Change is inevitable in school systems—our changing communities demand it. Educators seek changes as they work together. Educators seek planned, systemic, collaborative change as long as it is based on sound research and instructional principles. This adjustment is necessary when some proposed changes don’t work as expected. But the pandemic changes of COVID-19 took most of us by surprise, demanding immediate action and a “step it up now” response.Two NASSP publications, Breaking Ranks II: Strategies for Leading High School Reform, and Building Ranks™ K–12: A Comprehensive Framework for Effective School Leaders—along with plenty of other informed educational research and thinking—assisted in preparing the Millcreek Township School District in Erie, PA, for all three of the changes experienced over the past decade and a half.

Breaking With Past Practice

In the early 2000s, McDowell High School in Erie was the largest high school in northwestern Pennsylvania, with 2,400 students in a two-building campus. McDowell was strong academically, athletically, and in the arts, but many felt it was too large. It felt impersonal to some parents and students, perhaps inflexible and rigid, forcing most students into the college-prep mold. Over 80 percent of McDowell graduates entered college, but of course, not all of them stayed. Verel Salmon, the superintendent at the time, was looking for ways to make our high school more responsive to more learners.

Along with the publication of Breaking Ranks II in 2004 came Pennsylvania’s “Project 720,” an attempt to support and facilitate high school reform, intended to make all 720 days of grades 9–12 student engagement meaningful and productive for every student. The Pennsylvania Department of Education gave grants totaling $600,000 over four years to make planned, systemic, collaborative changes in the delivery of our educational product and make high school education more personal and customized for our 2,400 students.

We took a variety of steps toward that goal. We joined the Coalition of Essential Schools and sent an administrator to the National Dropout Prevention Conference. We hired instructional coaches, conducted focus groups with students and the community, visited other schools across the state (and beyond), and took the time to study educational writers such as Grant Wiggins, Jay McTighe, Willard Daggett, Robert Marzano, and others. At the local level, we formed lead teacher task forces in six areas: small learning communities, advisories/personal learning plans, student voice, optimal scheduling, literacy, and staff development/technology.

For students, we implemented freshman and senior seminars to support better transitions and developed a mentoring program through homeroom advisory groups. We also networked with the Northwest Pennsylvania Plastics Partnership, resulting in the creation of an internship coordinator position to expand high school education beyond the brick-and-mortar walls. Math teachers pushed for daily math instruction—we had been on an A/B block schedule. This resulted in an eventual restructuring to an intensive block schedule based on recommendations of the optimal scheduling task force, and the district also added high school math teachers.

In order to better serve all students, we began increasing AP course offerings and involvement with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education, added technology and provided professional development to support it, and increased special education staffing to provide collaborative instruction—co-teaching—and extensive inclusion of IEP students in the general curriculum. And we made significant curriculum changes, creating more relevant courses for students, including a child development program that resulted in students receiving a Child Development Associate-​ready certification.

As we looked ahead to further evolutionary changes, we established some 21st-century goals for our high school:

  1. Emphasize rigorous college and career prep opportunities for all students based on a thorough curriculum audit and redesign that incorporates challenging content, essential questions, and enduring understandings.
  2. Redefine the senior year, connecting seniors to post-diploma experiences with dual-enrollment college classes, job shadowing, internships, and service-learning opportunities for every senior.
  3. Emphasize affiliation and strong relationships in smaller learning communities within the large high school, promoting career pathway groups, clubs/extracurricular activities, athletics, honors and AP challenge groups, and a local vocational career center to connect every student in a meaningful way to the school community.
  4. Expand relevance in all study areas through career-based partnerships with community agencies, businesses, and community groups, serving as resources for instruction and experiences for all students.
  5. Strengthen the student services model to incorporate targeted tutoring, personal learning plans, student-led conferences, and manageable caseloads for counselors, mentors, and other support personnel.
  6. Integrate technology tools into instruction and assessment practices seamlessly and routinely, supporting teacher and student use in appropriate settings.
  7. Propose any facility renovations for coming years based on specific needs of 21st-century skills and reform priorities for students; instruction and program needs for students should drive facility planning.

We abandoned a plan to build a new high school after significant community opposition. Instead, we got to work on an extensive building renovation project to update and expand many areas, including new state-of-the-art science labs in our existing building. You could feel the excitement for our future!

The Plague of Recession and Test Score Focus

Meanwhile, across our district, we watched evolutionary changes at other levels as well. Middle level teams and curriculum were being strengthened, elementary reading and math programs were changing, and we found more vertical alignment happening across K–12—with greater communication among levels and grades. Although our superintendent changed, the school board supported the consistent vision for reform across the district.

As nationwide and statewide focus centered on improving test scores for No Child Left Behind, teachers were becoming stressed that their evaluations would be negatively affected if they happened to draw a group of lower-achieving students on their class rosters. Test scores did improve, but as the targets continued to be redefined and change, frustration grew, and morale took a hit.

The recession of 2007–08 led to staff reductions across the district for 2009–10 and beyond—the senior high school alone lost nearly 10 percent of its teaching staff. How were we to maintain strong test scores when class sizes were increasing, the master schedule had less flexibility, and supports were lost from middle level and elementary buildings—librarians, instructional support advisors, and reading specialists?

The change of adjustment needed to come into play. Some of the instituted initiatives had to go by the wayside based on feedback, data, and resources. The freshman seminar class and the formal senior seminar slowly evolved into tutorial period sessions. We lost funding for instructional coaches, but professional development continued through coordinated efforts of the curriculum department and assistant superintendent’s office. We continued to offer administrators ongoing required Act 45 professional development hours through courses provided by state Department of Education extensions and universities. Training was focused on action planning for student growth, closing achievement gaps, and addressing the needs of sub-groups. Teachers and administrators worked on developing data teams and “watch lists” and ensuring appropriate interventions for students showing minimal progress. All this occurred with fewer resources, less supply and technology money, larger class sizes, and increasing demands on teachers in the classroom.

Our teachers responded with vigor, commitment, and buy-in. They cared for every student, and results continued to show positive gains. Teachers and administrators were trained in the use of “Learning Targets” by Connie Moss of Duquesne University. Financial recovery began with the hiring of a new director of finance and operations. We issued bonds to fund the proposed facility renovations, and the new science labs took shape, as well as many other improvements across district facilities.

All the efforts around addressing the learning gaps and supporting students resulted in stronger middle level scores on state assessment tests. Our three middle level schools, with enthusiastic grade-level teams, increased our state achievement test scores to among the highest in the state. Our elementary and high school test scores had great results as well. With an increase in the number of AP courses becoming a reality, those scores showed a definite upward trend as well, even with a requirement that all enrolled students must take the AP exam. One recent year showed 100 percent of our students who took the AP Physics exam scored either a 4 or 5—and there were multiple sections of students enrolled!

In the early 2010s, we saw an influx of transient families, homeless youth, and a higher incidence of serious learning needs requiring IEPs. In 2016, a talented middle level emotional support teacher was brought on board at the high school to coordinate a “Focus Room,” which was intended to support daily needs of students with social and emotional needs that were challenging at the classroom level. This replaced our antiquated in-school suspension program with a more therapeutic intervention strategy for discipline that included school counselors, a behavior therapist, a mental health substance abuse professional counselor, and strong administrative support. These changes affirmed what we already knew: There is more to school success than just working on test scores.

Building Balance Through School Culture

In 2018, NASSP published Building Ranks™ K–12: A Comprehensive Framework for Effective School Leaders. Our central office leaders obtained a few copies, and in early 2019 we became excited about the first half of the book, which is devoted to improving school culture. We immediately saw the connection between issues such as communication, student-centeredness, equity, ethics, and the other culture realms as a way to close the circle of school success thinking. All of our efforts had been focused on improving student learning and performance for the past several years. And while relationships and wellness were certainly a part of those discussions, we had not specifically had discussions centered on school culture. Most of our leaders could delineate academic learning priorities and strategies—but ask us about school culture, and we had no common language with which to converse.

So, our Building Balance professional development program was born. We applied to the Pennsylvania Department of Education to offer our own Act 45-approved course for administrators. Once given the green light, we rolled it out at our August administrative retreat as the 2019–20 school year began. We initially met face to face, then followed up with a series of Google Classroom chats centered around each of the seven dimensions of building culture outlined in the Building Ranks guide. Global-​mindedness, equity, ethics, and the other dimensions gave us vocabulary around which to share in ways that our nearly 30-member administrative team hadn’t before. We joked with one another, pressed and challenged one another, affirmed ideas that others expressed, and shared with honesty and vulnerability.

When one posted discussion question asked administrators to name a time that their integrity had been questioned, one of our assistant principals called me up and said, “Tim, I’m NOT answering that question!” I reassured her to just post what she was comfortable with, and she ultimately did share a situation in a general way—and that was fine. We intended to initiate conversations about ethics, and we had examples to read about, personal experiences to reflect on, and overall, school culture became something more definable for all of us.

The next step was action planning. After a community-wide NASSP school culture survey provided data for each of our building teams to review, each building team identified two priorities out of the seven components and prepared action plans that would involve as many stakeholders as possible. We hypothesized that strategic work on school culture would result in lower discipline referrals, more responsive parent engagement, happier and more comfortable students, and ultimately stronger achievement and better schools across the board.

And just when the action plans were being implemented, COVID-19 struck and closed all of Pennsylvania’s schools.

Pandemic Change and a Resilient School Community

Suddenly we were thrust into working from home, studying from home, grading from home—none of which we had been formally prepared for. But we quickly realized that the school culture discussions we had been having were exactly the tools that could inform the very immediate needs of COVID-19 schooling. Communication became immediately paramount: teacher-to-student, teacher-to-parent, teachers and administrators with one another, and school leaders communicating with the community at large through Zoom meetings, emails, and mass messaging formats. Equity was an immediate issue, as not all learners or teachers had home internet capability. The established classroom and home relationships were critical foundations for moving into remote instruction.

Questions abounded. How does one conduct a physical education class and address wellness remotely? Are students actually doing their own work when we have no way to personally observe their ethical practice outside of the school walls? Online resources became even more important as students, parents, and teachers alike were forced to become more digitally competent. We confronted these and other challenges head-on thanks to our resilient faculty and building leaders. The technological learning curves were challenging for many, but nearly every teacher found success with the support of colleagues, our IT staff, and with the help and engagement of parents and students at home as part of the learning team.

Every district likely has a similar story about the spring of 2020. Teachers everywhere stepped up, and students and parents became critical partners with technology across the entire nation. Pandemic change required an expansion of engaged team members in teaching and learning. We all became familiar with Zoom. We all missed our students terribly. Did students get all they would have gotten in the classroom? Certainly not. But are we a stronger learning community for having responded to the COVID challenge? We certainly are.

We have developed skills we never would have if left to the planned, strategic, and collaborative change we so comfortably insist on as education professionals. Even the shift in adjustment was inadequate for this unexpected turn of events. Yes, the demands of COVID-19 brought a change that demanded more of all of us, and on a “right now” basis. But our “breaking and building” process, our school culture discussions and efforts, along with all the other research-based changes we made, will continue to contribute to a healthy school community. Whether inside the brick-and-mortar building or in a social-distanced, yard-sign-celebrating, car-parading, mostly digital remote world—together we all make it work, whatever comes our way.

Timothy Rankin recently retired from the Millcreek Township School District in Erie, PA, after 13 years as high school principal and four years as the district’s personnel director.