Turning Around School Performance Requires Bold Steps: How Bear Creek Elementary Went From a “D” to “A”


By Willette Houston (Originally published in SEEN Magazine)

Be bold. That’s where a school leader must start if you want to lead meaningful school change. There’s nothing wrong with incremental improvement or plotting out a step-by-step process, but we have to take a step back and look at the big picture in order to develop a true vision. Where is my school right now? Where do I want it to be? If I make up my mind that I’ll accept nothing less than the best, what bold steps must I take so that I can lead my faculty, staff, and students to the place we all want to be?

Stuck in “Turnaround”

In my school, there was truly no other way. We were stuck in a “turnaround slump.” Everyone was working hard, but the results were clear and the current methods were not working. When I became principal in 2016, we had been in turnaround status for four years. When you struggle for that long, you know something dramatic has to change, but there are many challenges. In our case, it wasn’t only a matter of “perception becoming reality” but also, in fact, that “reality” fueled the perception of our school and everyone in it. Community members, parents, and even our students began to view us as a “D” school. If this is what we’ve been for so long, it must be true, right?

Willette Houston shared her school’s journey in this exclusive webinar. LISTEN HERE.

But I knew that wasn’t the case. Yes, we were in a slump and, yes, we needed to improve. But we would not and could not ever consider ourselves to be a “D” school. Our students were falling behind their peers across the state and they were counting on us as educators to make a difference. Every educator in our building has a commitment to educational excellence and equity. This is especially important for our community where our student population is classified as 100 percent low-income. We know that great education is the foundation for positive future outcomes for each of our kids. Especially in our case, as an elementary school, we understand that what we do for our students now sets them up for their school experience and success in the future. So what could we do?

Making Bold Moves

It was time for changes. It was time to be bold. We were not going to continue this reality. Not on my watch. So I took my shot. For the 2016-17 school year, we set the course: “On our way to an A” would be the school’s new motto and everyone in the school would develop an “A mindset.” In 2015-16, we made a slight improvement from a “D” to a “C,” but we knew that wasn’t good enough. This year we were going for more. Our teachers bought in and made the commitment to doing the necessary work. Now we just needed to start seeing results.

Seeing a Difference in Students

Throughout the year, our faculty engaged in professional development to implement a new model of teaching and learning. There are many great things I can say about the work our teachers did but, in keeping with our focus on student success above all, I want to describe some of the many changes we noticed in the way our students learn, which were important contributing factors to improvements in proficiency. Once the educators in our school began to prioritize student agency, it was amazing how quickly our classrooms transformed. Here are three changes in student learning that I think every school leader can aim for:

  • Students do the “heavy lifting” ― Before we implemented instructional changes in our school, students weren’t functioning as the main drivers of their own learning. Now, not only have we taken steps to make instruction more rigorous, but students are taking the lead in performing rigorous tasks. This is a major leap forward from the way our classrooms worked in previous years and makes a huge difference in student proficiency.
  • Classrooms are student-centered ― We are now much more aware about placing the student at the center of the classroom. The teacher’s role is vital, of course, but learning begins with the student. We are using much more project-based learning and have found that hands-on learning where kids have real ownership over their work is essential. I feel that fun is the foundation for sustainable engagement and in our student-centered classrooms, kids are having lots of fun!
  • Collaboration has soared ― Part of the fun our students are having is through the enjoyment of working together. They don’t just sit at their desks: they’re getting out of their seats, talking to one another, asking meaningful questions, and helping each other to improve and refine their work. On some level, it might look like chaos, but it’s a beautiful, organized, learning and success-focused chaos. All of the tasks the students work on are standards-aligned and, in addition to improving their proficiency according to the standards, they’re developing a host of real world 21st century skills by owning their learning, being creative, and working together.

Real Results

Success! In the 2016-17 school year, we achieved the results we’d envisioned: we jumped two letter grades all the way to an “A.” What a feeling! Scores in English and math improved significantly. In math, just a year earlier, we were 13 percentage points below the state average. Now we were a few points above the state average!

While we know that our work has only just begun, the difference in classrooms once students take ownership of their learning and become deeply engaged makes all the difference. As a leader, I want to make sure my teachers are supported in maintaining this type of learning environment year after year.

When working with an outside partner like LSI, one of the most valuable benefits to me, as a leader, is that I learned how hard it often is to “know what you don’t know.” Obviously, we knew we needed to drive improvements in the school, but we thought we had it all together. We could make a plan to create the change, but would it be successful. But then I learned how to look closely at teaching and learning, how to help my teachers grow their practice, and how to be a catalyst for rigorous instruction. I understood so much more about what it means to be a transformational leader. It was a lot of hard work but, just as our state accountability grade spoke volumes when were a turnaround school for four years, I am confident that now, as an “A” school, we are perceived in a much different light. Being bold, taking chances, and working with strategic partners helped take us to that next level of success. But most importantly, our students have increased their proficiency, are viewed as high achieving, and are on the right path to success. As an elementary school principal, this is my hope for all my kids and we certainly plan to stay at an “A.”