A Partnership Focused on Leadership

By By Cathy W. Gassenheimer of the Alabama Best Practices Center, on behalf of Tarrant City Schools, Alabama

Story posted August 11, 2011. Results updated February 25, 2014.


  • Students continue to perform well in both reading and math, with 91% at or above proficient in reading and 92% at or above proficient in math on the 2013 Alabama Reading and Math Test (ARMT), despite serving a student population with 96% of students eligible for free and reduced lunch

Sandwiched between interstates, industrial plants and a 2.3-mile Birmingham International runway sits the small urban community of Tarrant, Alabama. Tarrant City serves about 1300 students in four schools: elementary (K-3), intermediate (4-6), middle (7-9) and high (10-12). Many of Tarrant’s children grow up in poverty, live in substandard Section 8 housing, and breathe air tainted by industrial pollution. The district has one of the highest eligibility rates for free or reduced-price lunch in the Birmingham metro area.

The city has an aging population with little space to develop new middle-class homes. Over the past decade and a half, Tarrant has experienced a dramatic demographic shift as traditional blue-collar and industrial employment began to disappear and

young adults moved away in search of better housing and jobs.

"Fifteen years ago, our student population was probably 20 percent minority – today it's about 80 percent," says federal programs coordinator Beth McDavid, who has spent most of her 40-year education career in the Tarrant system.

The teachers and administrators in Tarrant City Schools aren’t making any excuses. This is their reality. Tarrant school administrators deserve a great deal of credit for leading their schools to higher and higher levels of instructional quality in response to the demographic changes in their city's neighborhoods. Tarrant was an early participant in the Alabama Reading First Initiative (ARFI) which McDavid credits with transforming literacy instruction in the early grades and laying the foundation for professional learning communities that are highly collaborative and sharply focused on student achievement. Later, Tarrant was also an early participant in ARI PAL (the Alabama Reading Initiative Project for Adolescent Literacy), which targeted literacy instruction in the middle grades.

McDavid said that initially “a lot of teachers didn't like the tight structure of ARFI and they left . . . So as we began interviewing for replacement teachers, we simply said: ‘We have this reading grant. If you come here, this is what will happen. We'll have side-by-side coaching and you'll learn to teach our reading program with fidelity, and the expectation is that you'll teach this way every day. And so we built a group of people who came in with that expectation.’”

Before long, this systematic program that provided for the same instruction in every classroom showed progress in students’ reading abilities. McDavid said, “The teachers felt success with what they were doing. They became convinced of the value of working together with the same strategies and goals in mind. And out of that grew a strong community of teachers.”

During the ARFI years and after, Tarrant invested in training many of their teachers to be literacy coaches, establishing a strong base of support for the younger and more inexperienced teachers who've since joined the system eager to help urban students be successful in school. The first "ARFI kids" are now beginning to graduate. Thanks to their enhanced literacy skills and the efforts of a highly effective graduation coach, says McDavid, the class of 2010 had an impressive 94% graduation rate. "Six years ago, it was roughly 65 percent," she recalls.

The ABPC-Tarrant Partnership

A partnership between the Alabama Best Practices Center (ABPC) and Tarrant City Schools is focused on improving teaching across the board to get better student results. The positive results come out of the commitment by district and school leaders to act on what they are learning. McDavid praised ABPC in their role as “our professional literature readers. They keep up with it all and do sort of the Reader's Digest version for us. They can bring us so much of the current literature and research on effective practices and help facilitate experiences that allow us to work with this knowledge as a team and think deeply about how it applies in our particular situations.”

Student Engagement

This past year, the focus of ABPC's professional development activities among our Networks and partner districts was on formative assessment and student engagement. Using Alabama’s new Continuum for Teacher Development and resources like Instructional Rounds: A Network Approach to Improving Teaching and Learning by Elmore, City, et al., we helped Tarrant instructional leaders gauge their current reality and develop plans to ensure that students are engaged in every classroom in ways that motivate them to learn more and be successful. Tarrant received a “triple dose” of help from the Alabama Best Practices Center with teams in the Key Leaders Network (vertical team of district and school leaders) and the Powerful Conversations Network (school teams). Additionally, the ABPC facilitated another six sessions on site, which included two instructional rounds. And, all this work is making a difference.

For example, in Spring of 2010, Tarrant Elementary principal Shelly Mize and her assistant principal Sherlene McDonald (who is now the principal of TES) invited their principal and teacher leaders colleagues from the other three schools to participate in an Instructional Round focused on that problem of practice. “What we learned that day was startling,” says former Tarrant Elementary principal Shelly Mize, who became district superintendent in 2010-11. “We found that many of our differentiated instruction strategies really had students learning parallel to each other rather than learning together.” She explained that often students were working side-by-side on a specific assignment, but that they were primarily working by themselves rather than collaborating together to reach a common understanding.

“It took outside eyes from educators outside of our district to help us focus on that problem,” says Beth McDavid, Tarrant’s director of instruction. “The elementary school had made such progress and we were so excited by what we saw, that we missed the parallel learning dilemma,” she added. Beth told me that because teachers had been involved in developing the problem of practice, they were able to receive that feedback in a non-defensive way and went to work to ensure that students were actually learning together, not side-by-side. That's a characteristic I associate with a high functioning and mature professional learning community.

Measuring Progress – Tarrant Intermediate

If you'd walked into any of the classrooms of Tarrant Intermediate (4-6) in early May, you would have seen evidence of this past year’s focus on formative assessment and feedback. Students and teachers worked together to demonstrate learning, frequently referencing student-friendly learning targets posted on classroom walls—mostly in the form of “I can” statements.

Because of these clear learning targets, students now know what is expected of them. As they guide students through lessons and units, teachers are focused on constantly measuring students’ progress toward the learning target and are conscious of the need to provide “just-in-time” feedback for students who are off track or need some extra instruction. They're also helping their students learn to monitor their own progress so they can take greater ownership of their own learning.

According to Tarrant Intermediate Principal Judy Matthews, “Our students make a pledge every day to take academic responsibility and strive for excellence. We put in place quarterly student-led parent, teacher report card conferences for all students this past year. Those conferences generated an amazing amount of positive communication and parental support that we will continue to build upon in the upcoming school year.

Reaching for Excellence
Things are happening at the middle and high school as well. Only a few years ago, both the middle and high school principals were spending all their time on discipline and were frustrated that they couldn’t focus on improving instruction in the building. According to THS Principal Andrew Smith, the focus on formative assessment and feedback showed them a way to shift most of that focus to instruction. “The regular use of formative assessment gives our teachers another way to monitor student progress and adjust instruction accordingly. Students are being given greater control of their own learning and this shows in terms of reduced discipline problems and improved learning,” said Mr. Smith.

In June 2011 Tarrant district and school leaders and lead teachers from each school made a commitment to take this work to the next level. School and district leaders committed to establishing strong and vibrant communities of practice that will ensure that all teachers get the support they need to strengthen instruction and ensure that their students are well-prepared for the next steps in life.

This story was adapted from three original postings by the Alabama Best Practices Center.

To see the original posts, go here.

School Characteristics