Little more than a year ago, Alvarez HS in Providence, RI, found itself in a predicament. Its parent organization, United Providence!, a novel teacher-union district collaboration, was without leadership. A history of poor test scores at the school brought extra scrutiny from the RI Department of Education. Teachers seldom found opportunities to work together to positive effect. Hallways were often populated by students wandering from their classes, many of whom left the building partway through the school day.
Into this swirl came Zawadi Hawkins-Gladstone, a veteran assistant principal in the district, who would now become the school’s third principal in six years, and a team of new administrators. Working closely with ERC Executive Coach and Re-Design Consultant Dr. Larry Myatt, Hawkins-Gladstone set out to repair the school’s lagging culture and to develop a theory of action for turning the school around.
In her first meetings with staff, she urged teachers to get to know and invest in students. She also wanted data about the school’s functioning. Active and present with her co-administrators, Hawkins-Gladstone cleared hallways and pushed students back into classrooms. Working with Social Studies teacher and union delegate Ken DeHertogh, a reinvigorated Instructional Leadership Team began to take a firmer hand on school improvement and persistent challenges.
During an early faculty meeting, teachers and staff used ERC-developed surveys to gauge the effectiveness of community partnerships, culture and climate initiatives and support structures for learning. The results were not positive and provoked Hawkins-Gladstone to gather more data to further analyze the school’s assets and challenges, and to take a critical next step: declaring the school a “wellness” zone, increasing the focus on students’ readiness to learn, and reviving a “Wellness Team” to identify students and provide greater social-emotional support. Weekly meetings with all of the school’s helping and support personnel attending, helped to develop early identification plans and interventions, providing liaisons to students in need, and coordinating follow-up plans. The Team’s work began to show results and boosted the notion of “wellness” as part of the school’s mission to raise achievement. She also asked Myatt to lead workshops on positive youth development strategies to help in providing more ways for students to connect to adults and to plan for the future.
Over the course of the early fall of 2013, momentum picked up within the school community, and when a district plan to close and convert Alvarez to a middle school was revealed, students, families and staff rallied to support the school. The outpouring of support gave Hawkins-Gladstone additional fuel to analyze the school’s efforts, energize the faculty and staff and proceed on a more robust re-design plan.
Research conducted among students by Young Voices, a local non-profit committed to student voice, surfaced frustration with a lack of engaging instruction and the need for more hands-on learning. Hawkins-Gladstone and members of the school’s Academic Committee felt that focusing curriculum and standards rather than on promoting active learning (what are students doing beyond watching or listening) might be contributing to student’s frustration. Hawkins-Gladstone began to address that issue with teachers, promoting new strategies and giving them permission to find the thrilling learning needed. and staff committees began to look at their work in a deeper way.
In addition Myatt drew upon his long experience in helping schools to re-imagine themselves and assisted the school’s Instructional Leadership Team (ILT) and administration in developing a concept paper to outline a theory of action for the school. At his suggestion, the plan mimicked successful redesign initiatives in other schools, focusing on three “pillars” – solid, wrap-around social-emotional support; active, hands-on learning with a project orientation; and strong 2-ways partnerships with business and community organizations to help teachers include state-of-the-art professional skills and content and bringing students out into the community to learn.
Led by the ILT, the concept paper was shared, discussed and adjusted, and Hawkins-Gladstone began to meet with district officials and community organizations to share the vision and begin to develop a list of autonomies that would be required to support the re-design and re-culturing. In addition, the school’s weekly Common Planning Time sessions began to focus on key improvement aspects. Myatt and Assistant Principal Elizabeth Melendez co-led a strand of workshops on improving classroom environment and building relationships. Teachers worked in teams to brainstorm more exciting projects and activities, and shared them in “charrettes” as a way to increase teamwork and build a vision of engaging instruction. Others developed peer observation protocols. Teams tracking attendance, tardiness and student stability and engagement harvested data to guide the school’s efforts.
Part of the developing theory of action was grade-level teaming, with regular planning meetings to focus on student needs and active learning. The school was divided, for the short term, into Lower and Upper Houses to provide a strong support system for newer students and to allow teacher teams to own their programming. Lower House teams got several days of team-building and lesson and activities planning before the school year began, and almost a dozen new teachers came into the school.
In year two of her tenure at the school, Hawkins-Gladstone can count a number of successes, including a dramatic drop in incidents and class-cutting, improved attendance and orderly hallways. In classrooms, a range of engaging projects and student exhibitions have upped the intellectual ante and bolstered the team’s collaboration and commitment to active learning. A “World Parliament of Religions, an idea borrowed from Boston’s Fenway High School, brought religious and spiritual leaders into the school as students interviewed them and shared their research, generating positive feedback from the visitors and building consensus for more community-wide efforts. Other exciting projects have included a rocket launching contest, a mock trial about genetics and social theory, a study on cyber-bullying, an anti-violence workshop led by an ER surgeon, with more in the works.
Other pieces are falling into place. The school has developed a teaming plan for grades 9-11 for the coming year, and has requested a revised curriculum sequence to facilitate teaming and more curriculum connections. United Providence! now has stable and supportive leadership. Hawkins-Gladstone has formed a “Friends of the Alvarez” advising group to help muster resources and raise the school’s profile. More therapeutic talk and support groups are happening in the school. The Providence 300 Men initiative is bringing connections and resources into the school. Ray Smith of the Young Leaders Fellowship, and a seasoned Wellness Specialist in the school, is preparing to launch a Peer Mediation cohort. STEAM-Box has chosen to locate at Alvarez for after-school activities. A New Teacher Forum supports new professionals in the school. More people are calling in and curious about the school’s resurgence.
Myatt is optimistic that the school’s improved performance and reputation will allow for more dramatic re-design moves. “We have to start letting go of some of this 1890’s architecture and replacing it with things that we know work –keeping all the 15-year-old’s together all-day in 50-minute chunks of unrelated topics? There’s no learning theory that can support that. We can do better than that, and lots of schools already are. We just need the permission to update and innovate, and the Alvarez is ready to do just that”.
Hawkins-Gladstone is clear that the work has only begun, but she is convinced that drive and determination are making a difference with a renewed faculty and they, in turn, are making a difference with students and families. Myatt is quick to point out that the school’s progress is not a technical fix, not a function of “silver bullets” or policy higher-ups’ master plan. He likes to say that Alvarez is making progress “the old-fashioned way”, renewing itself, not being “reformed”. He adds, “The recipe is a simple and proven one --creating lesson plans together, watching each other teach and improving our work, and rooting for each other, with kids at the center. In the Alvarez story, there are many lessons for other schools”.