How to make your school a great place to work and learn


Do your students want to come to school every day?

Are your staff members counting the days to Friday?

What is the sense that people feel when they walk into your building?

It is not where you begin…

Every day I am reminded that it is truly a blessing to work at West Port High School. When people come to our school they tell me there is a feeling of promise and excitement. There is a sense of purpose and the students are focused and happy to be a part of our learning community. There is a structure, but within that structure we have creativity and originality that sets our school apart from other schools. Students are friendly and polite, the adults genuinely happy to be here. It is good to be a part of West Port High School today.

The more positive things they heard from other teachers and staff members, the more positive they felt about our school and they began sharing what was positive about West Port High School.

When I was assigned to West Port High School 12 years ago my closest friends told me that they believed in me, but they would not be sending their children to West Port High School. In the four short years that the school had been in existence it had developed a reputation that drove people to other schools. People I did not even know said the school looked like a prison. The teachers were writing hundreds of discipline referrals every day and bells were apparently a suggestion because students did not move toward their classrooms when they rang. Teachers were looking for every opportunity to move to another school and would not bring their own children to the school.

With all of these challenges to greet me as I walked through the doors, I was energized by the opportunity of creating a learning center that would provide students with the prospect of a bright future. There was a cadre of some of the brightest most talented teachers I had ever worked with at this school, but we needed to change the negative message that the staff was unintentionally creating by their words and actions. The first thing I did was gather everyone together once a week for Friday Faculty Focus. This was a time to celebrate West Port High School, identify opportunities for improvement and work on our teaching craft. We start every Friday Faculty Focus with five positives. A positive can be something great that happened in the classroom, something someone did for someone else, anything that would share the good news of West Port High School. The first couple of times we did this it took a while to get five positives, but we did. It did not take long for the teachers to catch on and we started having 15 and 20 positives to start our time together. Teachers and staff were now hearing the great things that were going on at our school and began sharing these great accomplishments with their friends in the community. The more positive things they heard from other teachers and staff members, the more positive they felt about our school and they began sharing what was positive about West Port High School.

At the same time we began working with our students by creating time within the week we called Student Improvement Time where we worked on character education, we infused school wide expectations in every corner of the school. Teachers were empowered. Posters saying “We are Prompt, We are Prepared, We are Polite, We are Productive” were posted in every classroom, hallway, and work space. Students without prompting began signing off our morning television show “We are Prompt, We are Prepared, We are Polite, We are Productive, We are West Port!” While the students and the staff were working hard to create a positive culture there was something missing. We had a beautiful facility built for 2,500 students with just over 1500 students. The superintendent challenged me to do something to draw students to attend our school. I met with focus groups of students, parents and community members to find out what they wanted from our school.

It Is Not About The Building Or The People: Schools Need To Achieve To Succeed

The missing link with our school was the opportunity for academic acceleration. We had a couple of Advanced Placement classes with a few students enrolled. However this was not enough. These classes were highly selective and the perception was that rigorous learning was for a few entitled students. We had to change that perception and create more opportunities for all of our students. We had a staff member who was an adjunct professor at the local community college. I decided to see if we could arrange for him to teach a dual enrollment course on our campus. After meeting with the college president and his staff we began offering college courses on our campus. What started with two courses resulted in students clamoring for more. It was not long before our students were able to take all of the courses necessary for their associate’s degree on our campus. Teachers began eagerly working on their qualifications to become adjunct professors at the college so they could teach the college courses on our campus. We now have as many as 400 students a year enrolled in one or more dual enrollment courses on our campus and this year we have 85 students on target to earn their associate of arts degree before they graduate from high school. They will be joining nearly 200 students who have earned their AA through our Early College program. In addition, enrollment in AP courses has exploded. Three years ago we gave around 300 AP exams, two years ago over 700 exams, last year nearly 1100 exams and this year we will be giving over 1800 AP exams.

Deliberate, Purposeful, Strategic.

As our student enrollment has grown from 1,500 students to 2,657 it has not happened by chance. Everything has been done with the deliberate, strategic purpose of creating a positive learning environment for all students. Students and teachers have been empowered to control their learning environment through Power Hour. Three lunches have been replaced with one Power Hour giving students and teachers autonomy over one hour of the school day to structure it to meet their needs. Course failure has dropped from 37% to 3%. The graduation rate has climbed to 92%. But more has changed then these numbers reflect. Realtors claim our school to be the best in the district. Students can be over heard sharing with others that we are not just an A school, but the highest performing A school in the district. Our school is described by visitors as having the feel of a college campus.

Walking onto our campus you cannot escape the energy. Visitors and callers are greeted with “we are having a great day at West Port, how can I help you?” Positive, engaging classrooms are buzzing with students who are collaborating with teachers who are providing challenging opportunities for students to learn. The focus is purposeful. There is structure, yet freedom and creativity is supported.

School culture is a way of work that when structured to focus on student achievement creates a climate that empowers the people on the campus to create a culture of excellence where all students can succeed.

Jayne Ellspermann is the principal at West Port High School in Ocala, FL. She was the recipient of 2015 Principal of the Year award and is the incoming president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

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