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“Never done”: How one school builds a culture of success

Urban Scholars Community School urgently needed a change. “We had minimal resources,” says Principal Debra Jones. “Our kids came through the schoolhouse door with a lot of issues. They were facing poverty and trauma. Our attendance was not good. We were seeing single-digit scores.”

They knew their students could succeed—if only they had the support they needed.

The school had sought input from consultants, instructional vendors, and contractors in the past, but the results had been disappointing:  “A lot of people supporting us were not instructional people,” Jones recalls. But she and Assistant Principal Ivonne Torres refused to lower their expectations. They knew their students could succeed—if only they had the support they needed.

In partnership with ANet coach Rashid Johnson, they set an aggressive goal: 100% commitment to student success.

“We wanted a global mindset,” Rashid explains. “Principal Jones and Assistant Principal Torres wanted to see every teacher committed to high expectations and a vision of Urban Scholars as a school where every student could learn and succeed.”

The leaders at Urban Scholars committed to moving the school toward a culture of excellence. “We have great teachers, but there was disconnectedness with students and teachers,” Jones recalls.

Using data to plan for success

Rashid and the leadership team focused on writing,  vocabulary, and progress monitoring. Through a series of classroom walkthroughs, they saw that teachers weren’t giving or getting feedback frequently enough, and very little collaboration was taking place. “We needed to create better support for students and teachers,” explains Jones. “It came down to us sitting together, having everyone bring their ideas to the table, and focusing on our instructional priorities.”

We want students to be independent and accountable, to be responsible for their own learning.
— Assistant Principal Ivonne Torres

Anchoring their conversations in data-driven instruction, the team developed resources for their teachers and established daily common prep periods. “We coached teachers on letting go and making sure students are doing the heavy lifting,” Torres says. “We want students to be independent and accountable, to be responsible for their own learning.”

With these new techniques in place, the team saw change taking root. “Teachers were embracing the curriculum and connecting with their kids—each individual child, beyond the classroom,” says Jones. And this shift in both culture and strategy led to results:  “That’s when our test scores began to rise.”

Creating a culture of collaboration

The team worked to change the broader environment at Urban Scholars, too. “Parents were not allowed in the school ten years ago,” Jones explains. “We opened the doors and welcomed parents in. We let them know we were here for their children.”

She took Urban Scholars’ focus on social-emotional well-being to the next level: “It’s not just about the kids. It’s about the parents, too.”

Throughout the leadership team’s work, the theme of collaboration appears again and again: between students and teachers, between leaders and parents, among teachers and leaders. This collaboration has built trust. “Our teachers feel confident in us,” says Torres.

The impact of high expectations

Math scores are up by 8%, ELA by 13%.

Today, students at Urban Scholars are thriving: they are speaking up, engaging with lessons, and taking an active role in their education. “Our kids are really learning now,” says Torres. “They’re feeling safer, and they’re feeling like their contributions matter.”

“There’s a good feeling as you walk the halls,” Rashid reflects. “You pick up on a sense that everyone’s on the same team, with the same high expectations. Educators work together to meet students’ needs.”

Teachers are getting the support they need and students are learning and growing. Test scores are on the rise, too: math scores are up by 8%, and ELA by 13%. The school has shed its “Renewal” status this year, with the State of New York recognizing Urban Scholars as a school in good standing. But Principal Jones continues to push for higher expectations. “We are never done,” she says. “We have a lot to do and we are never done.”

Check out resources and guides to promote a culture of adult learning at your school in our Lessons from the Field.

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