Knoxville, Tenn. — Cindy Bosse was once a student at Sterchi Elementary. Nine years ago, she returned to Sterchi as the principal of the K-5 student body.
Sterchi usually posts student test scores well above the state average. But in 2010, the school really missed the mark in the value-added category, which measures how much students grow from one year to the next. Sterchi wasn’t alone; that year, most Tennessee schools were still struggling after failing to meet new harder statewide standards.
Sterchi took a hit to school value-added scores, which are averaged over three years to measure where students should be performing versus where they actually are. That year, Sterchi earned a D in reading and language, science and math … and an F in social studies.
Principal Cindy Bosse took her school’s scores as an opportunity to make the big changes she’d been considering.
“I made sure we had the right people on the bus and in the right seats on the bus,” she says.
Bosse put teachers in new grade levels, rearranged whole school wings, and tweaked student curriculum.
“I think when you’re in a school for a while, you get to know teachers really well, and you get to know what their strengths are, and you’ve seen them in the classroom, and you’ve seen them work with kids, and I think after that period of time you’re more able to put together good teams,” she says.
“I don’t matter that much here in the principal’s office,” Bosse says. “What really matters is that teacher that’s in front of those kids every day.”
Before Bosse’s changes, Becky Ripley was a fourth-grade teacher. Now she has a classroom full of second-graders.
“I love it. She knew better than myself that was gonna be a good place for me,” Ripley explains.Ripley also says the curriculum is different and her classroom is different, but collaboration among teachers has only gotten stronger.
“We work together. We plan together; the first grade talks to the second grade: ‘What do we most need to do to get our kids ready for your class,’” she says.Principal Bosse says those team-planning sessions are where the hardest but most effective gap-closing work happens.
“The days are gone when a teacher goes in and closes the door and does her own thing – or his own thing,” she says. “It’s all about collaboration, because when we’re all together, we’re much better for kids. The ideas just flow.”
To help teachers pinpoint their strengths and their weaknesses as part of the new teams, Bosse stopped relying on a single annual state-developed achievement test. She started measurements through the year.
“We’re all taking ownership of all our kids and doing everything we can to share resources and ideas to make sure we’re reaching them all,” she says.
Bosse says that’s what’s important: gap-closing is about more than just making sure the struggling kids don’t fall behind.
“It covers every child – not just the strugglers, not just the ones that are about to fall into the proficient range but the advanced kids – it covers all kids,” she explains. “And that’s what we need to be about is moving every single kid as far as we can.”
Bosse says to move every student forward, she has to be open not only to seeing her school’s strengths and shortcomings – but also open to finding creative solutions:
“Small groups are critical – to the point that when I ran out of staff and times, we created more staff and times by asking our special area teachers to teach reading groups before and after school,” she says.
The results paid off; within a year, Sterchi’s value-added grades had climbed from a D to an A in reading and language, D’s in math and science to B’s in both subjects, and from an F in social studies to a C.
“We have really worked hard to bring those grades up. And we’re proud of it, but it’s been hard work and a real team effort.”
Most important, Bosse says she never had go it alone: she has an entire team of teachers, parents and community members who trust her leadership and have made a commitment to ensuring the schools success.
Steve Seifried is one of the parent volunteers at Sterchi. He has two boys, ages 12 and 9. Both attended Sterchi Elementary. When Seifried moved to East Tennessee more than 20 years ago, he says it was pure luck that he moved into the Sterchi school neighborhood. We met at a park in downtown Knoxville this summer to talk about what he thinks made his sons’ school so successful in closing gaps.
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