Texas A&M helps school ‘meet standards’ in just one year

Principal Ash Kirk smiling in a classroom

Written by: Heather Gillin (cehdcomm@tamu.edu)
Post date: March 21, 2019

As the leader goes, so goes the school. This is the mantra Dr. Beverly Irby, professor of educational leadership, adheres to in transforming schools that need her help. She demonstrated this in her latest research in which she took Black Elementary from ‘improvement required’ to ‘meets standards’ in just one year through revitalizing the school’s leadership.

Ash Kirk began as principal of Black Elementary with a plan. He would mirror the leadership style of a successful former principal he admired. He thought through mimicking this effective leader, he too could lead Black Elementary toward academic success.

Soon, he saw that what worked for the principal he admired was not benefitting his teachers and students.

“The teachers she taught were much older,” Kirk said. “And that campus, even though it is right around the corner from here, was very different demographically.” 

Kirk realized he needed to adapt his leadership style to serve younger teachers, a diverse student body and a different era in teaching if he wanted to bring the school out of ‘improvement required’ status.

The status of the school was brought to Irby’s attention via President Young’s supporting turnaround school/school enhancement grant provided as a seed project to Dean Joyce Alexander, Dr. Fred Nafukho, and Irby, which was a seed grant for the larger school enhancement research project, Accelerated Preparation of Leaders for Underserved Schools (APLUS).

The project, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, focuses on improving schools through building instructional capacity. Instructional capacity refers to the collection of teaching resources available to teachers and the ability to use these resources effectively.

“To build instructional capacity, we work with the leadership team on the campus in order to determine what avenues they would take to improve instruction in the classroom so that children can learn better, perform better and ultimately achieve better,” Irby said.

Irby’s team conducted a root cause analysis to identify areas that required improvement at Black Elementary.

 “We determined that we would focus on the leadership teams—the principal, the assistant principal, even sometimes the counselors, and the instructional skill specialists,” Irby said. “In order to build the capacity of the teachers, we needed to focus on this team to help change the direction of the school.”

Supporting leadership to benefit the school

Using four improvement methods, Irby and her team transformed the school leadership, and ultimately improved the success of teachers and students at Black Elementary.

The first method Irby employed was assigning a personal coach to Principal Kirk. The personal coach helped Kirk reflect on his leadership style and strategize ways to improve.

“Having a personal mentor kind of shook me, and then gave me some guidance and I embraced it,” Kirk said. “I knew I wanted this campus to be successful, and I certainly did not want to be an impediment, myself, as the leader.”

Kirk said the personal coach helped him realize he was not being intentional enough about impacting the climate of his campus. He began to make climate a priority. He evaluated the needs of his diverse teacher and student population and served them.

Irby said she noticed a transformation in Kirk’s leadership behavior. He became more reflective through the personal coaching he received.

“He has become more collaborative, taken ownership of issues here on the campus and has shared leadership,” Irby said. “Those are three very important components to leading and changing the culture of a campus.”

Utilizing new coaching methods

Second, Irby equipped instructional coaches with technology to provide live feedback to teachers. The coaches would remotely monitor the teachers giving a lesson in the classroom. Then, they would provide feedback to teachers in real time using earpieces making live corrections on things like curriculum delivery.

“One of the reasons why I think we found the success here has been the impact of coaching,” Kirk said. “With the coaches as instructional leaders for teachers, their impact is remarkable.”

Summer Leadership Institute

For the third component, Irby invited the school’s leadership to the Texas A&M Summer Leadership Institute, a workshop that helps schools with strategic planning and facilitates critical dialogues. At the institute, Irby’s team assisted Black Elementary in developing a campus improvement plan.

Black Elementary math instructional coach, Alicia Lewis said through the institute and campus improvement plan the leadership team became more unified.

 “We actually put those plans in place, and once we did that, we saw a big difference in our campus,” Lewis said. “We saw a difference in the culture, in climate and we started seeing our teachers being more motivated about coming to school.”

The school enhancement project’s final improvement methods were regular meetings with principals in the district and a principal’s academy conducted by Dr. Jim Lynch.

“Dr. Lynch is a long-time leader of schools and expert in strategic planning,” Irby said. “His work with the principals and coaches have helped them consider how they approach leadership with influence and with understanding of each teacher’s needs.”

Project success

At the start of the school enhancement project, Black Elementary was an ‘improvement required’ school. After just one year, and through the work of Irby and her team, the school now meets standards.

“We were an IR campus and through these changes, now we are out of IR, and it only took a year,” Lewis said. “And that is commendable for us because we were a team that was newly put together, we had a lot of hard challenges in place, but we overcame all of them.”

Before the school enhancement project, Black Elementary was struggling in math and reading. Now, Kirk said they are high performers in those topic areas, even seeing double digit gains in certain areas.

“It just goes to show, it is not the kids,” Kirk said. “You need dedicated educators, but you need them to be properly supported in the right kind of environment, with the right kind of systems in place that supports teachers in learning.”

Learn more about Project Accelerated Preparation of Leaders for Underserved Schools (APLUS).

Learn more about Dr. Beverly Irby.