by Matt Hurt
According to the SOL data from the end of the 2022-2023 school year, thirty-four Virginia schools (of three hundred seventy-seven) in the Comprehensive Instructional Program (CIP) consortium achieved the highest level (Level I) for all academic indicators the state uses for accreditation. The intended purpose of these performance benchmarks is to ensure we effectively assure success for all students, regardless of subgroup status. The Level I benchmarks for the academic indicators for school accreditation ratings are listed below.
- Overall school combined rate (combination of students who scored proficient or advanced and students who were not proficient but made significant gains towards proficiency) of at least 75%;
- Each subgroup (for which there are at least 30 students in the subgroup enrolled in the school) must also meet the 75% combined rate. Subgroups used for accreditation purposes are as follows: Asian students, Black students, economically disadvantaged students, English learners, Hispanic students, students with disabilities, White students, and multiracial students.
- Overall school combined rate (combination of students who scored proficient or advanced and students who were not proficient but made significant gains towards proficiency) of at least 70%;
- Each subgroup (for which there are at least 30 students in the subgroup enrolled in the school) must also meet the 70% combined rate. Subgroups used for accreditation purposes are as follows: Asian students, Black students, economically disadvantaged students, English learners, Hispanic students, students with disabilities, White students, and multiracial students.
- Overall rate of students who scored proficient or advanced of at least 70%.
Once these outcomes were discovered, several of these schools were visited prior to teachers leaving for summer break. Schools with the highest poverty rates and/or highest minority enrollments were targeted since time only allowed for eight school visits (Bessie Weller Elementary- Staunton City, Highland View Elementary- Bristol City, Saltville Elementary- Smyth County, Sugar Grove Elementary- Smyth County, St. Paul Elementary- Wise County, Tazewell High School- Tazewell County, Tazewell Intermediate School- Tazewell County, Woolwine Elementary- Patrick County). During these visits, teachers and principals shared the factors that they felt were most significant in their success. The following narrative is intended to communicate the most common factors for success noted by these dedicated educators.
In each of these schools staff members explained that there was a family-like atmosphere in their school. If anyone needed help with anything, someone was there to provide that help. While they might not see eye-to-eye on everything, when it came to ensuring the success of their students they worked together to ensure the best possible outcomes. Teachers explained that everyone really has each of their students’ and each others’ best interests at heart and everyone feels very supported. Over time relationships had been built and cultivated in the school that yielded high degrees of trust and respect among the staff, students, administrators, and families.
Throughout these conversations it was obvious that each of these schools has a culture of high expectations despite having high at-risk populations. It seems that there were four factors that drove these expectations. The first factor was that staff members believed their students had the capacity to master grade level content. The second factor was that staff members felt that the skills assessed on SOL tests were valuable skills for students to master. The third factor was that staff believe that if they didn’t help their students to master these skills, kids would not be successful in school, which would lead to less chances for success later in life. A number of teachers recounted their personal experiences of growing up as at-risk students themselves, and how their teachers helped them to break the cycle of poverty in their lives. These teachers certainly wanted to pay that kindness forward and their example helped other teachers become much more invested in their students. The fourth factor was that student success was kept the main thing at all times. Administrators from the school and district levels perpetually kept this front and center and all school and division efforts were aligned to ensure the best possible outcomes for all students.
An unanticipated benefit from high expectations in these schools seems to be less discipline issues. In recent history, student behavior has been a significant concern for teachers, however, this issue didn’t come up when teachers told their stories. When I asked about discipline, teachers basically reported that through the relationships developed with students and their families that most of their students were well behaved. Students understood the expectations of their teachers and mostly met those expectations. For students with significant behavioral issues, they understood their students well enough to avoid their triggers or otherwise mitigate significant issues. Discipline was handled in a very proactive manner which eliminated much of the need for punitive action. This had a positive impact by ensuring class time was not disrupted and students were in class rather than in-school suspension or suspended from school.
Some of the schools visited had real problem cultures/climates in recent history. These were schools in which no teacher or administrator would have chosen to work. Eventually, administrators were selected to lead those schools who were able to turn around the culture/climate to be much more positive. During our conversations, some teachers reported that they pass by several schools on their way to work each morning to get to the school in which they really want to work. During these conversations it was plainly evident that all teachers really wanted to work at their school.
In an effort to obtain a better understanding of the relative cultures/climates of these schools, the 2023 Staffing and Vacancy reports were reviewed. Of these eight schools, six were fully staffed during the 2023 school year. Among all of these schools the teacher vacancy rate was 1.5% whereas the state average for the same year was 3.86%. These schools tended to have a lower vacancy rate than other schools in their divisions. While there are many factors that influence teacher vacancy rates, it seems reasonable to assume that the cultures/climates cultivated in these schools had a positive effect on teacher retention. As has been demonstrated in the data, teacher vacancy rates negatively correlate with student achievement.
In each of these schools staff members tracked student progress throughout the year and constantly circled back to ensure each student mastered each skill. They realized that not every student would master the skill when it was initially taught, but that it was critical that they eventually learned it by the end of the year. This data was used to allocate resources to ensure student success. To make sure the data were valid and reliable, specific care was taken to ensure that their assessments were very well aligned to state standards. Interventionists and classroom teachers expended time outside of core instructional time to remediate students. Teachers met regularly to identify students in need of extra help and to plan interventions to make them successful. Principals oversaw the entire process and shifted resources in a timely manner to ensure the best outcomes.
All of the teachers reported that they felt very supported by their principals. If they needed something to ensure the success of their students, all they had to do was ask for it and it was provided. If they had a problem with a student, their principal would sit down with them and help them work through the problem. According to teachers, these principals were present and available to help solve any problem that might stand in the way of their students’ success.
Principals reported that they prioritized their time to help their teachers. They realized that if their teachers were not successful that their school would also be unsuccessful. To that end the principals spent their time during the school day with their teachers and students. Principals reported that most of their principal work was conducted during the evening or over weekends to facilitate their being able to support teachers during the school day.
In conclusion, it was an honor and a privilege to be afforded the opportunity to meet with the staff of these schools. During the conversations, it was evident that the teachers and administrators were very invested in their students. They strongly believe that their students have the capacity for success and it is the job of the adults in the school to ensure that happens. It is obvious that if these schools can produce this degree of success, cultures and climates in other schools and divisions can be cultivated to produce similar results.
Matt Hurt is director of the Comprehensive Instructional Program.
The Comprehensive Instructional Program is a consortium of sixty-two public school divisions that work together to improve outcomes for students. This consortium was founded in 2014 by the superintendents in Virginia’s Superintendents Region VII, which includes the nineteen divisions in far southwest Virginia. Since the founding of the CIP, educators in Region VII have leveraged their collective efforts to produce the best Standards of Learning pass rates among all regions in Virginia since 2017.