By Matthew Tungate
Metcalfe County High School Principal Kelly Bell was furious as she looked at the test. A student answered “B” to every question, knowing he only needed a C or better to pass the class. Instead, he didn’t even try to pass – just to spite a teacher he didn’t like.
“This is a highly intelligent young man. But if you do not have relationships with these students, and that teacher has not built the inner love of learning and wanting to be here, they’re going to flunk a test big as Pete. People can say, ‘Yada, yada, yada, relationships, culture – it’s not that big a deal.’ It is the missing piece to the puzzle,” the third-year principal said.
Wait, what? Bell’s upset with the teacher, not the student? Melissa Smith, a health sciences teacher, said Bell’s attitude that teachers must build relationships with students to inspire them to do their best has permeated the school.
“You can give these kids everything that they need in that classroom – the knowledge, the skills, the training – but when they sit down to take that test, they’ve got to want to perform: one, for the school and, two, for themselves,” she said.
It is that change in attitude and school culture that has seen Metcalfe County High transition from a persistently low-achieving school to more than doubling its college- and career-readiness rate in in just three years, state and local educators said.
In February 2011, KDE secured the Commonwealth Commitment from all districts to increase the college and career readiness rate of their high school graduates by 50 percent between 2010 and 2015.
Jenny Todd, research analyst with the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE), studied districts like Metcalfe County that exceeded college- and career-readiness targets the past two years. The department wanted to know how some districts exceeded those annual targets, so they went to Metcalfe County last fall and interviewed district and school administrators, and teachers from all five schools.
Todd said Metcalfe County High shows what schools can do when leaders are willing to make difficult decisions and change a school’s culture.
“They’re really sticking out as a prime example of a Priority School that is doing exceptionally well,” she said.
Todd and teachers at the school all pointed to Bell, the school’s “firecracker” principal for setting the school on a new path.
“She may have three biological children, but she’s got 400 other kids that she comes to school to every day,” said Anita Love, Advanced Placement (AP) psychology teacher and media specialist. “This lady loves every one of these kids.”
Smith said Bell greets every child when they get off the bus and keeps the door open – even in 10-degree weather – to create a welcoming environment. Bell makes everyone in the building believe they are a family, Smith said.
“In order for them to want to perform and do their best, they have to believe that they can do it,” Smith said. “They’re only going to believe people that they love and respect and that they know have love and respect for these kids.”
Bell said the school community may be some students’ only family.
“We’re not a prison, we’re a home that people call school. We had graduates that would not leave. They wanted me to promise them that they could come back next year and visit. That’s how kids should feel at their graduation, not ‘How fast can I get to my car and make black marks on the road as I leave,’” she said. “We have teachers that are in that classroom, and every corner of that classroom radiates how they feel about those kids and how they believe in them. You want to talk about rigor, relevance and relationships – my teachers have it tattooed on their hearts.”
While teachers focus on building positive relationships with students, they also concentrate on their academics, Bell said.
“I have knowledgeable, very highly trained teachers, and we have a formula here that is an intentional plan to teach standards at a proficient and above level, to assess, use the data from those assessments and work individually to make sure each and every student is touched emotionally and academically every day,” she said. “I have intelligent teachers that not only are really knowledgeable in their content area, they flat out know how to teach it. “Have you met a lot of smart people that couldn’t teach a dog to bark? My teachers could teach a giraffe to bark.”
But Bell is demanding, requiring teachers to perform “non-negotiables” that may not be required in other schools.
Whitney Choate, an Algebra 2 and AP Calculus teacher, said teachers must complete a failure-intervention plan every three weeks for students who are not meeting performance expectations and contact parents no fewer than three times until they discuss the plan. Other non-negotiables include submitting lesson plans every Friday, completing pacing guides, giving at least two grades per week, and bringing data from mathematics and reading formative assessments to guided planning meetings.
Love said, “We have more expectations than any group I’ve ever seen, but they’re all good. That’s our change, that’s been the change in culture.”
An emphasis on reading also has led to the turnaround. Bell said students participate in a 30-minute reading intervention four days per week. Students take Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) tests three times a year in reading, mathematics, science and language arts, she said. Those performing above grade level attend enrichment, while those reading below grade level choose which teacher they want to work with and what they want to read to improve.
It seems to be working. Students improved their ACT reading scores by 2.5 points in one year, Bell said.
Before the school began its turnaround efforts, students felt they couldn’t excel academically because they were from Metcalfe County, Love said.
“Our kids have taken a different view, because now they think they can do it because they’re from Metcalfe County,” she said. “That has been the best things to see with these kids – to believe that they can compete with anybody, and they’re proving that they can.”
Karen Nunn, firstname.lastname@example.org, (270) 432-2051
Jenny Todd, email@example.com, (502) 564-4201