Finding a Way by Focusing on Literacy

By NASSP Breakthrough Schools

The National Association for Secondary School Principals (NASSP) Breakthrough Schools program identifies, recognizes, and showcases middle level and high schools that serve large numbers of students living in poverty and are high achieving or dramatically improving student achievement.

First recognized as a Breakthrough School in 2014, Alice Ott Middle School in Portland, OR, was re-evaluated to determine whether it had continuously sustained their student achievement over the years since initial recognition. It has, and the school was re-designated a Breakthrough School in 2017, having demonstrated collaborative leadership, personalization, and growth and reduced achievement gaps on state assessments over time.

NASSP reports that at Alice Ott Middle School, two-thirds of the students are economically disadvantaged and almost half of the students are originally non-English speaking. Staff credit the success of this urban school to its approach to student, parent, and community engagement. The staff firmly believe strong relationships with students and families are the key to greater student achievement. A measure of this success is the three-year average attendance rate of 90 percent by parents at student-led conferences. Over that same period, 6,000 positive comments have been sent home. These collaborative efforts have underpinned strong academic gains.

Below, find the original case study offering more information on how this school began the transformation process and key practices that enable its continued success.


Posted August 26, 2014

Smiling boy in classroomJames Johnston asked teachers at Alice Ott Middle School in Portland, OR, “What would you want done if your child’s name was on this list?” The discussions that followed led to building a new reading program intended to bring struggling students to grade level and enrich the skills of those already on grade level. Gone was the large amount of time spent on sustained silent reading that had no purpose other than having students read material of their choosing with no direct instruction. In its place was a tiered program of interventions designed to diagnose and eliminate reading difficulties. Complementing this approach was a schoolwide focus on literacy development across content areas. Every student would have a specific plan to develop and enhance his or her skills. The vision was to have all students on or above grade level by the end of eighth grade.

That vision drives the staff. The school’s 722 students in grades 6–8 come from diverse backgrounds; speak dozens of languages; and with 73 percent of the students eligible for free or reduced-price meals, face challenges not found in neighboring schools. When Johnston arrived at the school in 2008, student achievement was lackluster with significant gaps between white students and all others, including special education students, English language learners, and economically disadvantaged students. He explained that there was “no shared mission, no clear picture of what quality literacy instruction meant; no strategic plan to help struggling readers; and worst of all, no understanding of who was struggling.”

Today, the school is an Oregon Model school; a designation reserved for the highest-performing top 10 percent of schools in the state. What took place over the last five years is a story of gradual, continuous improvement based on systematic decision making and relationship building. It also is a story of how being committed to a sound plan over time allows changes to take hold and results to accrue.

Closing the Achievement Gap

To tackle the achievement gap, the leadership team focused on setting up an infrastructure of systems that would involve parents and all staff members in the improvement process. The team visited successful schools; researched programs; made a structural change to the schedule; and then began implementing a tiered reading program, all the while being sensitive to the cultural changes inherent in these new systems. Teachers would no longer work in isolation, everyone would teach reading comprehension and literacy development, and everyone would be accountable for student achievement. Changes were made incrementally, allowing for ongoing data analysis and feedback from all stakeholders. The significant gains in overall student achievement and the closing of the achievement gap between groups are a testament to the success of the teamwork at the school. The school’s step-by-step journey is best described in the leadership team’s own words, as told to Principal Leadership.

Principal Leadership: Knowing that collaboration plays a significant role in school change, describe how you began the process.
Leadership team: With an obvious gap between low- and high-achieving students, the need for data instead of perception to guide educational decisions was imperative. We created a planning team—composed of parents, teachers, and administrators—that met regularly. The staff and planning team went through a comprehensive needs assessment to identify areas of strength and concern. The team organized subcommittees based on priority-need areas and instructional best practices. This led to a deeper understanding of where the school stood academically and where the staff wanted to focus its energy and efforts.

One key characteristic of our staff is that we have good working relationships with each other. This allows a collaborative, respectful culture and helps maintain consistency regarding school policies. Over the last few years, we have worked to expand shared leadership and collaboration by having every teacher serve on one of our three school improvement teams (literacy, positive behavioral intervention and support, and family involvement). These committees plan and deliver our staff development. Each team has representation from the different subject areas to provide a diverse perspective.

PL: What are the responsibilities of each of these teams?
Leadership team: The literacy team, composed of staff from most content areas, helps train and guide teachers in literacy strategies and best practices. This team researches current trends, analyzes data, and promotes implementation. Teachers are asked to try practices in their classrooms and bring back evidence of implementation to share with colleagues. Teachers who focus on ways to improve literacy across the curriculum lead targeted literacy meetings. These meetings give staff time to home in on targeted areas, share ideas, answer professional questions, and seek assistance from other professionals.

Our schoolwide behavior systems, based on the positive behavioral interventions and systems model, were created through a teacher-led effort with representation from all grade levels and curriculum areas. A team made up of teachers, an administrator, and a counselor meets monthly to implement schoolwide expectations, rewards, and consequences. The team reviews behavioral data, shares concerns, and prepares for upcoming reward activities. Team leaders then meet monthly with staff members to review behavioral data, discuss concerns, and complete systematic checks of student progress for our many reward opportunities. Two subgroups meet weekly and review “red-flagged” students—those who have academic and/or behavioral issues—to develop strategies and interventions to support learning.

Our family involvement team was created three years ago and meets on a monthly basis to come up with ways to promote community engagement. This team plans five key events each year, including two family nights, two “bagels and books” events, and a college day. Family nights and breakfast events allow our community to come together for fun and free food and to promote learning. Our other key event is our college day. Eighth-grade students visit multiple exhibits from colleges, trade schools, and post–high school options to gain knowledge about the application process or gather information from institutions.

PL: How do you incorporate the student voice?
Leadership team: One of our counselors and teachers sponsors the Husky Pack to cultivate student leadership. This group involves students in school and community activities. Students provide feedback on all aspects of student life. Students tell us that what they like best at Alice Ott are the caring teachers and engaging classrooms.

PL: How is the work of these various groups monitored and evaluated?
Leadership team: We have two other groups that play a significant oversight role. The professional learning team (PLT) process is essential to Alice Ott meeting its literacy priority and focusing on individual student achievement. Every teacher is a member of a subject-area PLT that meets weekly to discuss goals they set for student growth. Teams create formative assessments to create a baseline score and discuss a variety of methods to teach the targeted skills. After completing the instruction and giving a post-assessment, they look at the data and discuss which elements of instruction led to the most growth. The cyclical process begins again with a new instructional goal. We have an advisory site council that is elected every two years. This committee is made up of teachers, classified staff members, and parents. This group of leaders helps develop our school improvement plan and approves expenditures for staff training and substitutes.

PL: Readers are always interested in the specific details of how programs are chosen and implemented. Describe how the school’s tiered reading program has evolved.
Leadership team: During the fall of 2008, our planning team, based on their review of the data, determined that we needed to add structure to our reading program. After much thought, we ended up adopting Houghton-Mifflin’s Soar to Success as the foundation for our reading model. Great care was taken in how students were selected for this intervention because of Title I requirements. We found, however, that because of funding limits, we could not serve all of the students in need of reading support.

That led us back to the research from the National Reading Panel, Reading Next, and the International Reading Association, which all supported explicit direct instruction, guided practice, and independent practice, as well as offering opportunities for student intervention in addition to core instructional minutes. Adding instructional time in reading to fill learning gaps was supported in the research found in the 90/90/90 schools model (by Doug Reeves), Reading Next (by the Carnegie Corporation), Adolescents and Literacy: Reading for the 21st Century (by Michael Kamil), and Breaking Ranks in the Middle. We learned that our interventions must address individual needs across the curriculum.

As time progressed, we developed a tiered, research-based selection of reading interventions using a comprehensive literacy model so that all students (including our large numbers of English language learners and special education students) who do not meet or barely meet the reading standards are placed in one of our reading intervention classes. Our three primary intervention programs—Soar, Read 180, and System 44—provide explicit reading instruction to students depending on their level. We have developed placement protocols and standards for exiting students using multiple assessments measures including state test scores, Lexile levels, standardized measures of fluency, as well as teacher recommendations.

Another piece of our success can be attributed to the implementation of direct reading instruction at the sixth grade every day for 80 minutes. Daily sixth-grade reading allows students to transition from learning basic reading to learning how to think about what is read and how to learn from text. This has had a significant impact on student achievement. We have seen great results from the doubled minutes of reading instruction.

PL: What other elements of the program do you consider important?
Leadership team: Our staff has been very committed to the changes in our reading programs and has worked hard to implement professional development in a meaningful way so the programs would succeed. The literacy team identified and addressed areas in which the staff needed additional training or support. Staff development has focused on Marzano’s instructional strategies, engagement activities, vocabulary development, reading processes, Common Core, and formative assessments.

We’ve adopted common literacy language and thinking strategies that are posted in every classroom. All staff members participate in data walks and have opportunities in their PLTs to talk about how to best implement literacy standards into their content area. Many of our meetings are devoted to raising building-wide awareness and skill in literacy instruction. Currently we are working to transition to the Common Core standards, focusing on writing in the content areas, constructed responses, and discussion of texts and utilizing high-level literary and informational texts.

A final element of our program has been to inform and involve our parents in our emphasis on literacy. They know that our goal is to have every student prepared for high school and beyond. Parents know that students who meet or exceed standards earn extra electives in seventh and eighth grade. Positive phone calls, postcard check-ins, and e-mail connections have proven to be very effective in creating a positive relationship with parents and students.

PL: With such an emphasis on reading, what’s happened to math instruction?
Leadership team: We have adopted a more rigorous approach to math and have doubled the number of math instructional minutes for any student not meeting benchmarks. We have also doubled the number of advanced math offerings for seventh and eighth graders. Finally, math teachers have received specialized training in class room interventions and how to use supplemental software. The growth in student performance has been incredible, closing the significant achievement gap we had. Our math growth was rated number one of all Oregon middle schools in 2011–12.

What Graduate School Didn’t Teach

Staff members and parents attribute the recent achievements at Alice Ott to the leadership of Principal Johnston. They say that his passion for their students’ success is infectious and can be seen in everything he does at the school. Johnston reflected on what he has learned to offer compelling lessons for any school leader: “When I became a principal, no one told me that my job would be constantly changing, severely scrutinized, cause sleepless nights, and never end. Also, no one told me that it would be so rewarding and energizing.

As a new principal, my job was to become the instructional leader of a school that had low achievement and was nearing sanctions. I wasn’t taught how to do that in my graduate program, and I sure didn’t learn it as a science teacher. The first thing I had to do was prepare myself to lead a school in literacy and math achievement. I studied to become well versed in best practices and infrastructure. This didn’t happen overnight. Additionally, I had to learn to trust those around me to do their job and use experts in their field to help lead.”

Johnston says that he quickly learned that staff development is better received from colleagues. He realized early on that he had some key leaders on staff who did an “amazing job helping guide staff and promote the vision.” Utilizing those staff reading experts to lead staff development and help develop the program as well as the student placement protocols increased his credibility and the program’s acceptance.

What has Johnston learned on the job? First, he said, “When it comes to student achievement, I’ve learned that growth takes time. You will not see complete results immediately. I found it important to stay with my convictions even when it may have been better politically to change course. I believe that one of the most critical components of school improvement is infrastructure. However, even with the best infrastructure, it is important to get the right people in the right positions to provide the best instruction to kids. Teachers make the difference.”

Second, he said, “I’ve learned over time to define the problem and the core issues before developing a response. This means I spend a lot of time in the classrooms keeping my hand on the pulse of the school. It gives me the opportunity to see both positive aspects and areas for growth. I honestly don’t know how it would be possible to lead a building from my office without being out with students and staff.”

The third lesson he learned is to not take things personally: “You can learn from your critics even more than you learn from your allies. It is important to hear the negative to identify areas for potential improvement while not dwelling on every ill-conceived comment.”

Finally, the most important thing Johnston says he learned about administration and school improvement, he learned from his own children: “I listen to them when they come home each day. I listen to what they like, how they are challenged, what upsets them, and how they dream. My two children are quite different.” Acknowledging the pressure on core achievement is one thing, but Johnston is convinced that every student won’t be successful unless his or her individual gifts are part of the school equation. Finding a way to encourage and motivate each student is the only way to achieve lasting school improvement.

Principal: James Johnston
Grades: 6–8
Enrollment: 722
Community: Urban
White: 54.4%
Hispanic/Latino: 17.5%
Asian: 14.8%
Black/African American: 6%
Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander: 1.2%
American Indian or Alaskan Native: 0.3%
Other: 5.8%
English language learners: 23.7%
Free or reduced-price meals: 73.1%
Special education services: 12.4%

Note: Data provided by school in spring 2013.

Marlene Hartzman was the lead program analyst for this school. 

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 Reposted with permission. 


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