Picture of Jessica Ainsworth with studentsTwo things always bring a smile to Jessica Ainsworth’s face: Finding out about the real-life challenges and victories experienced by the 1,450 students at Lithia Springs High School in Lithia Springs, GA, and spending quality time with her husband and son hiking and camping.

Ainsworth was practically born into the culture of Lithia Springs High School. Her father worked there as a math teacher and at-risk coordinator. She wore her first Lithia spiritwear shirt at age 3 and became the Saturday Work Detail assistant by age 6.

Eventually returning to her “second home,” Ainsworth became assistant principal in 2011, and immediately faced several challenges, including figuring out how to change the climate and culture of the school by establishing a set of heightened expectations for her students and how to best support staff in implementing programs to meet those new expectations.

Response to Interventions for Teachers

Ainsworth took on these challenges immediately, and along with two other administrators, developed an innovative program called “Response to Interventions for Teachers,” (RTI(T)) which is used to support educators in providing differentiated professional learning. Based on research from programs that evaluate and help benchmark student learning like “Learning Forward,” “Leader Keys Effectiveness System,” “Teacher Keys Effectiveness System,”as well as recognized change processes, this tiered intervention system is utilized to develop long-term staff and a sustainability program.

The RTI(T) cycle includes collecting and analyzing data, and designing,  implementing, and monitoring interventions. The RTI(T) pyramid of interventions links to the state evaluation system with tier 0: specially designed learning; tier 1: administrative-driven learning; tier 2: needs-based learning; and tiers 3 and 4: researched-based professional learning. This program has been presented at conferences and shared with administrators across the United States.

Here’s just some evidence of how the system produced dramatic results at Lithia Springs High School:   

  • Ninth grade Literature end-of-course proficiency increased from 75.2 percent in 2012 to 
87.4 percent in 2014-a 12.2 percent increase.
  • American Literature end-of-course proficiency increased from 64.1 percent in 2012 to 90 percent in 2014 -a 25.9 percent increase.
  • U.S. History end-of-course proficiency increased from 48.1 percent in 2012 to 62.7 percent 
in 2014-a 14.6 percent increase.

The MANE Thing

Another challenge for Ainsworth was implementing a federal school improvement grant. There were a lot of competing objectives, so Ainsworth used a collaborative process to develop The MANE Thing, which became the “main thing” at the school.

By creating a shared vision of academic success, Ainsworth says, The MANE Thing identifies the organ­ization’s vision to increase student engage­ment and achievement through a six-pronged process that centers around the following areas:

  • Curriculum and instruction
  • Interventions
  • Assessments and data analysis
  • Attendance
  • Behavior
  • Communication

School leaders continue to use this vision as a litmus test for all functions of the organization, as well a consistent process for monitoring the fidelity of implementation, she notes.

Developing constructive communication and encouraging parental involvement can pay concrete dividends. For example, Ainsworth says, the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) advisory board provides opportunities for parents to grow the STEM magnet program. “Last school year our parents volunteered numerous hours with our robotics team, Science Olympiads, science fair, and our race-car for the Google games. Through their direct support, Lithia won the Google games, had several winners at the local and state science fair, and have STEM graduates that are Gates Millennium Scholars, QuestBridge 
finalists, and/or received other awards and recognitions,” she notes.

This focus on student engagement and achievement is clearly working. 
In just three years, the school’s College and Career Readiness Performance Index score has increased almost 14 points on a 100-point scale.

Most notably, Ainsworth says, the school is now ranked higher than the state high school average score. “In addition, in our district, Lithia has had the most high school student growth in four of eight areas, second-highest growth in two areas, and the third-highest growth in one area. I believe that this is not an accident, but our success is directly linked to our exceedingly concentrated effort around instructional leadership,” she asserts.

So, how was Ainsworth able to make such a significant difference in the school’s culture? “It all began with creating a shared vision for academic success through The MANE Thing. “We have created a data monitoring system from a variety of perspectives including the teacher, department chair, leadership, and administration. In addition, it provides a support system through change for our greatest asset-our teachers,” she says.

In the Hallways

Lithia Springs High School implemented a positive behavioral intervention and support program called the “Legacy of the Lion.” Basically, she explains, students need to be taught behavioral expectations in a variety of settings, so that learning can occur in the classrooms.

That philosophy began on the very first day Ainsworth arrived at Lithia. “We have an area called the trophy case, which is where five hallways intersect. I looked out at a sea of people, the noise level was so loud and the walls and floor were shaking. I remember thinking, what have I gotten myself into? How can I make a difference? I knew my purpose, to become a path changer, and students were not going to learn in the classroom if we did not set and enforce basic student expectations in the school building,” she says.

In addition, personalized learning was designed through flexible learning time (FLEX), which is a noncredited period during the school day in which students receive remediation and supports based on individualized needs. Student needs and progress are monitored and re-evaluated at least four times a school year.

“We have been doing FLEX for several years now,” notes Ainsworth. “The real joy occurred recently when a group of students enrolled in an advanced math class came up to me in the hallway and were able to articulate their specific needs for math support. When students can lead the conversation on personalizing their own learning, I know we are doing something right.”

Finally, the establishment of a STEM magnet program has allowed select students to participate in a biomedical or engineering pathway. “With our clear purpose, I consider us to be ‘path changers’-preparing students to take the road less traveled and making all the difference in each student’s life.”

Ainsworth feels fortunate to have a supportive principal. “Our principal, Dr. Askew, is an instructional leader and has created a partnership for each administrator to lead several departments at the school. This includes instructional planning, professional learning communities, a comprehensive assessment plan, and many other tasks to lead learning at Lithia Springs. He has given us opportunities to challenge the process and build capacity in others to lead,” she says.  

Is the Role of the Assistant Principal Changing? 
”An administrator’s role is changing in that we must lead change and no longer do ‘things the way we always have,'” she asserts. “In order to effect­ively create change, each principal and associate principal must be engaged in what The Wallace Foundation calls the five principles of shaping a vision of academic success for all students-creating a climate hospitable to education; cultivating leadership in others; improving instruction; and managing people, data, and processes to foster school improvement,” Ainsworth explains.

Michael Levin-Epstein is the senior editor of Principal Leadership.

Sidebar: Ainsworth’s 
Top Three Goals

  1. Creating an environment that supports educators to allow 
students to experience academic success. 

  2. Equipping students, teachers, and colleagues to share their stories. Stories help us define our purpose, make connections, and impact others. 

  3. Challenging students to experience a different path-a path they never thought possible.

Ainsworth has a motto to guide her path as assistant principal: 
”Identify your dots, define your purpose, and become a path changer each day.” Following that motto put her on a journey that led to her being named NASSP’s Assistant Principal of the Year. She’s clearly a path changer.