigm shaping Marlow Elementary School's culture.

Dr. Ross holds his first faculty meeting and introduces the rationale for implementing major reforms.

Don Ross took a deep breath. This was his first faculty meeting as principal, and even though his entire professional experience had been at Marlow Elementary, he was nervous. He loved this school and many of the faculty were personal friends, but what he was about to propose required change. And change, he knew, was scary.

When he’d begun his career at Marlow, he’d been twenty-two, fresh out of college and positive he’d made the right decision to become a physical education teacher. Four years later, he wasn’t so sure. He still loved working with students to develop their physical skills and nurture a healthier lifestyle, but he felt distanced from his colleagues, who seemed to think he had little to offer when it came to pedagogy. It left him feeling like a camp counselor rather than a professional. It was this that spurred him to enroll in graduate school, that and Mr. Brown, the principal’s, encouragement.

Mr. Brown had connected well with his students and faculty before retiring.

Mr. Brown was an institution, having led the school for over twenty-five years. He knew what he liked in his employees and how he wanted his school to run, and he gave a great deal of latitude to teachers and staff whom he believed were dedicated and worked hard to meet his goals. A strong “people person,” he was well-liked by parents, who appreciated the fact that he actually knew who their child was. He’d kept in touch with Don as he went fulltime to graduate school, had provided an internship opportunity, and pressed hard to hire him as his assistant once he’d earned his doctorate. He always referred to him as “the Doc” and seemed to take genuine pleasure in his achievements. For the past five years he’d relied more and more on Don to handle things � both mundane problems, such as scheduling, discipline, and staffing, and more difficult student cases or legal issues. Don had felt strong pressure to follow in Mr. Brown’s footsteps and carry on in his manner. The burden of favoritism, was how he described it: Maintain the status quo or lose Mr. Brown’s support. When Mr. Brown finally retired, Don was both sorry to see him go and excited to implement some of the reforms he’d written his dissertation about. At last he’d have a chance to fix some of the ongoing problems his predecessor had ignored or let slide.

Despite Mr. Brown’s backing of Don’s application to the principalship, Don had still undergone a rather rigorous interview process. From it, he’d gathered that the Superintendent and School Board were a little less than thrilled with Mr. Brown’s laissez-faire attitude and the school’s declining test scores. In fact, he was pretty sure it was his dissertation, Problems and Priorities: Initiating and Implementing School Reform, that had won him the job. He’d been quite surprised when several board members referred to specific recommendations in it during the interview process; until then, he’d been sure that nobody else had read it besides his advisors and his wife.

Now it was Dr. Don Ross’s opportunity to get faculty on-board his reform bandwagon. It wasn’t going to be easy, he knew that much. His faculty saw achievement problems as compartmentalized. He needed to shift that belief to a more systemic approach, where all learners were considered and underachievers were not viewed as separate. He took another deep breath before raising his hand to begin his first faculty meeting as Principal Ross.

Teachers question implementation of a schoolwide plan.

During his presentation, he’d explained the process of changing the school’s designation from Targeted Assistance to Schoolwide Plan and gave what he thought was a powerful explanation of its benefits. He hoped that by providing a sense of the “big picture” for his staff, including the numbers of students lagging behind, he’d anticipated and fended off most challenges.

Click here for the U.S. Department of Education’s overview of the six-step process for implementing a schoolwide plan, “Making the Most of Title I Schoolwide Programs.”

“So, I’d like to open the floor to discussion now. Any questions about creation of the schoolwide plan?”

Many students at Marlow Elementary School were doing well, but others needed a new kind of assistance.

At first, there was silence, but Christine Maxim, who had taught first grade at Marlow for seven years, raised her hand. “Everything we’ve ever seen in the past has been pretty positive, but now you’re telling us we’ve got major problems here. In my classroom, almost all of my students are reading on or above grade level and I’ve only got a few low achieving kids.”

“We’ve got a great faculty doing great work, but there are problems.” He nodded towards his new assistant principal. “Rebecca disaggregated our scores from last year’s assessments.” Rebecca hit some keys on the computer they’d been using for their presentation to the staff and up popped a chart of Marlow’s fourth graders’ English Language Arts scores, broken down by gender, ethnicity, poverty level, and ESOL status.

See excerpts from the Marlow Elementary School report card below:

“As you know, our overall test scores have dropped over the past several years, probably linked to changing demographics as much as anything. We don’t really know why, but that’s not new information to any of us. What’s really interesting is that this set of data shows us just where the problems lie, and you can see that certain groups of students are not doing well.”

He looked around the room and noted several teachers’ faces registering surprise as they digested the statistics.

“But that’s always been true,” Sue Greely jumped in. A powerful leader with over twenty years at Marlow, she was not afraid to say what others might only hint at. “There are groups that don’t do well, and there always will be. But most of our kids here are okay, and those test scores don’t show what a great sense of community we’ve built. Our students, even the ones who show up on these tests as lagging behind, actually like school. That’s incredibly important when we look ahead at drop-out rates. Look at our discipline and attendance records. Or our parent involvement. Given our students’ income levels, these are wonderful achievements, even if they can’t be measured on any multiple choice test.”

“Of course, Sue, but creating a schoolwide plan will bring in more funding and the more money this school gets, the better it will be for all of us, teachers and students.” Don really couldn’t understand how anyone could oppose establishing a schoolwide plan. What did they have to lose?

She shook her head. “Nothing is free, Don, you know that.”

Don sighed. It all seemed so clear to him, but obviously, there was still some convincing to be done.