Set on a hill above the small town of Scottdale, PA, Southmoreland Middle School serves about 450 sixth, seventh, and eighth graders in a beautiful facility designed to house active young adolescents. A video clip on the school’s website describes the school as a place to learn and lead, where students have time to grow, and a dynamic community that is devoted to learning, achievement, and skill development. Southmoreland is that and so much more.
A Dismal History
In 2003, Southmoreland was a seventh- and eighth-grade junior high school in the warning category under NCLB for failing to make adequate yearly progress. Scores on state tests were grim—only 39% of the students were proficient or advanced in math and 55% in reading. Two years later, the combined improvement in reading and math scores resulted in the school being ranked 13th in the state; today 90% of the students are proficient or advanced in math and 80% in reading. The staff credits that growth to the transformation of the school culture from one of teacher isolation to one where collaboration permeates all aspects of the school.
|Southmoreland Middle School
|Principal: Vincent Mascia
Black/African American: 2%
Free or reduced-price meals eligible: 52%
Special education: 17%
Note: Demographic data was provided by school in spring 2012.
Superintendent John Molnar explained the shift in the district’s mind-set that has made the difference: “We used to blame our poor performance on the students and their economic situation, but then we came to realize that our kids are who we have and what we do with them is what makes the difference. We want to perform above what our demographics might indicate.” Recently, the district was identified by the state as being the 11th most-overachieving district in the state.
The change began when former principal Tim Scott (now the district’s assistant superintendent) attended a summer institute on professional learning communities and introduced the concept to Southmoreland. Teachers who had formerly been assigned to teach multiple grades were now grouped into grade-level teams, classrooms were relocated to reflect a team approach to serving students, and team meetings became a routine practice at the school. The transition from a junior high to a school that embraced effective middle level practices culminated in 2009 when the school’s name was changed to Southmoreland Middle School and a new facility opened that had been designed to better facilitate teaming as well as allow the school to add sixth graders to the student body.
New Leadership Extends the Vision
Now under the leadership of Principal Vincent Mascia, the school has continued to develop and refine a unique teaming process built around a six-day cycle that allows teachers to meet in both grade-level and departmental teams. Teams establish operating procedures and determine goals on the basis of data and team-identified criteria. During their time together, teachers work to align curricula; share best practices; and determine how best to support the academic, social, and behavioral needs of their students.
Grade-level teams meet daily in a six-day cycle to work on five areas of student support that the school believes are integral for student success. One day is spent planning for intervention and enrichment services, and two days are devoted to implementing those plans with the students. On the other three days, teams meet with a learning-support teacher to develop inclusion plans for individual students, meet with the guidance counselor to focus on student support strategies, and collaborate on curriculum and instructional improvement.
A high degree of staff member collaboration also allows the math, language arts, science, social studies, and learning support departments to meet once every six days to align the curriculum across the grade levels and share contentspecific instructional strategies. For that to happen, colleagues take the responsibility for supervising additional students during the combined homeroom and student support periods. For example, on the morning of their department meeting, math teachers meet briefly with their assigned homeroom classes and then the other teachers on their grade-level teams are responsible for those students, freeing the math teachers to meet as a department. The reassignment of students is prearranged among the teams and based on the needs of individual students.
Another focus has been providing the 17% of students who receive special education services with the additional support they need to be academically successful. First, time was carved into the schedule to allow all learning support teachers to meet on a regular basis. During this time, the teachers identify effective strategies to help students and their classroom teachers. They also take the opportunity to discuss how to support students through the use of assistive technology and effectively use Achieve 3000 to help students who are struggling to read. The learning support teachers also identify strategies they can use to better support regular classroom teachers through joint planning that occurs during the scheduled inclusion planning time. An amazing product of this collaboration is that when walking by a classroom, an observer cannot distinguish the regular teacher from the learning support teacher because they employ a seamless approach to instruction.
Run to the Problem
When Vincent Mascia assumed leadership of the school in 2011, the school had already transformed its culture from one with “no formal collaboration” to one in which collaboration served as a hallmark. Yet he did not simply allow the school to rest on its laurels; he continued to push toward an even higher level of collaboration to promote “continuous adult learning” and the creation of “structures and systems that support student learning.” He believed it was incumbent upon him as a principal to build teachers’ capacity by further increasing their opportunities to collaborate. He began by identifying five key targets:
- Increase teaming time for core departments
- Ensure that learning-support teachers could collaborate and plan both as a department as well as with classroom teachers
- Institute individual student learning plans (ISLPs)
- Use information derived from common formative assessments to refine teaching practices
- Analyze value-added data to monitor student growth
To meet those goals, Mascia first took measures to adjust the schedule. This year, for the first time in Southmoreland’s history, the schedule allows teachers to meet across grade levels by discipline to align the curriculum vertically and to use data to coordinate how and when skills are introduced, taught, assessed, and revisited. Necessary schedule adjustments were also made so that department teams in the core areas and special education could meet regularly, giving teachers opportunities to share content-specific best teaching practices and to devise common intervention strategies that target student skill gaps. Mascia believes that those changes have served as “a key component in moving our school to the next level of collaboration and improving student performance.”
The schedule also allows for intervention or enrichment support during the school day. Every day begins with a short homeroom period followed by a 35-minute studentsupport period. During this flexible time, teachers meet with individual and small groups of students to provide them with additional assistance or enrichment activities. This time block not only allows for the development of positive relationships but also sends the message that teachers will make every effort to help students succeed.
Today, teacher collaboration is at the highest level ever. In curriculum meetings, teachers determine what skills must be taught and assessed on the basis of state standards and anchors. They use that information to develop common formative assessments and analyze the results of assessments to benchmark students’ present skills and diagnose student weaknesses and skill gaps. Mascia regularly meets with teacher teams to discuss the results of the student assessments, to share what the results indicate about student learning, and to determine appropriate instructional strategies to address the skill gaps. On the basis of those results and other classroom assessments, teams collaboratively plan the needed interventions. Teachers are continually refining their instructional techniques so they can provide students with the highest-quality education.
Mascia clearly believes in giving credit where credit is due when he states that “the success of any school rests with the dedication of the administration, faculty, and staff within the school.” He also believes that he is fortunate to be part of an administrative team that models true collaboration and to have the support and guidance of the superintendent, assistant superintendent, and his fellow principals. This district administrative team meets on a frequent basis to discuss pertinent issues and to share best practices as well as jointly participate in professional development opportunities.
He shared the following story as an example of the importance of working collaboratively to improve students’ education: “In August of 2012, our administrative team attended the Professional Learning Community Conference at Hartford, Connecticut. At Dr. Anthony Muhammad’s presentation on Building a High-Performing Middle School, I heard the phrase ‘Run to the problem.’ I have adopted this message as a mantra I will follow. It means I will embrace tough problems and difficult decisions, and in many cases proactively pursue them so as to enhance the educational experience of our students. I also asked mynstaff to adopt this phrase for their own professional practices. I came away from the conference with a reaffirmation and a renewed belief in what I must do to lead my school in providing a quality education for our students.”
When Mascia assumed leadership of the school, he brought with him a background in leadership gained from years spent as the high school principal of a local Catholic school, and he freely admits his experience at the private college-prep school had given him somewhat of a bias against public education. That viewpoint was challenged— and quickly changed—when he discovered that Southmoreland was dedicated to the success of each student and had a staff that was doing all that was in its power to help its students succeed. Today he is proud to proclaim, “We are truly doing everything we can do to help every student succeed at the highest level.” As one school board member said, “you don’t have to win the lottery to get a good education at Southmoreland Middle School.”
At Southmoreland, there is a visible commitment to do what it takes to ensure that each student is successful. As one parent remarked, “Every person in this building focuses energies to help every child succeed.” This mind-set stems from a district-wide belief that it is incumbent for every educator within each school to provide the greatest possible educational experience for every student. Southmoreland has chosen to uphold this mission by adhering to the following three beliefs:
- What you are doing here is important!
- You can do it!
- I am not going to give up on you—even if you give up on yourself!
Those statements are shared with students on the first day, are posted throughout the building, and serve as the foundation of the school’s tiered intervention schedule, which was systematically designed to address two kinds of students: the academically struggling student and the intentional nonlearner.
The plan begins by fostering positive relationships between students and teachers and between parents and teachers. Calls or e-mails to parents are quickly followed by grade-level team meetings with both parents and students. ISLPs are initiated with the intent of identifying the areas of concern for the student and implementing strategies to help parents, students, and teachers address those concerns. Every Monday, grade-level teams identify students who are struggling and assign them to guided study periods with the team leaders. Students are assisted with completing missed assignments, are given extra support in areas where they may be struggling, or are taught organizational skills that can help them be successful. Students who do not successfully complete the requirements of guided study are elevated to Thursday after-school extended learning or Saturday sessions with teachers who will give them the individualized attention and instruction needed to help them achieve success.
The school day is structured so that each day starts with a student support period. During this time, every teacher has the opportunity to meet with students and give them additional assistance or enrichment activities. Dynamic homerooms provide regrouping opportunities on the basis of student needs. At any time during the school year, subject- level teachers can request that a student be assigned to an academic support homeroom. During the homeroom periods and the daily student support periods, teachers work individually or in small groups with students who need additional assistance. This helps teachers and students develop positive relationships and sends the message that teachers make every effort to help students succeed.
The school’s teaming process also allows grade-level teams to meet one period out of the six-day cycle for a counselor-led student support period. In those meetings, teams discuss how to help students who are struggling socially or behaviorally. When appropriate, time is scheduled to meet with students or students and parents to offer solutions for those who may be making poor choices that affect their success. One result of this collaborative process is that ISLPs have been implemented schoolwide this year and specifically target interventions for nonproficient students, intentional nonlearners, and struggling students.
ISLPs help teachers identify what content students have not mastered and behaviors that are keeping students from learning. ISLPs help teachers identify and implement intervention strategies; measure the effectiveness of those strategies; and give students, parents, and faculty members the means to end the intervention process when students become successful. This open flow of communication results in parents and the school working as partners in students’ education, provides a greater level of accountability for all stakeholders, and eliminates many problems that impede student progress.
Turning a Promise Into a Reality
Recently the staff has been reading and discussing Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success and has embraced her premise that an individual’s mind-set indicates how he or she will approach difficult situations. They have come to realize that if students are to be successful, teachers must believe that students will be successful, and they have promised to do whatever it takes to provide students with the highest-quality learning.
When asked what they like best about Southmoreland, students quickly answer “teachers” and further explain that their teachers “make you feel you want to do your best,” “are easy to talk with if you need help,” and “make things easy to understand.” It is clear that to the students at Southmoreland, the promise to do whatever it takes has become a reality.