From Indiana Principals

Want to be a good principal? Teach, an innovation school leader says.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Mariama Carson is founding principal of Global Prep Academy at School 44.

A lot has changed at School 44 in just two years.

In January 2016, the elementary school for grades K-6 had suffered years of low test scores and failing grades from the state. It appeared on a list of campuses that could soon face takeover from the Indiana Board of Education. And two months later, that fate was forestalled when the Indianapolis Public Schools Board preempted the state and restarted it as an innovation school, with a new principal and new staff.

Now, in its second year as Global Prep Academy at School 44, the west side school of more than 500 students is no longer facing state takeover. Student passing rates on state tests jumped by 7.5 percentage points, and the school’s letter grade rose to an A (largely because innovation schools are graded by the state on a more generous scale during their first three years).

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Kindergarten students at Global Prep Academy.

The school is led by Mariama Carson, a charismatic leader with nearly two decades of experience in urban education. Carson spent seven years as principal of Snacks Crossing, a neighborhood elementary school in Pike Township, before leaving to plan for a Spanish-English immersion charter school with funding from the nonprofit Mind Trust. Ultimately, she ended up working with IPS to restart School 44 as a charter school using the immersion model in the innovation network.

Carson offered an unusual piece of advice for other principals: Keep teaching. Principals are supposed to help teachers improve, so they need to practice those skills themselves, she said.

“I think a lot of principals get comfortable in offices and doing paperwork,” she said. “But you got to know the grind of a classroom, and you have to feel that tension between managing the kids and also teaching the skills.”

Chalkbeat sat down with Carson at School 44 last month to talk about what it’s been like to restart a school. Below are excerpts from the conversation, edited for clarity and brevity. (Carson also recently spoke to Chalkbeat about the Relay principal training program.)

What was last year like for you — and I guess I mean for you, but also for your school?

I liken it to when I first became a mother. You can read about what it’s like. You can imagine what the challenges will be, but there’s nothing like doing it yourself. And the first year of anything is hard.

We are very strong relationship-oriented people and really believe that this work is predicated on strong relationships. When you are new to a place, though, it’s hard to build that with everybody at the same time.

Teachers were building relationships with each other and with us as administrators. And kids were building trust with their teachers. And parents were building trust. All those things happening at once were really hard.

Everything was new. No one knew the way. We were creating the way as we did it.

It was the most challenging year I’d ever had professionally. Just seeing how the teachers rose to the challenges and made adjustments and were flexible beyond belief has been amazing.

Every parent we call shows up. So that tells me that the trust we worked hard to build last year is intact.

Do you have advice for other principals?

A principal’s best work is done in a classroom. My administrators, we all taught. So when we saw kids struggling, or we saw teachers struggling to make the content accessible to kids, we taught. I taught reading. I taught math. And I modeled for teachers what that looks like.

That’s the best part of my job. I never want to lose my teaching chops, and I always tell principals, keep your teaching chops because you need to be able to bust them out to work with kids who struggle. And then for kids, when your principal is teaching, it’s like, “Oh! I want to be a part of it.”

One of the things we saw mid-year with our math data for grade five and six, is the rigor was not there. So last year, we took the standards that needed to be taught and we broke them apart into what we call a math seminar. Based on the groups the kids were in, I taught a math seminar three days a week. I did the lesson planning.

Teachers have to see that too. We know how to exit plan, and we know how to use the data from the exit slips in order to inform instruction daily.

Why is it important for you to keep teaching?

The most important job I think of a principal is to coach teachers. If you’re an instructional leader, and you can’t coach instruction, and you don’t know how to do it — I don’t know that makes you an effective coach.

Any coach that’s not willing to get their hands dirty and get on that floor with the kids, to make the learning accessible, I think that’s limited coaching.

I know it’s not realistic for me to teach five days a week all day, because I’ve got other responsibilities. But I never want to stop doing that. I always look for opportunities to do it. I’m doing right now first grade — I’m teaching first-grade writing workshop.

Partly because I enjoy it, but teachers need to see, ‘I’m in this with you.’

You were a principal for years before this. … How is (being principal at an innovation school) different?

I was there for 7 years. But here’s the difference. When you are a principal in a district, or my experience in a district, I had an amazing superintendent. Mr. Jones, who was my mentor and still is, he lined everything up how it was supposed to be. There wasn’t a whole lot of decision making about how it looks in your building. When you open a new school, every decision is yours. That is the difference. I do attribute a lot of the gains to my Pike (Township) systems. A lot of stuff that we do here came from Pike. A lot of teachers on my leadership team came from Pike. So we had the same understanding about how to move the needle.

I always, always, always want to be in the position of a learner. I had grown and I had evolved. I felt like I was ready to do some things differently. Within a district that was tightly run and very well run, there wasn’t autonomy and flexibility.

I wanted that. I was ready for that. So that’s why I took the plunge.

Q&A

A commitment to reading and tracking data helped students at this arts-focused school improve

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
First-graders at William Henry Burkhart Elementary School tackle the xylophone to prepare for an open house performance.

Chalkbeat is talking with principals across the city at schools that made some of the biggest ISTEP gains in 2017 to explore what was behind their school’s progress and identify possible lessons for other schools.

As the five William Henry Burkhart Elementary students clustered closely around two tables full of xylophones, they turned toward their teacher, awaiting her signal.

“Ready, let’s see!” said the music teacher, Sandy Rogers. “We’re going down first. One, two, ready, go.”

The first-graders plunked their mallets on each bar, methodically moving down the scale as they said each note aloud. Then they repeated the exercise, this time going up the scale. But one boy in a crimson sweatshirt struggled to make the transition. Rogers went over to him to demonstrate more closely.

“It’s amazing to watch them grow and learn,” said Principal Darlene Hardesty, who was observing the class. The boy was an English-learner who was new to the school last year, she said, and he’s already made significant progress with his language skills.

A minute later, the students repeated the exercise, and this time everyone got it right, including the struggling boy. After the last note, Rogers cheered.

“Ahh, that’s it!” she exclaimed. “High five, great job!”

Hardesty, in her 12th year at the school, said Burkhart’s focus on fine arts sets it apart from other schools in Perry Township. But that’s not all it has to be proud of this year — once again, the 733-student school posted strong state test scores, along with keeping its A grade.

Burkhart’s ISTEP passing rates jumped 9.4 percentage points to 63.2 percent of students passing both English and math exams, higher than the state average. Both figures — passing rates and growth — factor into a school’s letter grade.

Find your school’s 2017 ISTEP scores here.

Almost 80 percent of Burkhart students qualify for subsidized meals, and 38 percent are learning English as a new language. Many of those English-learners are also refugees from Burma, a trend across the district.

The district as a whole last year was focused on tracking student progress on English and math skills though a new system called Evaluate. Students and teachers both track results from tests together each month, using a stoplight model — red, yellow, green — to indicate in their records what a student has mastered and what he still needs to work on.

Of the Marion County township elementary schools with the highest ISTEP gains, four were from Perry Township. Every Perry principal who spoke to Chalkbeat this fall mentioned the new data tracking system as a key to their improvement.

Below are excerpts from a recent conversation with Hardesty to talk about her school’s progress. The interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

What was your reaction when you learned how much improvement you had made this year?

I was so excited for our students and our staff. They’ve all worked so hard to close the gap and to make significant gains. You can look from the last year to this year and you know in both English language arts and math, though we continue to accept refugee students and our population continues to change, we are still helping children grow. That’s what we do, that’s our business, and I was so excited to see where we were improving from last year. I was very proud of them.

What do you think made the difference?

One of the things I think really helped us drive instruction this past year, and that we’re using again this year, is a program called Evaluate. It’s a benchmark assessment …  that really helped our teachers to give more focused instruction and our students to gain from that.

Also, in Perry Township we all have master teachers who lead our professional development each week. Each school sets a goal, and our goal was in the area of (English) to increase from last year. We were focused specifically on reading small groups — looking at core vocabulary and things of that nature so we could target what teachers were teaching and then applying that with our students so they could improve.

With Evaluate, students take a monthly assessment in the area of English language arts and the area of math, and then students track that data to see how they are improving. Are they growing in the area of proficiency or getting above threshold for grade level standards? They also would set goals each month: What is something I struggled with? What did I do well with? How could I do better?

Teachers, you’d see them participate in assessment of their own data. There are reports they can access and see by skill, which children are showing mastery and which are not. We meet as teams of teachers to discuss what are strategies we can put in place. What are lesson ideas and things we can do to meet the needs of our students.

What is your school community and culture like?

We are a very diverse school community. (Many) of our students are English-learners, some of those being brand new to the language and some of those getting close to exiting the program.

Burkhart, we like to affectionately call it “Beautiful Burkhart.” It really is a unique place to teach and for children to learn. We do have a focus on the arts. You’ll notice as you go through the building, we have stained glass pieces that our students have created, mosaic tiles. Things where we’ve invited visiting artists in and do unique learning opportunities for our kids. So that’s something that makes us special.

We have a choir called All That Jazz … they perform quite a bit for churches, organizations and community endeavors. They go to Gatlinburg (in Tennessee) every spring and compete in the Smoky Mountain Music Festival. We have an incredible music teacher who really supports the development of our students in that way.

We’ve been working on building our volunteer base trying to get support from our community friends. Several church groups volunteer, and parents and grandparents come and spend time reading with students and working math facts. We’re so grateful for our community support.

What is your vision for Burkhart and how you want to move the school forward?

We’re always looking to continue to grow and to learn more. It’s that constant assessment of our own work — is what we’re doing effective? And how can we continue to help kids get to that next level?

We know we get them for such a short amount of time. The school days go by so quickly, and the years go by so quickly, so our time is limited and giving them everything we can in that limited time is the focus we always come back to.

Q&A

This township principal says leadership and patience are key to moving kids ahead academically

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students work in teams in a classroom at Glenns Valley Elementary School in Perry Township.

Chalkbeat is talking with principals across the city at schools that made some of the biggest ISTEP gains in 2017 to explore what was behind their school’s progress and identify possible lessons for other schools.

Two years ago, the students at Glenns Valley Elementary School saw three principals in a single year.

So when Dave Rohl arrived in 2016 with a brand new leadership team alongside him, he knew consistency was key to helping the school make gains on state tests — consistency and a lot of patience.

So far, it seems to be working: Glenns Valley, which has almost 800 students in preschool through fifth grade, moved from a C grade from the state in 2016 to an A in 2017.

The school’s scores jumped 10.4 percentage points to 60.9 percent of students passing both English and math exams, higher than the state average. Both figures — passing rates and growth — factor into a school’s letter grade. Last year, Glenns Valley had especially high growth, particularly for struggling students, which helped offset lower passing rates.

“We did better last year, we did better this year, and we’re going to be a lot better in three or four years,” said Rohl, who has spent more than 20 years as an educator in Perry Township. “It takes a while to get things going exactly the way you want them. These are cruise ships, not speed boats.”

Find your school’s 2017 ISTEP scores here.

About two-thirds of Glenns Valley students qualify for subsidized meals, and about one-quarter are learning English as a new language. Many of those English-learners are also refugees from Burma, a trend across the district.

The district as a whole last year was focused on tracking student progress on English and math skills though a new system called Evaluate. Students and teachers track results from tests together each month, using a stoplight model — red, yellow, green — to indicate and record what lessons or skills a child is mastering and where he or she is struggling.

Of the Marion County township elementary schools with the highest ISTEP gains, four were from Perry Township. Every Perry principal who spoke to Chalkbeat this fall mentioned the new data tracking system as a large factor in their ability to raise their scores.

Below are excerpts from a recent conversation with Rohl to talk about his school’s progress. The interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

What was your reaction when you learned how much improvement you had made this year?

We mostly saw that we achieved what we thought we were going to achieve based on the data that we had. One of the difficult things that has been facing schools lately is trying to get data that is, even if it’s not predictive, it’s at least leading in the right direction of how your kids are going to do on ISTEP. So a tool that we had access to last year was this test called Evaluate. That test is able to more closely provide students with the experience of ISTEP.

We didn’t think we were going to do quite as well as we did. Some of our kids that weren’t predicted to do well passed ISTEP and did pretty well on ISTEP. That was kind of a great surprise.

What do you think made the difference?

Evaluate — we do it every month in English language arts and math. That was allowing our teachers not only to watch our students progress throughout the year, but also see how they were attacking these kinds of questions while they were on the computer, while they were doing it.

Our teachers did a very nice job embracing (Evaluate) even though it was new and they were giving up class time, and great teachers hate giving up class time. They quickly decided we are going to use that to our advantage, we’re not going to see this as a hindrance that’s just taking up my kids’ time. I was very proud of the way they quickly went from, “This could hurt us because I’m giving away teaching time,” to “We’re going to figure out a way to squeeze some great information from this that in the long run is going to help our kids.”

The next phase of what we’re trying to do, you start to quickly realize you have to individualize instruction as much as you can. It’s impossible for any teacher, no matter what school you’re in, to individualize seven hours of each student’s day perfectly to exactly what they’re needing that day. So we’re figuring out ways to do that more and more.

What is your school community and culture like?

Glenns Valley’s English-learner population has shifted dramatically. So this school went from pretty high-income, middle-income, very stable English-speaking, to all of a sudden we had 200 students in our building that were new to the U.S. As it would with any community, that rocked this community a little bit.

Now we’re kind of settled in. My background has been with students who need those extra supports, families that need those extra supports.

I couldn’t be more proud of the families that exist at Glenns Valley from a neighborhood standpoint. They have been embracing, they have been welcoming. I like to tell people that families pay big bucks for their kids to go to international schools, and they get it for free through public education that we have here at Glenns Valley. (Diversity) really is an asset, and it’s the way we all live our lives now, especially in central Indiana.

What is your approach to leadership?

My leadership style is servant leadership. So I believe that the most important person in this school is the child. I want parents to understand that, I want teachers to understand that, I want students to understand that.

I want them to know I love them, but I have high expectations for them. Parents need to know that that’s our focus. Mentally, academically, socially, all those things are important. But we play the role in their life of academic success.

That’s what my vision is. We’re all going to be asking each other questions, we’re all going to be holding each other accountable for growing our children academically with those high expectations. The best thing that ever happened to assessment was growth. When you start comparing schools and comparing classroom effectiveness, growth is really where it is. If we’re not growing, we’re not doing our job.