First Person

Why has my school won two National Blue Ribbon awards? It’s really quite simple.

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
Soaring Eagles Elementary in Colorado Springs

Early this fall, I found out that Soaring Eagles Elementary School, where I’m the principal, won its second National Blue Ribbon award.

It was an incredible day. I got to appear in newspapers and on TV explaining how proud I was of our powerhouse staff. Together, we’ve won a string of state and national awards for academic excellence while working with a comparatively large share of students living below the poverty line in Colorado Springs.

That’s led to a lot of questions about the secrets to our success. Colleagues, here they are: just researched best practices.

Over the years, we’ve zeroed in on the common threads that educational research show help make successful schools. We’ve also read thinkers like Dennis Sparks, Peter Senge, Michael Fullan and Robert Marzano. We boiled it all down to student engagement, a great curriculum and high-quality teachers. No miracles.

We responded by committing to improving those things. Our staff literally built curriculum maps and calendars. Teachers became the experts on our “scope and sequence” — essentially, our roadmap for our students’ learning — and they worked to understand more deeply what they were teaching and why. They adjusted their assessments and learned to set specific objectives for each lesson.

As a school, we put special focus on our most struggling learners. Title I funds help us hire paraeducators who work with students as they work on literacy skills, and those students get an average of two hours a day of small group instruction.

As an administration, we’ve also refined our own strategy for helping teachers improve. Every probationary teacher receives 16 spot observations and two formal observations to support their growth. We decided that my most important job was to be an instructional leader, and we prioritized my spending time in classrooms.

I bet some of you are shaking your heads and thinking, we’ve done all of that, too. I challenge you to go on a quest. Don’t ask yourself if those ideas are present — ask to what degree they are implemented. Part of why I spend so much time in classrooms is to make sure the best practices we’ve decided on remain front and center.

By now, I’m confident in our strategy. It was only reinforced when I swallowed my pride and looked deeper at a school that was doing even better than we were.

As administrators, our jobs are so all-consuming that we don’t often seek out outside exemplars. Too often, we insist that we are too busy and believe that we already have the knowledge we need. When we fall short, that means we sometimes say crazy things like “Our kids can’t …”, and “Our community doesn’t …”, and “If I only had …”.

I’ve operated that way myself. When state test scores are published, I always check to see which schools outperformed ours. One of my colleague’s schools showed consistent growth and greater success. It was also clear that the school was overcoming some of the same obstacles that other Title I schools face.

At first I did the natural thing: I assumed that there must be some underhandedness, or that the school’s higher test scores were a fluke. But their teachers continue to outperform mine, and I eventually asked my colleague if I could visit.

After several visits it was clear to see how and why their students were succeeding. They had focused instruction, planned objectives, and consistent execution. All of their students were visually tracked on a data board which guided discussions around what each student needed.

They were focused on doing the basics really well. Seeing “great” in action, and being open-minded, helped us improve.

But there is no need to chase the latest programs to do it. Supporting your staff, helping them improve, and really implementing the practices that have been shown to work will get the job done.

Kelli O’Neil has worked in education for 31 years, and worked for Harrison School District #2 for the past 21. Soaring Eagles Elementary received the National Blue Ribbon Award in 2009 and 2016 and the Title I Distinguished School award in 2011. Soaring Eagles serves as a host site for turnaround schools in Colorado.

First Person

How I learned not to be ‘that mom’ — while keeping up the good fight for my son with a learning disability

The author and her son.

Each day, I do all in my power to fight the “good fight” for my son. I was his first teacher, after all.

But it hasn’t always been easy to know the right way to fight it.

In early 2016, my son was diagnosed with dysgraphia, a learning disability similar to dyslexia. Instead of manifesting itself in his reading ability, it was identified by his inability to write. This is a difficult situation for a school, especially pre-diagnosis. When a child is able to verbally articulate content but has limited capacity to express those ideas in written form, teachers often label that child as lazy, unmotivated, volitionally unwilling to engage.

Post-diagnosis, though, there is support available for students who struggle to overcome a learning disability, from individual education plans to resource teachers and and technology assists. For my son, however, these tools did not materialize.

It was lonely, trekking to and from school with suggestions from a learning therapist and watching them go unimplemented. As a mother, more than a few other emotions colored the experience: frustration, exhaustion, confusion, anger.

These feelings were especially acute as I realized his school was not adjusting the way they taught or interacted with my son, despite the policy and legislation that said they must.

A former teacher and administrator, I know all too well how easy it is for a parent to place blame on teachers. I know, too, that it takes effort to work with a student’s learning disability — effort that was not on display in his classroom.

Why? Had I turned into “that mom,” the one whose email address or phone number’s very appearance on a screen makes a teacher want to throw their phone off a cliff? Did they not like my son? Was he really not trying? What was I doing wrong?

Anger and self-doubt were not helping my son or the situation at his school. I want to fight the good fight for him, and, to me, that means making sure the transition to understanding and meeting the needs of his dysgraphia is a positive one. For him, for his school, for me.

I was determined to cut through the fog of inaction and use it to teach my son about perseverance. It is a parent’s responsibility to be involved, to embrace the struggle, and to demonstrate how collaboration and cooperation can yield much, much more than anger, blame, or avoidance ever will.

With this understanding, I had to pivot. I had to be resourceful and strategic, and to listen to my instincts as a parent. I wouldn’t lay in wait to ambush teachers as school let out or escalate every incident to the principal’s level, but neither would I take no for an answer.

I would, however, continue to educate the staff about dysgraphia; share promising strategies for supporting students with learning disabilities; inform other parents of the school’s legal obligations and responsibilities; volunteer as often as possible to develop positive relationships with those who watched over my son’s education; and celebrate the successes and discuss the challenges with everyone involved.

We are all familiar with the proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” But for parents, especially, it can be helpful to acknowledge that not all villagers share their same level of commitment to their child. It can sometimes be on us to fill in knowledge gaps and help other adults adapt to new roles when a child needs support — to enlist fellow soldiers to join us in the good fight on behalf of those who are not yet able to do so.

Amy Valentine is the director of the Foundation for Blended and Online Learning, and previously served as executive director of three virtual schools in Colorado.

First Person

A national teacher of the year on her most radical teaching practice: trusting kids to handle their bathroom business

Author Shana Peeples speaking at American Jerusalem High School in Jerusalem while touring as National Teacher of the Year.

This whole national conversation about who we should and shouldn’t let go into which bathrooms got me thinking about the most controversial thing I ever did as a teacher. I’d love to tell you it was teaching a banned book or something intellectual, but it was really all about the bathroom.

I allowed kids to quietly leave class whenever they needed to go without asking my permission.

My principal hated it; some of my colleagues viewed me as some sort of hippie. It made people question my professional judgment, my classroom management, and even my intelligence.

“So, you just let them leave when they want to?”

“If they need to go, yes.”

“Without a pass?”

“My hall pass is on a hook by the door so they can quietly take it and then replace it when they come back.”

“I bet you replace it a lot.”

“Actually, no. It’s the same one. I keep it around because it has a picture from my first year when I looked a lot younger and skinnier.”

Usually, people walk off before I can tell them any more of my crazy commie ideas. They’d die if they knew kids could take my pass to the nurse or their counselor if they needed to go. My only rule was that they had to show the same decorum that they would at the movies: no one gets up in a theater and loudly announces their business.

And in 15 years, no one used it as an excuse to skip the class or wander the campus or otherwise engage in shenanigans. Actually, no — one kid took the pass and didn’t come back until the next day. But that was because he was an English language learner on his second day who didn’t quite understand that it’s not meant as a “go home in the middle of the school day” pass.

When I began teaching, it was in a seventh-grade classroom in a portable, which is really just a converted double-wide trailer. The bathrooms were the separation space between my classroom and the reading teacher’s classroom. It seemed mean to me to control the bathroom needs of children in 90-minute block classes seated so close to one another. That was the origin of the policy.

Years later, one of my students wrote about me in an essay. I was prepared to read some sort of “Freedom Writers” love letter about the magic of my teaching. What she wrote instead was: The first day in her class I learned that she had the best bathroom policy ever. She treated us like human beings who could be trusted to take care of our own private needs.

I kept scanning the essay for the parts about the teacher magic, but that was really the only part about me specifically. The best bathroom policy ever. That’s my legacy.

But seriously, kids really can be trusted to take care of their own private needs. Especially those who are teenagers who drive cars. Or who are responsible in their after-school jobs for locking up a store’s daily receipts in the safe. Or who are responsible for getting four siblings to school on time because mom works the morning shift.

People complain to me, when they find out I used to teach high school, about how “lazy and irresponsible kids are these days.” That just irritates the fire out of me. What if so much of that behavior is because we don’t allow kids to try on trust and responsibility with little things like taking care of their bathroom business?

And maybe what looks like “laziness” is really a trained helplessness and passivity borne of so many rules and restrictions against movement of any kind. Don’t get up without permission, don’t talk without permission, don’t turn and look out the window without permission, and for Pete’s sake, don’t you put your head down on your desk and act like you’re tired because you were up all night at the hospital with your father who just had a heart attack.

Trust is a thing we create through small daily interactions. Simple things like extending the same courtesies to them as we would want for ourselves. I’m always so appreciative of professional development presenters who take the time to tell you where the coffee, water fountains, and bathrooms are. That communicates respect and consideration.

As teachers, we have to be willing to be the first to extend trust. When we do, kids will return it.

Shanna Peeples’ teaching career, all in Title I schools, began as a seventh grade writing teacher at Horace Mann Middle School in Amarillo, Texas. She later taught English at Palo Duro High School, and as the 2015 National Teacher of the Year, worked to shape the conversation in this country about working with students in poverty. She now serves as the secondary English language arts curriculum specialist for Amarillo ISD.

This piece first appeared in Curio Learning.