Four Things That Make a Successful School
We’re wrapping up our first year supporting Hudson Elementary in Pasco County, Florida. This year, Hudson saw marked improvements in school culture and double-digit gains in the number of students who scored satisfactory or above on state tests, compared to a one to three percent average gain for the county.
The school’s principal, Dawn Scilex, has worked in education since 1995 and has been a principal since 2005. Dawn attributes her school’s growth to her team’s hard work in four important areas: talent, academics, culture, and community engagement.
When I started at Hudson, I had four priorities. My first was to get the right team in front of our kiddos. I hired 26 new instructional staff members and was very selective about who I brought on—I stopped counting at 240 interviews. I also hand-picked my teacher coaching team.
Before I arrived at Hudson, children were being sent out of the classroom all the time, walking out of class regularly, and getting suspended far too often. I knew we needed to buckle down and be consistent with behavior management, so culture became a priority, too.
I also wanted to make sure the district-approved curriculum was being taught in every single classroom. I needed to be able to tell families, “This is what your student is learning,” and be confident that I was telling them the truth.
Finally, I prioritized getting the vibrant community around Hudson involved because I knew they were just as invested in the kids’ success as we were, and we couldn’t do it without them. So, community engagement was a priority from the beginning as well.
When we started the school year, I let the team know we would have consistent weekly meetings, no matter what. In the beginning, a lot of our meeting time was used reacting to one challenge or another a coach was having with a teacher, rather than planning ahead and thinking more strategically. By October, we started to become more proactive. We made sure every teacher in the building was receiving consistent one-on-one coaching and high-quality feedback. We also made an effort to connect what was happening in the larger professional development sessions to what was happening in one-on-one coaching—as well as what was going on in the classroom. We also started incorporating more authentic activities into the meetings, like role-playing feedback conversations.
One of our coaches, Malcolm, was supporting a teacher in making the transition to the new district curriculum, and it quickly became apparent the teacher wasn’t invested in the curriculum when she flat-out said, “I don’t like this curriculum, I’m going to stop using it.” He came to me for advice, and I suggested we talk it over with the coaching team.
In the end, what helped him was doing a role play with another coach. There was a mentor coach on campus that day who led Malcolm in acting out the conversation he was going to have with the teacher. Throughout the role play, we worked together to think of new strategies for Malcolm, like offering to co-teach, using a timer, and having short mentoring sessions throughout the day.
By Christmas, Malcolm shared some great news with the team. The teacher had told him, “I actually do like this curriculum, and I'm going to stick with it.” It took a lot of hard conversations to get there, and I can understand why Malcolm didn’t feel comfortable at first, but it ended up being an excellent example of how collaboration on our coaching team led to real change in the classroom.
One of our goals last year was for every student to know they have a champion behind them. We want students to know it’s ok to make mistakes—as long as we learn from them. One student that comes to mind is a boy named Wesley. At the start of the year, he spent more time out of class than he did in class. His teacher, coach, and I worked together to come up with a “social learning” plan for him. We gave him strategies for how to talk about what he was experiencing and helped him improve his people skills. And it wasn’t just Wesley—we support every student in the building like this.
One day, close to the end of the school year, the Chancellor of Education was here with the Superintendent and a few other decision makers. We were sitting at my conference table, and my door slams open Kramer style, it hits the brick wall and bounces off. Wesley says, "I need to talk to you Mrs. Scilex."
"Okay honey, introduce yourself to our guests."
"Are they important people?"
"Yes, they're important people. Wesley, what can we help you with?"
"Well, I'm really mad. I didn't hit, and I didn't kick, but I did use a curse word, and I know it breaks your heart when I curse. But I want to fix it, and I need to talk to you before I fix it. Does this sound okay?" And he told me his plan; how he was going to apologize, and the three people he was planning on apologizing to, including his teacher.
"Yes, Wesley, that’s a great plan. Can you handle it yourself or are you going to need support?"
"No, I just needed to know if this was the right plan, Mrs. Scilex." And then he shook everyone's hand and shut the door. He was a fifth grader—I’m going to miss him so much next year.
I believe this sort of work around culture—making sure students know we believe in them—is a big part of why they scored so well on the state tests. They sat down for the assessments knowing they could do well, knowing we knew they could do well—and they did.
Within my first two or three weeks at Hudson, it was evident to me that the community was very invested in the school, and would be a great help in getting the results we all wanted for our kids. I started by visiting businesses near the school saying, “I’m the new principal in town. We need you. How can we support each other?” Some businesses made donations right away, like food for staff events, and others called us to make donations later in the school year.
We also hold a weekly “Cougar Café,” where our staff volunteers hold parent development sessions, and we serve dinner. Last year we served about 2,900 meals. This year, we’re starting a new program called “Navigators,” where we bring community members into the school to show them the work we’re doing, to give them a chance to get to know us better. We have some community members who have lunch with the students at least once a month and others who have committed to coming in every day for the first 30 days of school to read to some of our kindergartners.
It really took firing on all cylinders—talent, academics, culture, and community engagement—to make the progress we did. I can honestly say that if we were missing a single piece, if we didn’t have our great people, the district’s rigorous curriculum, a real focus on social learning and culture, or our great community helping us, we wouldn’t have been able to accomplish what we did. Our kids are brilliant—that we all know. But to help them be as great as they can be, we have to focus on all parts of their school experience, not just a few.
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