The following speech was presented by Dr. Alison Burdick, Principal of Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School in New London, CT, at New Classrooms’ 1st Annual Geek Out Breakfast on April 21, 2016. Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School became a New Classrooms’ partnership school in the 2015-16 school year. The text of the speech has been slightly altered to fit the blog post format.
Good Morning! I am deeply appreciative of the opportunity to speak to you today. I am humbled at the opportunity to share the story of our students, teachers, and school. I hope that by sharing our story, you learn a little more about us and that we may continue to learn from others.
Bennie Dover Before Teach to One: Math
In 2010, Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School had the highest rate of arrests of any middle school in the entire state of Connecticut. Our number one reason for police activity was violence and assault. In a school where students didn’t feel safe, it isn’t surprising that students struggled academically.
About 1 in 3 students was proficient in math and reading. 1 out of 3.
Our high school had the highest dropout rate in the state.
Teacher turnover was constant. Each year, about 20% of our staff was new.
We were labeled by the State of CT as a failing school.
And we were failing.
I can recall my first staff meeting. Please remember, I was 30 years old facing a senior staff that had run out administrator after administrator. I greeted them and told them about a vision of a school that fosters learning and cooperation, rather than disagreement and disputes. We wanted teachers and students to be truly engaged in learning.
A teacher literally stood up, cut me off, and said, “No offense, but you need to get out of here. You do not know what you are talking about. That is not going to happen here. You don’t know us.”
That moment changed me forever. It taught me that wanting change and providing the right environment to foster change were two entirely different entities. But, we got to work.
As staff we read about, discussed, and defined every aspect of teaching and learning. We talked about how much we loved the poster of the kitty hanging from the tree saying, “Hang in there,” but agreed that it cluttered a class. Teachers observed one another. A dialogue emerged about how we know students are learning. And with that, emerged a new, more confident group of teachers and test scores began to slowly rise.
Exploring a Partnership
So, in the spring of 2015 when Dr. Rivera (our Superintendent) and I learned more about New Classrooms and Teach to One, we were intrigued.
A philosophy around teaching math that individually assesses and programs for students? A company that focuses just on middle schoolers? A program that improves math outcomes for urban students like ours?
We were in! So after a very busy summer, we started implementing Teach to One this past fall. We were eager to try out a personalized learning model in our school. We were eager to evolve good instruction into a great system of giving each child what they need.
Early Challenges in Implementation
Here’s the part I’m not sure I’m supposed to share. The first month….okay, the first two months were not pretty. Students who only had typical math instruction, in a typical classroom, now had a whole new arena to perform in.
Teachers who only delivered typical math instruction, in a typical classroom, now were together in one, open space. In many ways, it felt like we were back to square one.
However, I never doubted the decision we made to shift to Teach to One. We had to figure out how to make it work. We, all of us (myself included), needed to re-think, re-plan, and re-act differently. We needed to evolve. All of us.
New Classroom’s relentless focus on providing relevant instruction to our students was a consistent force in everything we did. Their instructional coaching team and technical support team were on the front lines with us. Modeling. Coaching. Strengthening. And we came together.
"Around November, something started to click."
Our math teachers focused their common planning time on specific, actionable strategies to improve student engagement. Sharing these strategies, and laughing about mishaps, helped the teachers work together as a team. A real team. An effective team. They learned that together, they could control the learning environment far better than any of them could individually.
Supporting teachers to work together is one thing; asking 12- and 13-year-olds to go from being in cliques to caring about students outside of their social circles….. is completely different.
"Before Teach to One, students worked on projects together, but they weren’t invested in one another’s academic progress."
I can think of one girl clique in particular that was very challenging. These girls were always late to class or sat in class entirely disengaged. Some would go through the motions of looking like they were cooperating, but never really got deep into the math. These are kids that would have normally passed math with a D. For too many years, I feel like I’ve seen girls in math class settle for that D, doubting their abilities when around boys, who are, most of the time, louder and more active.
But with Teach to One, these students have a unified team of teachers looking out for them. With Teach to One, they have a visual representation of success when their exit slip “goes green.” These same girls started to understand the power within themselves and their own self-worth.
Now, we see students minding each other’s business… in many of the right ways. Because of the mixing of students within an open space and regular assessments, students know when another student is struggling. And they keep an eye on each other. We regularly hear students asking, “How did you do today?” “Did you go green?” or “Do you get it?”
When students do well, they feel proud; they feel like they are part of something. This encourages them to continue working together. Students in Teach To One feel like they are active participants in their own learning.
All of this feels really good, but if were you, I’d want to know, is it working?
Last month, we saw the first objective evidence of how all of these changes have had an impact on student performance. And although it is just one snapshot of data, it blew us away.
Our little urban school that had once been labeled as failing is now excelling. Beating national averages.
After just half a school year, our students grew 1.68 times the national average between the fall and winter.
Last year we had upwards of 2,500 discipline referrals. This year, we have 400.
The percentage of students who are chronically absent to school has decreased by 5%.
"Teachers in Teach To One have the best attendance rate of any team in the school."
We don’t hear, “I’m sick,” or my favorite, “I need a mental health day.” Our teachers know they’re on a team and everyone is counting on them.
This may seem weird to share, but the teachers in Teach to One actually like each other and choose to spend their own time together. Last year, our math teachers didn’t eat lunch together. Now they eat together daily. Actually, they eat together throughout the day. The crockpot located within their workroom has become the new watercooler and the Teach to One family gathers round.
And, I’m very pleased to say that all of our Teach to One teachers are planning on returning next year.
Changing School Culture
I suspect that when you hear about Teach to One, you may be overwhelmed like I was with the technology and algorithms. And all those things matter.
But what I hope our story can fill in, is that it isn’t just about technology. We didn’t buy a new curriculum. We bought into a whole new way of life.
We evolved. It’s about using a whole new way of learning to change a teaching community, to impact a school’s culture, and to give kids a whole new level of ownership over their own learning.
Teach to One has played an integral role in accelerating change and success at Bennie Dover. And now we know, there is perhaps nothing more important to a school than teachers who want to eat lunch together, students who want each other to do well, and a school culture that is based on teamwork and results.