The responsibility that is given to any new or seasoned administrator who is assigned to a struggling school to achieve or reclaim school accreditation is a daunting task. When full accreditation is accomplished, it is undoubtedly something to be celebrated by the administrative team, faculty, school district, and community members.

This exact commitment was given to educator Aurelia Ortiz when she took the helm as principal of Falling Creek Middle School (FCMS) in Chesterfield, VA—a struggling school that had not been fully accredited since the 2012–13 school year. By the time the 2017–18 academic year started and when Principal Ortiz began her new role, the school had achieved partial accreditation. Ortiz was instrumental in mobilizing her administrative team and faculty at FCMS to achieve full accreditation status within one year—unquestionably an outstanding feat. While many school districts across the nation grapple with finding the correct formula needed to turn around struggling and failing schools, it is worth turning the spotlight on Principal Ortiz and her team at FCMS to determine how to achieve such rapid success.

FCMS is an urban middle school that serves a student body composed of 48 percent Latinx students and 43 percent black students. Thirty percent of students are English-language learners. Perhaps most striking is the fact that nearly 100 percent of the student body lives at or below the poverty line.

We shadowed Principal Ortiz in her building to observe the positive instructional environment that led to the school’s full accreditation, which had eluded FCMS in prior years.

A Look Inside

The morning of the shadowing visit, we began with a brisk walk alongside Principal Ortiz from the school parking lot toward her school building. Principal Ortiz had not yet taken 10 steps before she stopped to greet a parent sitting in his car in the student drop-off/pickup lane. She then greeted a custodial staff member who held the door for her. Faces brightened as Principal Ortiz greeted everyone in the main office before eventually making it to her own office space. What immediately became evident was the value she placed on cultivating relationships. It was obvious that the job she was tasked with doing—turning around FCMS—could not be done alone. To be successful, it was clear that she engaged in a collective team approach.

When asked to share what steps she took toward moving her school closer to accreditation and what could be identified as her “magic bullet,” Principal Ortiz articulated a holistic student-centered approach with regard to the changes she made in her building.

Principal Ortiz underscored a shift in the culture of the building led by a unified administrative team, whereby high-functioning professional learning groups were mobilized toward a common vision. There was a move of the faculty and staff toward a fidelity to the systems already in place, with everyone following the agreed-upon policies and procedures. Ortiz also worked on an intentional restructuring of relationships with faculty and students in which the administration heard the adults. The faculty had a voice, and therefore they could better meet the students’ many needs.

In their book, Cultures Built to Last: Systemic PLCs at Work, Michael Fullan and Richard DuFour would characterize Principal Ortiz’s work as distinctly mobilizing her administrative team and faculty into a high-performing professional learning community with a “shared mission (purpose), vision (clear direction), values (collective commitments), and goals (indicators, timelines, and targets), which are all focused on student learning.” By building fidelity toward the systems already in place, Principal Ortiz and her team were, in fact, “examining all existing practices, procedures, and policies … to ensure alignment and reinforcement of high levels of learning for all students.”

Principal Ortiz and her team led the faculty through a purposeful self-assessment that allowed for strengthening effective processes while, in other areas, they corrected less efficient processes toward the ultimate goal of student achievement.

The Administrative Team’s Role

Principal Ortiz was intentional in ensuring that everyone was in the same boat and following the FCMS mantra: “One Team, One Dream.” To form a united front, the new administrative team engaged in the following endeavors:

  • Completed a book study based on the work of Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team
  • Worked to establish a strong foundation and to ensure that they had clarity in the vision and mission—the collective steps they could take
  • Purposefully established roles and responsibilities to tap into each person’s strengths and experiences
  • Agreed that, when necessary, the team could change direction without guilt
  • Vowed a collective commitment to believe in one another and trust each individual to keep the common goal above individual desires
  • Made a concerted effort to look through the lens of keeping what was working

“Everything in a school with traditionally low student achievement outcomes isn’t always bad,” Principal Ortiz asserted. “The school has some of the most effective teachers I have ever seen,” Ortiz said. “There were things that were working; however, many of those things were only having success in pockets of the building. Our team was seeking to establish systemic change and schoolwide consistency.”

Faculty Empowerment and Community Consensus Building

Principal Ortiz spent time in nearly every faculty meeting and every pre- and post-observation meeting having a dialogue with teachers about relationships and strategies to support the building and promote a schoolwide culture. Empowering teachers to be the best they could be for students established the foundation for the work Principal Ortiz and her administrative team set out to accomplish. Principal Ortiz emphasized the need to develop a dedicated faculty and staff around core values and ideals such as relationships, trust, commitment, community, equity, and cultural competency, along with the need to have tough conversations surrounding improvement. It was equally important for her as a leader to make sure that there was a balance by celebrating the successes of the faculty, staff, and students.

To increase transparency, the school administration held meetings for the community and maintained weekly communication that highlighted work being done in areas that needed improvement, such as attendance. The administration also highlighted positive events, activities, and milestones from the week to present a balanced picture of all aspects of the school. The consistent communication cultivated buy-in from the FCMS families and community members, effectively mobilizing everyone toward the goals of Principal Ortiz and her team.

Stumbling Blocks

The work Principal Ortiz and her team engaged in was not easy. There were bumps in the road, turns, and challenges. During the intense year in which Principal Ortiz arrived at FCMS, she and the administrative team were met with hesitation—even resistance—because teachers felt like they had already tried and failed and were rightfully wary about possibly failing again. Yet Principal Ortiz and her administrative team stood the course by sharing a repeated and consistent message: “We are one!” If all were rowing in the same direction, the only way the team could fail was if someone was poking holes in the boat, and no one wanted to be that person. “Teachers are leaders. Teachers have influence. Our charge as administrators is to support and grow each teacher to be his or her best self,” Ortiz says. “Creating a culture of investment and a true belief in the self is not an easy task, but definitely one worth investing energy. When teachers are empowered and they own it, schools become a place where students and staff want to be.”

“During the 2017–18 school year, the [FCMS] Panther staff did something that most schools are afraid to do: They disrupted the norm,” says John Gordon III, chief of schools for Chesterfield County Public Schools. “[Principal Ortiz] left no stone unturned, and every ‘That’s just the way we do things’ shifted to ‘Let’s try something different; why not?’ Principal Ortiz … challenged every staff member to build bridges, not walls.” It paid off, because while the work continued in shifting the culture—demanding commitment, engaging in positive speech, and focusing on the core values that brought the faculty, staff, and students together—Principal Ortiz and her administration and team of teacher leaders saw marked gains in literacy and other academic areas toward full accreditation.

At the end of our shadowing experience, the visit with Principal Ortiz ended as it began, capped off with a brief tour around her building. Walking alongside Principal Ortiz in the halls allowed for a continued intimate view of her relationships with students, faculty, and staff. She said hello and talked to every student and staff member to ensure that everything was all right. Even when she encountered a staff member alongside two students in the hallway serving the day in detention, Principal Ortiz’s primary concern in that moment was that they were fed and getting what they needed for the day. Affectionately referred to as “Boss Lady” by her faculty, it was evident that Principal Ortiz loved the adults and students in her building, and they in return demonstrated love for her because they knew she had their best interests at heart. Bearing witness to building a culture of success supported by an environment where everyone—administrators, faculty, staff, families, and students—felt that they belonged and had a purpose toward a common vision was remarkable. “One Team, One Dream,” is not just an arbitrary tagline. It is an explicit description of how the administration, faculty, and staff function together and how they approach the daily work of lifting FCMS students toward success and high achievement.

Pascal P. Barreau, EdD, is an assistant professor of educational leadership in the administration and supervision graduate programs at Virginia State University in Petersburg, VA. Michael L. McIntosh, EdD, is an assistant professor of educational leadership and an educational leadership doctoral cohort adviser at Virginia State University.