Every Student an Individual

By NASSP's Breakthrough Schools on Behalf of Sleepy Hollow High School, New York


  • An 86% cohort and 94% senior graduation rate, as well as a 93% college-going rate
  • Each year since 2009, the number of students passing the English and Algebra Regents exams has increased
  • The College Board has recognized the school for Exceptional Achievement for AP participation and achievement

Both legend and history, dating back to when the area was settled in the early 1600s, surround Sleepy Hollow (NY) High School. Sleepy Hollow and its sister village, Tarrytown, bring to mind an idyllic vision of American life. Located on the banks of the Hudson River 20 miles north of Manhattan, the demographic and economic changes these villages have experienced over the last 30 years mirror the changes seen across the United States. This 900-student comprehensive high school serves to unite the two villages.

The school is racially, ethnically and economically diverse. Seventeen percent of the students are English language learners, and 17% of the students receive special education services. This diversity is celebrated and promoted for the richness that it brings to the community. Parents value their children’s experiences at the school because they feel that it is a “snapshot of the real world.”

The warmth and positive energy generated from so many different types of students working and learning together is genuine. Students know that they are not numbers; rather, they are individuals with very different needs that are attended to. Students feel that no group gets preferential treatment and speak passionately about how all the adults at the school are devoted to their academic and personal success. According to the students, this begins with the principal and assistant principal knowing each of them by name and continues with

access to opportunities, both academic and extracurricular, that will prepare them for college and careers. It is this commitment to each individual student that undergirds the changes that have taken place at the school since 1994 when Carol Conklin-Spillane became principal.

Embracing School Improvement

The constant challenges of educational reform have been embraced by the Sleepy Hollow leaders and faculty members. They have demonstrated that outstanding results can be achieved by creating a student-centered, personalized learning environment with rigorous, relevant instruction accessible to all. In 2006, Sleepy Hollow began using the Breaking Ranks Framework as a means to assess programs and performance against national standards. This process began with the district’s decision to create separate middle and high schools instead of the existing grades 7–12 configuration. As a committee worked to establish the structure and practices of the middle school, Conklin-Spillane decided that this was an ideal opportunity to refocus and restructure the high school and to “take the time to do it right.” Conklin-Spillane felt that Breaking Ranks offered an ideal vehicle for planning improvements, as “it was not a linear, one-size-fits-all plan.”

During a two-day retreat, faculty members received Breaking Ranks orientation and used its recommendations to jump-start their thinking. They discovered that the Breaking Ranks recommendations were research based and practical and, in many instances, validated practices that were already in place, especially in the area of personalization. Using the framework’s recommendations, Sleepy Hollow faculty members framed new goals; determined desired outcomes; identified measures of success; and developed comprehensive initiatives in the core areas of personalization, instruction and collaboration that would complement and support one another.

School Is Personal

The level of personalization at Sleepy Hollow is not accidental. Strategies, structures and protocols that allow a culture of personalization to flourish have been carefully planned, implemented and sustained. Faculty members and students are organized into grade-level communities that meet monthly with two adult mentors. This format allows students to establish and solidify strong relationships with these adults over the course of their high school careers.

The topics addressed in community sessions are determined by a planning council, which includes students. This year’s overarching theme is “building better community.” Discussion topics included conflict resolution, learning effective study skills, guidelines for social networking and bullying. At the end of each year, the planning council canvasses the communities for feedback before planning topics and activities for the following year.

Conversations with students confirmed the sense of community and belonging that underpins the deliberate personalization efforts of the staff. Students speak enthusiastically about their teachers and the available opportunities. Newcomers to the area and the school attribute their success in part to how welcome they feel.

When students were asked about access to a personal adult advocate, the Breaking Ranks concept that there is one trusted adult a student can turn to for any type of support, they responded, almost in unison, “That’s all of them—not just one!” Teachers, by their actions, demonstrate their belief in the importance of creating a strong sense of belonging and creating a culture that gives students the tools needed for academic success.

Parents report that they could not be happier with their children’s experiences. Conversations about the school are liberally peppered with such words as “family” and “community.” Parents also note that siblings of Sleepy Hollow students who attend other schools envy their brothers and sisters for having access to such a rich learning environment.

To maintain this personalized environment, there is a continuous review of programs. This review has led to the addition of the following supplementary programs designed to support students:

  • Sheltered instruction observation protocol (SIOP) accelerates instruction for English language learners. This protocol is a lesson planning and delivery approach composed of instructional strategies that include lesson preparation and review and assessment. SIOP teachers use the regular core curriculum and modify their teaching to make the content understandable for English language learners while promoting academic English language growth.
  • The humanities team is designed to advance the success of at-risk 9th and 10th graders. Students who struggled or failed courses in the middle grades are provided focused support and counseling.
  • Young People Achieve encourages all students to make positive choices. A peer education component provides workshops in a range of subjects, such as healthy decision making, dating safety, pregnancy prevention, teen depression and immigration challenges. The program includes counseling, social work and medical services to assist pregnant and parenting teens so that they can remain in school through graduation to ensure the best possible outcomes for them and their babies.
  • A Spanish GED preparation program allows non-English speakers who will age out before they can meet graduation requirements to fully participate in high school classes and extracurricular activities while preparing for an attainable credential. Sleepy Hollow is especially proud of this effort to ensure that such students do not miss out on the high school experience.
  • An Upward Bound program, in partnership with Mercy College, supports the academic efforts of low income and potential first-generation college-bound students with tutoring, test preparation, field experiences and community service opportunities. Mercy College–Sleepy Hollow Upward Bound students have a 96% graduation rate, a 90% postsecondary education acceptance rate and an 89% postsecondary education enrollment rate.

Teachers, administrators and counselors are in constant communication with each other about student progress. This open and frequent communication extends to families, maximizing the degree to which individual student needs can be addressed. Counselors assume an active role in ensuring that important information about a student is available to teachers and parents. A student assistance counselor and a social worker are also on staff to help with problems students face outside of school. These multiple layers of support are an outgrowth of the school’s belief that caring relationships with the school’s adults help students develop self-confidence and result in academic growth.

Equal Access to Rigorous Instruction

Every effort is made to customize instruction to meet individual needs and learning styles and to adapt and design programs toward that goal. The school has implemented a block schedule to increase focused instructional time, with shorter, flexible instruction units inserted as needed to facilitate one-on-one support or special projects.

Strong teacher commitment to rigorous, personalized instruction is encouraged and intentional. This begins with a teacher selection process that is thoughtful, thorough, and rigorous. Conklin-Spillane believes that two of the most powerful things she does as principal are “to hire strong teachers who know their content, are committed to a continuous learning community, care about kids and are dedicated to teaching young people the life lessons that make a difference” and “to provide the selected teachers with the resources and support they need to get the job done.”

Students and faculty members play a role in the selection process by serving on interview committees and hosting candidate demonstration lessons in their classrooms. Breaking Ranks recommendations are used as a resource to help frame interview questions, and as new teachers join the faculty, the Breaking Ranks Framework is used to orient them to the culture and practices of the school.

Once selected, newly hired teachers receive strong support, including mentoring, from the administrators and their colleagues. As a result, teacher turnover at Sleepy Hollow is low. The teacher evaluation processes, which include peer evaluation, ensure that the rigorous standard used for hiring is maintained in evaluating classroom practice.

Multiple professional learning opportunities fortify teacher practice. Since 2009, a cohort of Sleepy Hollow teachers has participated in an inquiry grant learning collaborative with partner Pace University. The goal of the grant is for teachers to strengthen their pedagogical skills and collective efficacy. A secondary goal of the project is to provide support for emerging teacher leaders. Researcher Christine Clayton indicated that Sleepy Hollow was initially chosen for the collaborative because proven teacher best practices—such as backward mapping, checking for understanding and gradual release— were already occurring and universally built into the classroom routines at the school. Instructional emphasis is placed on using inquiry methodology to address the Common Core State Standards. Many aspiring teachers from Pace complete their student teaching internships at Sleepy Hollow, which provides supervising teachers at the high school with additional opportunities to demonstrate and polish their own skills while simultaneously developing the next generation of exemplary instructors.

A core belief at Sleepy Hollow is that all students have equal access to high-quality, rigorous instruction. There is no better evidence of this belief in practice than Sleepy Hollow’s policy of open enrollment for AP and honors-level courses. Teachers say that it is their experience that when students feel comfortable and supported, they will venture out of their comfort zones and challenge themselves. With appropriate scaffolding and emotional support, students who have not previously been academically challenged are willing to take risks and respond positively to instruction that stretches them intellectually. Encouragement and nurturing of this growth mind-set extends to all students, regardless of previous academic history. For English language learners, the ESL center provides a home base where teachers and community members volunteer to help students acquire proficiency in the English language while they tackle challenging course work.

The Power of Collaboration

While the programs at Sleepy Hollow are designed to meet the needs of each individual enrolled in the school, building skills and relationships that guide students through adolescence, students are encouraged to collaborate in ways that will benefit them in the worlds of college and work. Classroom project-based activities give students guided practice in these skills. Thriving athletic and performing arts programs are a part of an extensive extracurricular program where students work together to meet creative and competitive goals.

A new source of pride is the multimedia production team that received honorable mention in the Adobe Max competition for professional international media developers. The Sleepy Hollow team came in second to the teams from Homeland Security and the NASA Space Center. This group of students has also produced programming for the local educational television channel. "Sleepy Hollow Hits" is the student-produced digital website that captures school life. All of these activities encourage students to work together to be responsible community members.

Sleepy Hollow teachers collaborate using group problem-solving protocols to cultivate collegiality. Staff members take advantage of their individual strengths while sharing best practices and helpful hints. Celebrating successes along with what they have learned from their “famous flops” has become an integral part of the process. This year, English teachers became experts-in-residence to help all teachers incorporate academic vocabulary and writing conventions into all lessons as they implement the Common Core. Teachers partner with each other to coteach integrated classes for students with disabilities. In addition, school structures support and encourage collaboration. One striking example is that departments are paired to share common work space and decrease teacher isolation. This comfort in working together served faculty members well when they approached the recent reaccreditation self-study. So did the use of the Breaking Ranks Framework, which—as faculty members realized during the self-study—had been an integral part of their improvement efforts.

A final, vital collaboration is with parents and the community. Significant partnerships have been established with local colleges and businesses to give students real-life experiences. Parent involvement supporting academic, extracurricular, and sports programs is seen as a key factor in student success.

Results That Count

Faculty members and parents describe the Sleepy Hollow administration as visionary and pragmatic. They credit Conklin-Spillane with not only creating a personalized learning environment but also modeling and developing a level of collaboration and professionalism that produces results. The vision of high-quality instruction and consistent student growth is now firmly embedded in the culture. This vision is a daily reality that is no longer principal-dependent and would be sustained through the commitment of the entire community should there be a change in the school’s leadership.

Sleepy Hollow’s work has resulted in the school being recognized as a Designated Model School by the US Department of Education, featured on the Doing What Works website and praised by the Magellan Foundation as an exemplary high school with programs and practices that lead to high graduation and low drop-out rates. Targeted efforts at Sleepy Hollow resulted most recently in an 86% cohort and 94% senior graduation rate, as well as a 93% college-going rate. Each year since 2009, the number of students passing the English and Algebra Regents exams has increased. Results from 2011–12 show that 93% of students passed the English Regents and 84% passed the Algebra Regents. The College Board has recognized the school for Exceptional Achievement for AP participation and achievement. And most telling are the words from the 2012 Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools’ accreditation report that commended the faculty on its “demonstrated dedication to meeting the needs of all students” by providing “an extensive array of rigorous courses based on best research-based instructional practices and technology applications available.”

Science department chair Jason Choi best describes what the school’s commitment to the success of every student looks like when he writes about a recent AP Chemistry class: “That class provided a terrific snapshot of the fulfillment of potential at Sleepy Hollow High School. AP Chemistry is considered by many to be among the most challenging AP exams, and yet, in a relatively small school like ours, we had 25 students enrolled in the class. Of the 25, 14 were female, 10 received free or reduced-price lunch, and 7 were from families where English was not the primary language spoken at home. This class is the realization of the American dream as a melting pot—students from diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds given the opportunity to challenge themselves and work together with support to succeed. With pride, our principal, assistant principal, and the teachers at Sleepy Hollow truly embody the spirit of ‘alma mater’ or ‘nurturing mother.’”

Copyright 2014 National Association of Secondary School Principals. For more information on NASSP products and services to promote excellence in middle level and high school leadership, visit www.nassp.org.

Reposted with permission. For more information, please contact Jo Franklin at franklinj@nassp.org.

School Characteristics