In the summer of 2012, we had the privilege of attending a national conference sponsored by the GE Foundation that focused on Common Core State Standards implementation. During the conference, we were introduced to an extraordinary middle school in New York. We committed to make a trek and personally observe the magic behind the school’s incredible success at implementing the Common Core with a challenging student population. It was truly inspiring. We were blown away by incredible leadership, a deeply committed staff and amazing students.
Inwood 52 Intermediate School (6-8 grades) serves 576 students, 95 percent of whom live below the poverty line. Over half (65 percent) of the students speak English as a second language or are bi-lingual, and almost all are immigrants. Principal Dr. Salvador Fernandez has served Inwood for the past seven years, and in that short time has pushed for — and achieved — innovative education practices that have resulted in impressive gains in student achievement.
Here are some observations and lessons learned that we want to bring back to Idaho as we approach Idaho Core Implementation:
Effective and Energized Leadership
Leadership has without doubt been the driving factor for positive change in this school. Principal Fernandez facilitated a massive culture shift by modeling leadership through personal responsibility; indeed, a prominent sign hangs in his office reading, “I’m Responsible.” Dr. Fernandez models for his staff that every adult in their building is responsible for the success of each student who walks through the doors of Inwood 52. Here are some of his key practices:
- He listened to his staff, parents and students during his first two weeks before making any changes. Only after listening did he get to work transforming the culture and structure of the school.
- He gave the teachers the opportunity to create their own curriculum. Utilizing the Common Core Standards as a non-negotiable guide, teachers were provided with time to develop common units of instruction.
- He worked on building relationships and caring for each other as family for both staff members and students.
- He reinforced new standards by using a consistent message.
Over time, the conversation at Inwood 52 shifted from complaining about the challenges to celebrating learning, student engagement and evidence of learning.
In addition, school leaders attend and participate in every teacher-collaboration meeting, demonstrating the importance of the work teachers have been asked to do during their transition to the Common Core Standards. They are truly modeling a shared leadership model that deeply values instruction. In every interaction, leaders deliver a consistent message that collaboration time must be effective and meaningful: “now it is always about ALL of our kids!!!”
Principal Fernandez is a transformational leader. He knows how to see the talent within the building and create structures to maximize that talent.
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Leadership is distributed at Inwood 52 at all levels throughout the organization. As Principal Fernandez plans to retire in the spring of 2014, he is priming future leadership. Fernandez is transparent about his vision for the next generation of leaders at this school: Over the next year, he is going to “leave” little by little, knowing that when he really leaves the school will be in capable — and prepared — hands.
Fernandez says it best: “In order to build the culture we have now, we had to build trust. We trust each other professionally and personally. We have become friends. We have openness and honesty. If I grow professionally, I know the students are going to learn better in my classroom. I will see my professional growth in the students. If the students see that the teachers are working in collaboration that is very purposeful for them, they know it is for their own good and they will then do better in class.”
Professional Teacher Collaboration
Along with building trust so that teachers could engage in candid, meaningful collaboration, Principal Fernandez made huge schedule shifts so as to provide significant time for teachers to work together. Teacher collaboration happens twice a week by grade level, called a double block (two 45-minute periods). One block is for common planning, another for inquiry (looking at student work and goal setting for individual students).
We noted a professional tone in the collaboration meeting we observed on the topic of feedback. These teachers didn’t just talk about feedback–they worked through a packet that guided them in connecting their learning on feedback to their individual classroom practices. They engaged in Problem Based Learning activities around teacher feedback to students. They used a timer for various activities within the meeting and kept the agenda moving. Teacher leaders modeled research-based strategies (probing questions, redirecting or specifying conversation, calling on individuals to ensure every teacher was contributing).
It was made clear that there are experts within each grade level team, identified by their superior student achievement results. Those teachers’ names were written on the board and all other teachers were invited to tap into those teachers’ expertise. There was a genuine interest on the part of the teaching staff in learning from peers experiencing the most success with student outcomes.
Clear and Shared Focus
As the Inwood 52 leaders and staff transformed their culture and set a relentless focus on implementing the Common Core and providing a high-quality education to their students, they produced an impressive handbook to articulate their vision and plan to accomplish that vision. This handbook guides every aspect of the school, including instruction, evaluation, and professional development. Teachers maintain professional portfolios as a demonstration of their professional learning and impact on their classroom. The handbook is being updated for the new school year and will be featured soon on the school website.
Highly Engaged Students
In an effort to increase student engagement, Inwood redesigned their structure into two academies. Students are given the option to enroll in either the Visual Performing Arts program (band, choir, dance) or the School of Environmental and Applied Science (robotics, engineering). Students then focus on particular areas within these academies, developing and demonstrating what they call “talents”. Students are not only learning the Core Standards, but they are highly engaged in a curriculum developed by their teachers, and linked to areas of interest. We observed students programming robots and developing resource conservation plans in one academy, and students performing music and dance within the other academy. It was an amazing display of school pride, high energy and happy, engage kids showcasing their abilities.
Inwood 52 Middle School used to be a dumping ground for students who were unwanted at any other school. Now it is an advanced school with high expectations that is making amazing gains. We have witnessed students who may have traditionally struggled highly engaged in their learning experience and achieving mastery of Common Core standards. We look forward to observing this same transformation in Idaho.