Raising Their Standards

By NASSP Breakthrough Schools, on behalf of Troy Howard Middle School, Maine


  • Troy Howard students outperformed their peers statewide in reading, despite the school serving a larger proportion of low-income students
  • Growth in reading for Troy Howard students as a whole - and for the lowest performing quartile of students in particular - also surpassed state average

It’s just a short but beautiful drive from the picturesque city harbor on the bay in Belfast, ME, to 60 spectacular acres dotted with greenhouses, cold frames, a community garden, and beautifully designed and maintained flower beds. This is the inviting home of Troy Howard Middle School, which houses 400 energetic sixth, seventh, and eighth graders from small towns scattered around Waldo County, 730 square miles of land located in the eastern coastal region of Maine. The landscape and gardens are tied to the Ecology Academy, one of three learning academies established during Troy Howard’s turnaround from one of the poorest-performing schools in the state to a role model for other middle schools.

Building and Rebuilding

Howard has undergone a tremendous transformation since the selection of Principal Kimberly Buckheit in 2003. Buckheit, named the 2013 Maine Middle Level Principal of the Year by the Maine Principals’ Association, has provided the strong visionary leadership and dedication necessary for lasting change to occur. As long as the shared vision and mission are kept in the forefront and expectations are met by staff members, Buckheit balances this more-controlled approach by encouraging input and collaboration and by giving teachers the flexibility and support they need to preserve their personal teaching styles, interests, and passions. It all takes place in an environment where teachers can safely try out new strategies and techniques to improve student achievement.

Consistent use of this rare blend of leadership styles has brought the school a long way from the disarray and lack of direction evident when Buckheit was appointed more than 10 years ago. The former principal had received a vote of “no confidence” from the staff, student achievement and test scores were dismal, and the school had failed to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) for a number of years, placing it on the state’s Continuous Improvement Priority Schools (CIPS) list. Student behavior and staff member morale were at an all-time low. Buckheit realized she needed to start rebuilding trust and strengthening relationships among a fragile staff and student body before they could fully address the student achievement issues. As a result, she chose to limit her focus to two general areas for the first two years: climate and communication first, followed closely by staff development and instruction.

To address the climate and communication issues, a newly formed climate committee sought the assistance of the Department of Peace and Reconciliation Studies at the University of Maine. Through this partnership, Howard was introduced to the Restorative Justice Project of the Midcoast. Soon, students and staff members alike were utilizing the practices of restorative justice throughout the school day to manage conflicts, disagreements, and moments when expectations are not met.

With this technique, circles or groups are utilized where all voices— students, staff members, parents, and community members—are equally valued. Circles of 3–10 people provide opportunities for individuals to share their feelings; build relationships; solve problems; and when there is wrongdoing, play an active role in addressing the wrong and making things right. Teachers seek to resolve conflicts and disappointments with students and parents by listening to the multiple points of view and seeking a solution that works for everyone, minimizing administrative involvement at the early stages. Students quickly learn that taking responsibility for mistakes and immediately seeking restitution is the way things work at Howard. Nearly a decade after its inception, restorative justice practices are still relied upon to build and maintain positive relationships throughout the school community.

While dealing with the problematic issues of a toxic climate and entrenched culture were of upmost importance, Buckheit understood that addressing instructional concerns could not wait. The principal successfully advocated for Howard to be named a Title I middle school and secured the funding that came with the designation, enabling the school to acquire a much-needed math specialist, enter more fully into the work of restorative justice practices, and secure a Maine Department of Education consultant to help create a plan to address systemic achievement issues. As part of this plan, Buckheit created spreadsheets with individualized data on each child, flagging students who lost ground in red and students showing growth in green. Staff members were taught how to use and interpret the data, which led to more ownership by the teachers. By the third year, teachers began requesting the data before it could be generated, and everyone in the building was using data to drive instruction.

As staff members began to work together to improve achievement student-by-student, they found themselves ahead of the looming accountability curve. Around the same time, Howard and schools across the state began to see the importance of formative assessments. Classroom Assessment for Student Learning (by Jan Chappuis, Rick Stiggins, Steve Chappuis, and Judith Arter) was essential to the shift in thinking and is often referred to as “the bible” at Howard.

Optimistic about the impact formative assessments would have on teaching and learning, the school secured funding through CIPS for the principal and a leadership team to attend the Assessment for Learning conference in Portland, OR, where they made a direct connection with Stiggins. Although the team was advised against speedy implementation, a quick decision was made to train everyone in the building at the same time using the staff members who attended the conference as trainers. Teachers who were at the school during this period believe this was a turning point for Howard.

Shortly thereafter, the faculty worked with Richard and Rebecca DuFour, coauthors (with Robert Eaker and Gayle Karhanek) of Whatever It Takes: How Professional Learning Communities Respond When Kids Don’t Learn, adopting their model of professional learning communities (PLCs) for their professional conversations. Improvements came quickly by means of the evidence-based research presented; the books read and discussed by the entire staff; and the often difficult, but hugely important, conversations about best practices. In addition to interdisciplinary team and other small-group interactions, the professional discussions often took place with the whole staff present, allowing everyone to give input as well as listen to each other, further reinforcing faculty and team bonds. The adoption of the PLC model had given the school the vehicle it needed to address a major area of weakness: effective communication.

Meeting the Challenge

Challenges continued at Howard as funding declined significantly, leading to ongoing annual reductions in both personnel and programs. Encouraged by several years of academic improvement the school did not want to lose, this immediate problem was turned into an opportunity to restructure how the school operated. A committee of staff representatives was charged with finding a way to continue to meet the needs of the students and build on effective programs already in place. Ultimately, learning academies—designed as multiyear interdisciplinary teams where learning standards are taught within the framework of an overall instructional theme—were selected. Instituted in 2009, learning academies continue to define the organizational structure as they provide students and teachers with ownership and a sense of belonging.

There are three academies, each with an interdisciplinary team of seven teachers who work within an overarching theme. During the first four years of implementation, students spent two years, grades 7 and 8, with the same teachers. Because of the success of this model, sixth-grade students were integrated into the academies in 2013 and will spend all three of their middle years with the same teaching team.

Each academy speaks to slightly different instructional approaches and areas of interest. The Innovation Academy offers a hands-on approach to those who benefit from project-based learning and encourages creative teaching and learning by providing a more open-ended experience. The International Academy brings a global perspective to students trying to see the bigger picture while using more traditional instructional practices through the study of world cultures. The Ecology Academy combines experiential learning with the practice of ecological sustainability and engagement with the outdoors.

The matching of instructional approaches and learning styles has led to more motivation and engagement by teachers and students, according to Buckheit. Many positive outcomes result from this structure, including the deep and lasting relationships built between teachers and their students and families. As trust increases, the staff continues to see a rapid acceleration of learning for students, in particular during their second and third year at Howard. Learning academies began out of necessity—reductions in the number of staff members—but proved to be a powerful step forward in the redesign of the way learning takes place at Howard.

Response to intervention (RTI) is the multilevel prevention system used to maximize student achievement and reduce behavior problems. To work well, the school must provide students with specific interventions while closely monitoring progress. At Howard, students and staff members refer to the 60-minute block set aside at lunchtime each day as RTI. During this time, teachers work directly with students to provide individual learning support. In class, teachers utilize daily instructional targets as a means of communicating clearly to students what they should know at the end of class.

Teachers administer a variety of formative assessments, such as quick checks, whiteboards, multiple choice index cards, entrance and exit slips, and key questioning during discussions as ways to monitor student progress and to help inform instructional decisions. The results help create awareness for the students about where they are along the continuum toward achieving their learning goals. Students seek out their teachers during the RTI time when they are unclear or feel less than confident about having achieved a required target.

A wide variety of intervention activities take place during RTI time: reteaching; retaking an assessment; individual teacher-student conferences; group work on a project, lab, or other activity; and completion of homework or unfinished class work. The academy structure and sense of “ownership of students” by their teaching team has made this time instrumental in meeting the needs of all students regardless of ability, home supports, or other constraints.

On the Forefront of Standards-Based Education

From early in the turnaround process to the present, Howard found itself dealing with change after change. None was more important to the way the school does business than the adoption of standards-based education. With this approach, priority is given to ensuring that a student understands a subject, a concept, or an objective, rather than having a student simply receive a grade by the end of the unit, the grading period, or the year and move on to the next level. Under this system, students ideally get more one-on-one instruction from teachers, will find a pace and way of learning that helps them understand concepts better, and can give feedback and ask questions that will help them learn.

According to faculty members who lived through this transition, many conversations regarding how to adjust grading under standards-based education took place. Some lively discussions centered on the lack of equity inherent in the traditional grading model and the inability to accurately report student achievement because of various restraints in the system. Other issues that arose included whether to separate behavior and work habits from academic performance; how to average grades fairly; what is involved in the identification of course standards; and more mundane but crucial topics, such as how to keep records. Each of these items can involve long and detailed discussions before movement is made. Because of their early start sorting through these issues, Howard is far beyond many schools in the implementation of fair and equitable grading practices under a standards-based education.

After several years, when the school had advanced to a point where they were consistently experiencing high achievement on state assessments, the idea of inviting other schools to learn from them took shape. Buckheit described the situation: “A variety of problems were looming at that time. One was that our funding for professional development as a low-performing school was about to end and it wasn’t likely that any local budget money would come our way. Several teachers were set to retire, leading to the hiring of new staff. How would we quickly indoctrinate new teachers to our practices? Existing staff still needed encouragement and support in continuing to utilize the new approaches as well. How would I make sure they didn’t revert to old instructional routines? It was also time to look at our elementary schools and find a way to share our practices in hopes of increasing achievement at that level. My ultimate goal was to figure out how I, as a leader, could ensure that the positive momentum of teacher effectiveness would continue with no money, new faces, and complacent old faces.”

Educators across the state of Maine were just beginning to think about the standards- and proficiency-based movement. In view of the success at Howard and the need springing up across the state, a four-day workshop series was created and presented to school improvement consultants from the ME Department of Education as an option for low-performing schools to consider. By charging a per-school fee, this plan provides an opportunity for Howard to continue to receive school improvement money by way of coaching low-performing schools.

Each of the four days of the seminar involves a combination of direct instruction provided by teachers, students, and the principal and classroom observations or student and teacher demonstrations. Howard teachers and students are able to share from personal experience how they avoided or solved problems when making the adjustment to standards-based classrooms. Students share their personal success within the standards-based system and often provide some of the most poignant moments of each seminar.

The series occurs over a four-month period with one daylong session each month. Since its inception, 15 different schools and 80 participants have attended the seminars, providing revenue for Howard to continue its own professional growth. The seminar brochure states, “The students and staff are excited to share our story of change with other educators and students. We are proud of the huge increases in student achievement and focused, energetic school climate. Our journey has resulted in being fully standards based and currently exploring the customization of learning.” Buckheit believes that students, staff members, and parents are proud that Howard is able to offer something that others will travel great distances to see and learn from.

When Buckheit was asked about the legacy she hopes to leave behind at the school, her response was both thoughtful and insightful: “I often consider the footprint I leave as I travel through life. I strive to have had a positive impact upon those with whom I interact. My job as the Troy Howard Middle School principal will have been an effective one if what I have accomplished during these past 10 years continues to occur long after I have walked away. Though my footprint in the grass will fade, I am confident the tradition of learning will remain.”

Howard is a true learning community. Teachers and students think about how to be better each day through discussions and conversations, interaction with online tools, observation, reading and sharing books, and engaging in their beautiful natural environment as a community.

Principal: Kimberly Buckheit
Grades: 6–8
Enrollment: 395
Community: Rural
White: 98%
Black/African American: 1%
Hispanic/Latino: 1%
English language learners: 1%
Free or reduced-price meals: 56%
Special education services: 25%

Note: Data provided by school in spring 2013.

Dianne Mero 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 www.nassp.org. Reposted with permission. The original post can be viewed here.

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