A Shining Moment ( How the Culture Changed in an Urban High School )
Greg Netzer

Being the principal of a large urban high school is not an easy job. Ask any school leader in America who has the task of leading a school with a thousand plus students from different cultures, who have different ideas, values, beliefs, family structures, economic hardships, inner city cultures, gangs, drugs and the list is never ending . There is always more. Couple that with the responsibility of teacher /principal selection, building faculty teams, dealing with the bureaucracy, including state tests, lack of sufficient funding resources, teacher retention issues, the never ending changes for schools and you begin to get the picture of the job requirement for a school leader! The job requires a special person indeed. Here is a story of one special leader, a REAL success story indeed from Greg Netzer, High School Principal.

Delia Stafford

My first year as a principal in an urban high school in the Midwest was marked by all the stories that are associated with educating students in a neglected environment. Walking down the halls I acknowledged both teachers and students by saying "good morning" or "how are you doing today." Most teachers provided an affirming response, students rarely did. Students didn't know me, didn't care to know me, and certainly didn't want to make small talk. The school had a difficult reputation including a tough student population and a discouraged faculty. One of the staff members was quoted as saying "I'm stuck and at the end of another day of abuse as a public school teacher and all I want to do is take a shower to wash away the filth." Hallways were places where kids hung out instead of going to class. The district had established an improvement plan in which we had been participants for four years. Elementary schools were improving and middle schools were beginning to show promise. High schools were another story. Quite frankly, not much was happening. Our performance on state assessments was dismal, five (5) percent proficient in math and twenty-nine (29) percent in reading. The district was at a loss and I was wondering if, as an experienced principal, I had the wherewithal to impact a change that I had thought shouldn't be that difficult. Many nights I went home wondering if we could really have an impact on student performance. If I was confused the rest of the staff had to have doubts. After all the school had been this way for years. A professor from a local university suggested we might need a "surgical strike" in order to impact the culture which he described as "bodaciously challenging"!

During the summer before that first year I had to replace a number of teachers, 25% or more replacement was normal for the school. What I had always believed was that I could hire good people and train them to be effective teachers. I realized that the culture of the school had a tremendous impact on teacher retention, but, quite frankly, no real idea of how to impact the issue. I had read nearly everything written by Martin Haberman including his promise that his interview process would guarantee that 90% of those hired using his instrument would be successful in the urban classrooms. Looking at the results from my attempt to hire staff members for that first year, I realized I had to get better. Through a colleague at a local university who had developed a relationship with Haberman, I was able to attend the Haberman Star Teacher Selection training to administer the interview. My first two interviews were a husband and wife team, one who was an experienced urban teacher and the other who was seeking an alternative certification certificate to teach in our district. To this day, their scores remain some of the highest on the instrument and they remain among the most committed to urban education. What I knew then, was that these two were keepers and I didn't have to interview anyone else for comparison. The interesting aspect of these two interviews was that the candidates were impressed enough with the thoughtfulness of the questions that they changed their plans and decided to both teach at our school. Four years later they remain a major influence in the building. In conversing with Dr. Haberman, I learned that one of the critical ingredientsof the Haberman interview scale was to find teachers who were committed to working towards, building relationships with, and never giving up on students who had been placed on the low end of the education spectrum for most of their lives. In other words, we began to select teachers who were committed to teaching the minority students in the urban center. Could selection be more important than training? I didn't know at time that the power of hiring enough of these committed teachers would begin to make an impact on the performance of our students.

A second significant piece that came to district high schools was the relationship with Dennis Chaconas, a math educator, who brought to us the idea of a guaranteed benchmarked curriculum. We were desperate and willing to consider any one who gave the slightest inclination they might be able to assist with improving our math performance. Our five percent proficiency performance was not atypical of the district. Interestingly, most of the school district leadership was familiar with the literature on high expectations. However, being familiar with the literature was not sufficient for implementation. Classrooms were typically places where teaching was going on but very little learning was occurring. Students often made little effort during class time and teachers grew weary of dealing with large groups of young people who gave the impression of not caring about a thoughtful education. A typical classroom environment was a place where teachers taught a few students who wanted to learn while others paid little attention or even disrupted the learning process. For educators who work in urban high schools this can be a debilitating situation. Students who demonstrated a desire to learn often complained about the classroom culture, gave up, or moved to the suburbs. Classrooms were merely places where grades were given to students with little expectation for high standards for learning and even less connection to state assessments. There seemed to be no correlation between course grades and performance on state assessments or ACT tests. In one class, all students passed the course but none scored proficient on the state assessment. So much for high expectations for student performance. Something was missing!

Our consultants brought a system of benchmarks, a guaranteed curriculum, to math classes and later to English classes. What we began to understand was that the curriculum, which required the regular posting of performance results, had high expectations for student performance and a clear focus on achievement and performance. Students began to demonstrate their understanding of math topics and as result started believing in themselves, a power that can never be under estimated. What we didn't realize until later was that the process also increased expectations for teacher performance.

Further, the district had developed a relationship with Linda Lambert and her ideas of building capacity. Through numerous conversations and the reading of her materials it seemed obvious that one of the changes we had to make was to turn the work over to teachers. Gone were the days when the principal could dictate the direction of the school. I was fascinated with the premise that ideas could be judged on their quality and not by who said them. To assist us in the process we used conversation protocols created by Critical Friends Groups.

This past spring, 2008, we were extremely pleased with our state assessment results. We scored 61% proficient in math and 72% proficient in reading. Our high schools in the district had the largest increases in both reading and math and outperformed the elementary and middle schools. High schools always lagged far behind the performance of others. What I didn't anticipate was that our school would outperform the three other secondary schools in our district by a whopping fifteen (15) percentage points in both math and reading. This was difficult for the district to understand or explain. We think we have some ideas worth sharing!

Part of the original district initiative included changing the structure of school; i.e., small learning communities, block schedules, curricular themes, weekly professional development time, etc. Although these are important ideas, in and of themselves, they proved to be insufficient. Another idea brought to the forefront by the original initiative was to build relationships with students. Unfortunately, much of this work was done in a structural way. What we now believe is that in order to build relationships with tough kids you have to hire staff who are committed to that kind of work. We found it very difficult to try to provide professional development that causes educators to want to build relationships with urban youth. According to the research of Martin Haberman, "core beliefs" are hard to change and additional knowledge or training does not change a person's core beliefs.

This past year we were able to hire two replacement administrators using Haberman Star Administrator interview protocol. Once again, we knew right away when we had the right candidates and what a difference they made. Hiring (the correct) staff that have a desire to work with urban high school students is clearly a critical piece to our performance improvement.

Additionally, we spent a great deal of effort in course-alike groupings during our professional development time often to the exclusion of small learning community time. It was the feeling of the teaching staff that this was where the real work had to be done. That is, we had to talk about what we were teaching, how we were going to teach it, how we would assess student performance and how we would look at the results of the assessments. One of the artifacts of this particular work is that if teachers really believe that what they think and do will be allowed to grow, they become even more committed to this work. We often wonder how we can create schools where staffs hold themselves accountable for improving student performance. Accountability grows out of collaboration and the ability to create. I have come to believe that one of the most important jobs of leadership is to bring people together, provide stimulating ideas and readings to think about, ask important questions, listen to the dialogue, and place a high value on teachers' thoughts and ideas.

Our road ahead is full of educational dilemmas. I have attended ten (10) student funerals in my four years as principal. Too many of our students are still not completing high school. For the coming years, we must continue to strive for improvements on state assessments, continue our instructional and curricular improvements and work to ensure our students can engage the world upon graduation. But, we are thrilled with the improvements. What do we believe led to the difference in performance among our high schools? We believe trust among teachers, administrators, and trusting relationships between teachers and students had a major impact. The students knew we believed in them and that they could improve their performance. We had students who worked hard in preparation for the state assessments during our interventions with them because of the caring relationships they had with their teachers. We had high school students who were thrilled when they found they had passed the tests and devastated when they didn't. Four years ago we had neither.

Now walking down the halls or welcoming students outside the building I get lots of greetings, a far cry from that first year. Our kids feel better about themselves and our staff believes they can make a difference in their students' lives. During our dinner celebration with all English, reading, and math teachers, our math consultant said, "what I am most proud of is that you proved to the world that students from diverse populations and backgrounds can be successful."

Teachers and principals with the right "star " core beliefs made the road to success for ourinner-city students so much easier! Having great teachers and coaches will insure that the school continues toward improved performance. A shining moment indeed, for our students!

Greg Netzer can be reached at his new high school at greg_netzer@indep.k12.mo.us
Published Janaury 13, 2009

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