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In 2005, Loris (SC) High School was ranked near the bottom of all high schools in South Carolina. The newly appointed principal, Trevor Strawderman, had been the school’s assistant principal. He knew that literacy presented the biggest challenge at Loris: 74% of the students in 9th and 10th grade were reading below grade level. Because of the low reading levels, students repeated classes and dropped out in alarming numbers. Many students could not handle the materials that were used in their classes and would not be able to pass the exit exams required for graduation.

Since Strawderman became principal, the school has made significant cultural and structural changes that have led to dramatic improvement for every student. Strawderman realized that he couldn’t make the necessary changes by himself; he knew that his role was to provide leadership and encouragement for his staff members. He envisioned a school of professional learning communities in which teachers worked together “to choose every day to make a difference in the lives of our students.”

Today, Loris is a model of strong leadership, focused teaching, and personal connections to students. The school’s leadership team put together a total literacy program that is designed to meet the needs of each student. Professional learning communities that meet twice a month during the school day and are facilitated by an instructional coach have become the vehicle for teachers to analyze data, learn new strategies, and track improvements. Every teacher is expected to use student lexile levels from the Measures of Academic Progress -Reading (MAP-R) computerized assessments to gauge students’ mastery of basic reading skills.

Teachers differentiate instructional strategies and materials for student readiness levels and use such support programs as Read 180 to aid skill acquisition. The schedule accommodates the learning needs of students and provides time for every student and staff member to read. Each classroom, including the gym, has a library of reading materials that are appropriate for students’ lexile levels. Most importantly, teachers’ instructional expertise matches students’ learning requirements: the best teachers are assigned the neediest students, and the neediest students are hand scheduled to ensure that they receive the direct instruction and guided practice they need to close achievement gaps.

Students talk about their lexile levels, how they like to read, where they’re going to college, how they’ve improved on state tests, and how their teachers care about them and help them learn. The school’s results are impressive: fewer students are retained or drop out; students’ behavior has improved; more students are enrolled in AP courses, pass the exit exams, and graduate; and the school ranks as of one of the top three high schools in South Carolina.

Collaborative Leadership

Rick Maxey, the executive director for secondary education at Horry County (SC) Schools, said that “Trevor drew from existing leaders in the school and with them and their respect made changes. Teachers were given a map and direction.” Strawderman’s style of collaborative leadership took time to evolve, however. He says he used to go solo but quickly found that he was going nowhere, so he asked teachers to complete a survey about his own performance. He admits that he did not want to look at the answers, but he wanted to understand how teachers viewed him and how they thought he could improve.

Because Strawderman believes that “collaborative decision making brings energy, insight, and responsibility to a team,” he now meets frequently with focus groups and works with the school improvement team to discuss opportunities and resolve issues. Staff members are involved in all aspects of the school. When hiring new teachers, the school gets input from staff members and parents. Students, staff members, and community members also serve on the school improvement council.

At the heart of the collaborative environment are professional learning communities that meet regularly to participate in professional development, address the findings of the data team, and reinforce such school initiatives as using literacy strategies across all curriculum areas. Small teams of teachers gather twice a month in learning teams to share ideas and best practices. Strawderman and the faculty members also see great value in building strong relationships with the community. Echoing a sentiment expressed by many small communities across the country, schoolboard member Chris Shannon said, “Education is the only way to combat generational poverty. Without a strong education, there will be no jobs and the community will wither away. This is about survival.” The community depends on Loris—and the faculty and the principal respond with maximum effort that produces results.

The results are positive. David Snipes, the editor of the local Tabor-Loris Tribune, had taken exception to some early staffing decisions, including employing coaches. Snipes has now become an advocate, however, because “you can’t argue with the positive discipline and academic success now so evident.” Snipes has witnessed the blossoming of a newfound pride in the school, thanks in some measure to the fact that the principal really cares about all of the students.

Personalization

“At first the students didn’t believe in themselves,” said Maxey. “The staff convinced them that they could succeed. If you set high expectations and you believe, you will achieve.” The faculty and the staff believe that high expectations are essential for success—and that high expectations are what every student deserves. High levels of expectation result in high levels of student achievement, better discipline, and improvement in every area of the school. It is the school’s leaders and staff members who set the expectations that make a difference in students’ lives.

Setting expectations for students must be accompanied by accountability and a personal connection to ensure that students can succeed in academic and other pursuits. “The teachers and Mr. Strawderman stay on top of everything,” reported one student. According to many parents, the teachers at Loris help their students academically and emotionally. “Over the last four years, accountability has dramatically increased and teachers have embraced a role of bridging the gap between home and school,” said Edrina Graham, the parent of a 10thgrade student and of a recent graduate. “Teachers are fully engaged as second parents. Our teachers are outstanding role models for our students.” Becoming fully engaged has taken on many different forms at Loris. For example, one counselor focuses on at-risk students. She monitors every student’s academic progress and follows every student who is at risk of failing state exit exams, tracks multiple interim assessments as well as grades and daily class performance, and meets regularly with teachers and coaches so that every student has an early intervention plan to reduce the likelihood of failure.

To allow teachers to more fully engage at-risk students, Loris reduced class sizes and incorporated team teaching for ninth-grade mathematics and English classes. The school created an after-school tutoring and homework support program, Extended Options, that is staffed by six teachers. Attendance at Extended Options is mandatory for at-risk students, but other students may also choose to attend.

In addition, Upward Bound provides support for at-risk students through after-school opportunities, career and technical education, family engagement, mentoring, tutoring, service learning, and school-community collaboration. Students are also actively engaged in a number of school activities: 25% of the student population is enrolled in Army JROTC, the marching band has more than 100 members, the chorus has 95 members, and the 2008 fall musical had 55 students in the cast.

Further, to increase the odds of student success and to encourage their interest in higher education, the school reached out to community and faith-based groups that can provide mentoring for students and families and has launched a major initiative to attempt to secure financial assistance and scholarships for all students seeking postsecondary education. Students at Loris received more than $2.5 million in scholarships in 2007–08.

In the end, engagement comes one student at a time. “There was a time during my junior school year when I was in trouble,” wrote one student. “I was supposed to be sent to jail. Mr. Strawderman told me I was a very mature and intelligent young lady and should not allow trouble to follow me. He then asked me, ‘In life, do you want to be a follower or a leader?’ I told him that I wanted to be a leader. From that day on, he told me he wanted to see me perform as a leader. I made up my mind that day that I was going to become a leader to all the underclassmen. I have not been in trouble since the day that I made that important decision. I attend school every day, and I am more conscious of my actions and attitude. I want to show my principal that I can be a leader and not a follower.”

Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment

“I am committed to investing in novice teachers as well as veterans who are new to our school,” said Strawderman. “In today’s marketplace, teachers have many options. Effective teachers can teach anyplace they choose, but I need them here at Loris High!” To ensure a high level of instruction, he assigns master mentors to new teachers, provides them with additional funding to purchase instructional supplies, upgrades instructional technology, and encourages professional development. In addition, every staff member can enlist the help of the school’s curriculum specialist and coach. The specialist meets with individual professional learning communities twice each month during planning periods to discuss strategies, share model lessons, and provide job-embedded professional development that has been requested by the teachers.

A comprehensive and balanced approach to improving student literacy lies at the heart of the school’s coaching and professional development initiatives. Instruction and assessment initiatives further highlight the staff members’ belief that literacy is fundamental to improved student performance. A number of different data—including MAP-R assessment and state testing data—drive instruction, professional development, and the master schedule. The school’s use of lexile levels has been directly tied to improved student achievement on high school exit exams.

Data, including lexile assessment, have also led to such literacy initiatives as Paws to Read, a twice-weekly block of time when all students and teachers meet in advisories to read. In addition, students write in their learning logs daily in all math classes. In an effort to improve the literacy skills of students entering Loris, the school has also begun to work closely with its feeder schools on various literacy initiatives.

Students are now offered a much wider choice of AP courses, and enrollment in them has doubled despite the fact that all students enrolled in the courses are required to take AP exams. Nontraditional AP students are also encouraged to enroll in AP computer science and many students are involved in the school’s large computer science and agricultural science programs. Many students also participate in a dual enrollment program with the community college. Every senior must complete a project that is judged by staff and community members. Those opportunities, participation from the counseling office, and the school’s emphasis on postsecondary planning help prepare students for the challenges and opportunities they will encounter after they graduate.

Conclusion

The Loris leadership team is determined to make a difference in the lives of students and to not give up on any of them. The staff members at Loris focus on the small things because they believe that the small things add up to the big things—like effective teaching and high expectations.“[Students] and teachers will do what we expect of them,” Strawderman said. “We all own this together. The sky’s the limit— we’re not finished yet!” PL