There’s been an increasing focus in recent years for elementary, middle, and high schools to coordinate and collaborate for the sake of students. We wanted to find out more about how this vertical cooperation was working in practice, so we convened a roundtable of principals on the front line, including Martin Grimm, principal at Hayfield Secondary School (grades 7–12) in Alexandria, VA; Jessica Lewis, principal at Hayfield Elementary School (K–6), which is part of a vertical model that includes Grimm’s school in Alexandria; Julie Perron, principal at Edison Elementary School, a dual-language school in Walla Walla, WA; and Amber Rudolph, assistant principal at Cheney Middle School in West Fargo, ND. Principal Leadership Senior Editor Michael Levin-Epstein moderated the discussion in February.

Levin-Epstein: Has there been increased cooperation between elementary and secondary schools in the last 10 years?

Perron: This is my 17th year as an elementary school principal; before that I worked at high schools. I do think we’ve seen an increase in vertical collaboration in the last decade, especially when we’re serving kids that have so many emotional and sociocultural needs. We’re finding that vertical communication is really helping set up some structures so that they can be successful as they move from kindergarten up.

Rudolph: This is my 15th year in education, but only the fifth year as an administrator. I’ve noticed we’ve really increased our collaboration with elementary and secondary, more so for the curriculum. Our district really is trying hard to provide a guaranteed and viable curriculum, and in the past we’ve seen a lot of holes and gaps, especially moving from elementary to middle school to high school, so we do now have a new position—a curriculum director—who is really trying to unify all three levels.

Grimm: I do think that it’s a relatively recent emphasis. In our school system, we’ve met in pyramids—so the high school, middle school, and feeding elementary schools [form a collaborative group]. Because we’re so big, we have 25 pyramids! I think the increased collaboration, though, has come from socio-emotional issues; we’re seeing the same thing. We spend a lot of time talking about kids, how they’re going to transition from elementary to middle school, and what their emotional, social, and academic needs are.

Lewis: Our particular pyramid of schools out of the many that we have in our district was a new idea about seven or eight years ago to come together and work beyond the curriculum. We were kind of on the forefront of that among our district. Now, it’s more commonplace, I’d say in the past four or five years, where that work is continuing more across our district.

Levin-Epstein: Please describe the “pyramid.”

Lewis: Our particular pyramid is based on the secondary school, so [Grimm] has students 7–12, and then we have five elementary schools that have grades preK–6. Our five elementary schools feed into the secondary school where Martin is. So, the six of us are a pyramid; we’re a collaborative team that’s addressing all those issues we were just naming a moment ago.

Levin-Epstein: Can you provide practical examples of how you’re dealing with social-emotional issues?

Lewis: For us, we have a structured system with our transition. As students are leaving the elementary schools and being promoted from sixth grade and coming to the secondary school, we have a protocol and set meetings every spring, where the school counselors and our teams from the secondary school come to each of our elementary schools. We have meetings where we talk about kids by name and by need. So, kid by kid, we talk about academic needs, but other things as well. What supports are they going to need socially, emotionally, when they come to the secondary school?

Grimm: One of the things that we did also in those meetings is, I do have a couple of instructional coaches, and we have been trying to do a better job from the curriculum standpoint of defining what our intervention classes look like and what the specific needs are. For example, we have Math 180, Algebra Readiness, and Power Math 7. All of those are designed for kids that are more than one year—anywhere from one year to multiple years—behind in mathematics. We do the same for literacy.

One of the things that we were finding is that our elementary colleagues or sixth-grade colleagues did not understand those classes well enough to give an accurate placement. Obviously, we look at our state-​mandated testing, our SRI scores, our other information as well. But having those conversations and talking about, “Is it a work habit? Is it a knowledge gap? What [are] the different situations?” we found that we now, in the seventh grade, have very, very little movement at all of kids once they get to us. They’re placed correctly.

Perron: That’s fantastic. I just want to say that in our district in Walla Walla, we are using those same models, where we bring in a team from the middle school, which is grades 6–8, to come and go kid by kid, like Jessica was saying. We’re doing something a little bit different this year, because we’re finding that so many of our families, because they are limited-​English speakers, sort of have an experience of being a little bit disenfranchised and marginalized in terms of understanding the school system. So, this year we’re planning on chartering a school bus and doing a dinner and pairing up these families with families at the middle school to sort of leverage some confidence and have a Q&A period beforehand so they can answer questions in their first language and also have more of an understanding of the vertical curriculum.

Rudolph: It sounds like a great idea. We’re fortunate enough to have an MTSS [Multi-Tiered System of Supports] coach in every secondary building. Our coach’s primary portfolio has been, of course, academics, but also the behavior. So, with her guidance, we’ve created an intervention, a check-in-check-out intervention, for our most at-risk students. We meet with them 30 minutes daily. It’s more than just getting their homework done. It’s being that safe adult in the building, the person that they can always anchor to. We’ve also really invested in trauma training for our teachers, with that idea of empathy and compassion. We want to hold kids accountable and have high expectations for their academics, but also always remember that most of our kids have a story. For some of them, just getting to school that day is a feat.

Levin-Epstein: How do you communicate with parents on this collaboration?

Perron: I think it really depends on the size of the district. My position before being in Walla Walla was in a really large school district in Orange County (CA), where our school district had about four or five high schools, and so we were divided into zones. Each zone had a plan to communicate with parents that usually involved a broadcast message, and we had “open houses” for curriculum fairs at various locations and really brought people in, school community facilitators.

Now, in Walla Walla, it’s so much smaller—because we only have one high school and two middle schools and six elementary schools—that it often becomes the role that our communications office at the district level will convey to the principals the messages that need to go out. Principals will convey to the communications office, and then we have these blast-outs in Spanish and in English, and we also have a spot on Spanish radio. We’re really trying to find different ways to bring the families in to hear our messaging around curriculum, but it’s a continual, continual challenge to try to reach those families. Their cellphones might not be working anymore, or they’ve moved on, so constantly we have to bring that back to the table.

Rudolph: In West Fargo, we try, same as most districts, to really blast those messages on Blackboard, with mass calling and emails. We also see the importance of getting parents involved, so we … like to get parents on those panels and in those meetings and do advertise when we’re meeting monthly, especially the evening meetings, so they can be involved in the planning and the decision-making.

Grimm: I would say, as far as actually talking about the vertical articulation piece specifically, it’s more informal for us. I actually had a seventh-grade parent coffee [meeting] last night, and one of the things that I pointed out … is I talk about the vertical articulation. I talk about the articulation within our own building, but with the seventh-grade parents I basically describe what I described to you: What our process is, how we meet with every sixth-grade team at each school, and I tell the parents, “I can guarantee you, at some level we have discussed your child and what their needs may be.” That could be from what types of honors classes they’re taking or if there’s any gaps. That’s pretty much the only way I think that we let the community know about our articulation. We might put that on our pyramid agenda for next month, because I know that would be something that would ease some of the anxiety for our sixth-graders coming up, if we did a better job of letting parents know exactly how much we are actually talking about them. We do a good job of talking about them; I don’t know that we do a great job of letting the community know what we’re doing.

Levin-Epstein: Could you give us some examples of how this vertical integration has produced individual success stories?

Grimm: I have an example right off the top of my head. He was a student in one of our Title I schools in our pyramid. He had a good number of behavioral concerns coming into the school, and we had a good plan in place to work with him. He was also a very engaging kid. He was basically one of those students that just needed to channel his energy. So, we do not allow seventh- and eighth-graders to participate in sports at the high school level, but we do give them opportunities to participate in school and maybe be a manager.

This young man, I will tell you, he’s now a senior, has earned a college scholarship after having had some really significant discipline situations that could have derailed him and sent him on an alternative education track. His principal still finds him, and if he sees her, he still gives her a huge hug. Really, this is a kid that experienced success because he knew, at each level, and then at the handoff, there was support and there were a lot of people looking out for him all the way through the process. He was a kid that if we did not transition him well, and we did not know who he was until things got real heavy and bad, very easily could have gotten lost in the cracks.

He’s going to play Division II football next year. He’s a great kid. He’s a member of our Student Government Association (SGA). He’s gone from that to a member of our SGA.

Rudolph: We have five feeder elementary schools that filter into our middle school that has about 1,200 students. So, we have a lot of kids, but we make sure every spring we go out to all those elementary schools and, as a team, sit down and discuss with their admin and their counseling staff especially those at-risk students, because we know the transition can make or break some kids. Based on this, we’ve had a lot of success stories, especially with our kids who are on the spectrum. We know, typically, who works best with them and what the best approach is.

I’m the scheduling admin in our building, and I really am thoughtful about teams and when they might take a reading class based on their medication or different variables or who they should be with and who they shouldn’t be with in regard to personalities, students, or staff members. So, we’ve had a handful of kids really successful just taking the time to do that, although it takes a lot of time. It’s helpful, especially for our special education population.

Perron: We have had a program where middle school leadership student mentors will come and spend time at the elementary school during lunch going over reading and writing projects that they might encounter in middle school. We had a super-challenging behavioral student a few years ago who was a third grader that we connected with a middle schooler who’d come over and read with him and shoot hoops with him. That handoff, it continued on, so then once this third grader was a middle schooler, this same student who mentored him was a high schooler, and we continued that process until the third grader became a mentor himself. It’s a really superpowerful and positive [experience], and if you know those kids who are leaders in your building and you can set that up, it really makes a difference.

Levin-Epstein: I’d like to hear your views on innovations that might be on the horizon in the next couple of years.

Grimm: We already have pyramid concerts—which are great—for band, orchestra, and chorus. This is one of the things that I would like to promote more of. This year, we actually did a collaboration between our sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade math teachers during the school day to look at the curriculum and to look at how we’re teaching it. One of the instructional coaches met with the principals first, then we looked at our data to see the areas that were a common need, and then we took that information and brought in the CT [collaborative team] leaders from the sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade teachers to get together and come up with some vertical articulation plans.

Our next step is we’re now going to do that after our standardized testing window is closed in the spring and bring them back together and look specifically at our special education students. I would love to see that across all the disciplines, and also bringing our mental health people together, too, so that we’re also talking about the emotional needs, but also looking at it from the spectrum of six, seven, and eight and paying special attention to that handoff.

Rudolph: That would be a good transition for me here. Something our school district is strongly considering for the very near future involves the issue of mental health. It feels like each year we’re having more and more students who have very intense needs, so significant that we have to empty classrooms, or they’re darting out of the building, or it’s self-harm in the bathroom. We’re considering creating a building or an academy of some sort where these most severe students go to school and they also have wraparound services—the therapy, or everything that they need that they are not getting—because just functioning in the regular classroom is not working in their favor.

Perron: This is my big visionary venture on something that I really see just becoming a huge distraction to the classroom: We all know that social media just takes on a role with students like no other. Whether it’s Facebook or Snapchat or any kind of capacity for kids to bully in cyberspace, they will. There are some innovative approaches across the country, and what I would love to see is sort of a SWAT-team approach, where high school students come to our elementary and middle school campuses and go over what safety in cyberspace looks like.

I think that we, as the adults, can know which of our students are in the greatest need for support there, but truly, it’s those high schoolers who really hold that leadership model up high in our little kiddos’ eyes. That’s just pie in the sky, but I think that could really leverage some positive change for us.