The Road from Good to Great

By Jennifer Pyron, Alabama Best Practices Center, on behalf of Boaz Middle School, Alabama


  • In 2013, 94% of 6th graders, 96% of 7th graders and 90% of 8th graders scored proficient or above on state standardized tests in reading (exceeding both district and state averages)
  • In 2013, 81% of 6th graders, 84% of 7th graders and 87% of 8th graders scored proficient or above on state standardized tests in math (meeting or exceeding both district and state averages).

The halls of Boaz Middle School are buzzing with energy. Students walk past bulletin boards displaying their work, as a visitor stops to browse the examples of graphic organizers and short essays. Teachers stand in the open classroom doorways, discussing students, strategies and the day's successes. Students stop to ask teachers for extra help with presentations and projects. Teachers stop students as they pass by just to ask how things are going.

It wasn't always this way. While Boaz Middle had always been a pretty good school, with SAT 9 and SAT 10 scores in the high 50s, it was missing some of the key pieces that make a school great for every child that walks through the front doors. But the school has risen from good to great by focusing on the modern-day three R's of school success: Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships.

Growing a collaborative culture
Located in northeast Alabama's Marshall County, the Boaz community was once known for its booming retail industry of outlet stores. Today, the economy is shifting to agriculture and blue-collar factory jobs. The middle school serves 520 students in grades 6-8, 88% of whom are white, 10% Hispanic and 1% African American. Fifty percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, making BMS a Title I school.

"Boaz Middle has always had the reputation of being a good school," says Principal Ray Landers (who was recently selected as the 2009 National Middle Level Principal of the Year by MetLife and the National Association of Secondary School Principals). "But the hard fact was we were leading Marshall County in failure rate, with 30-40 students being retained every year. As we dug deeper into student data, we came to realize that we were a good school for a lot of kids, but we weren't a good school for those who were failing."

Landers knew that big change would require incremental steps. The initial step was to open up the classrooms and get teachers to start collaborating more. "Everyone was in their own little world," he says. "Teachers would go into their classrooms and shut the door and that was that. We moved to a more open door philosophy almost immediately so that the faculty could learn from one another and see what was going on in the other classrooms."

Landers also committed to hiring teachers who share his philosophy that students are the most important part of any school. His requirements: professionals who love working on a team, have a good sense of humor, an outgoing personality, and a passion for children.

BoazLectureWEB.jpg"At the end of the day, success is not about programs," he notes. "It's about people. It's about hiring the right people and giving them the right training to make them great teachers."

Boaz's improvement took a big step forward in 2004, when Landers coaxed Pam Duke, a former staff member of the Alabama Reading Initiative, out of retirement and into a role as instructional specialist. That year, Duke led the entire faculty in job-embedded professional development on all the literacy components of the Alabama Reading Initiative.

"It was very powerful because we gathered together in small groups during the school day to learn the literacy strategies," says Renee Adams, who teaches 7th grade science. "Then we returned to the classroom to practice. Pam helped us adapt them to our content area."

The school also did away with after-school faculty meetings, increased communication via email, and introduced block scheduling to ensure that all grade levels and content areas share a common planning time. Most importantly, professional development moved from a "sit and get" experience to a shared, collaborative effort relevant to the learning process.

"We've gone from having consultants come in and give lectures, to a place where we are learning from each other," says Jenny Franks, a 7th grade language arts teacher in her eighth year at Boaz Middle. "We are all required to do reflective journals about any outside professional development we do. Professional development is targeted to where our weaknesses are based on what our student data says."

As teachers became more comfortable with collaborating and sharing ideas, Landers found himself having to step out of his comfort zone in terms of his management style.

"A lot of principals have a hard time turning over ownership of the learning process to their teachers," he says. "But the folks in the building are the real experts, and a good instructional leader needs to learn how to share the responsibility with them. We needed help from everyone." To that end, the administration formed the Faculty Leadership Team that today makes all decisions regarding instruction.

"Mr. Landers wanted those of us in the trenches to make decisions regarding the school," explains Adams, who serves on the team. "We meet frequently at the beginning and end of each school year, and then as needed throughout the year. We also meet heavily during the summer to do scheduling and planning."

Endeavoring to understand poverty
Four years ago, Boaz Middle School was not a Title I school, with around ten percent of students qualifying for subsidized lunch. But, as the jobs in Boaz have shifted toward blue-collar and migrant agriculture positions, the demographics of the community have changed.

Two years ago, Connie Morgan looked at the rising numbers of students in poverty and realized the percentages at the middle school were only going to increase-and might already be higher than reported. "In middle and high school, self-reporting of poverty goes down, so even though the numbers may say only 50%, we suspect it's higher," she says.

Rather than make excuses about the difficulties of teaching students in poverty, Boaz Middle School decided to tackle the issue head on. They conducted article and book studies, starting with Ruby Payne's seminal work, A Framework for Understanding Poverty. In it, Payne contends that relationships and education are the two things that can help children break out of the poverty cycle. "We had the education piece in place," says Landers. "We just needed to focus on the relationship piece. We needed to make it personal."

To do so, Connie Morgan says, "We showed our teachers the statistics for our community and then we got on a bus. We drove through the community and stopped at the addresses of our students. We'd get out, knock on doors, and speak with our students and their families. We did this as a whole faculty to see what circumstances our students are dealing with at home."

As Amy Machen, a 6th grade social studies teacher, says of the experience: "We saw things and places we didn't know existed here. Now, when a student doesn't have his homework or looks disheveled and tired, we understand the underlying cause."

Last year, the faculty expanded their consideration of poverty, participating in an article study about tone of voice and discipline. "When you're working with older kids and you have 30 kids in the classroom, you may think that using the parental tone of voice is the way to go," explains Duke. "But in many cases, it is not going to work with students in poverty because they may themselves be the parent in their household. [We] had to learn to use different tones of voice to communicate."

Shifting to student-centered classrooms
BoazGroupWork2WEB.jpgThe culture shift at BMS from closed doors and teacher-centered instruction to collaborative learning focused on student needs has produced many visible changes in the school. For example, there are no textbooks in the classrooms. Instead, content standards are taught using primary materials-newspaper and magazine articles, novels, historical letters, photographs and whatever else teachers can find to engage students.

Why the switch? According to Landers, using a diverse array of materials makes it easier to differentiate instruction. "If you're teaching out of a 6th grade textbook but not all of your students are reading on a 6th grade level, you're in trouble. Or if your students are reading on a 9th grade level, they are going to be bored.

"We did book and article studies focusing on research that shows textbooks are not the best tool for real learning. And then little light bulbs start going on all around the building. Teachers started experimenting with new lesson plans and leaving the textbooks on the shelves. They had such success that the practice spread like wildfire to other classrooms."

"It was very scary getting rid of our textbooks at first," says Machen. "But the kids have really enjoyed it."

Another component of student-focused instruction is the daily intervention program. During "home base" time from 7:15-8 a.m., Monday-Thursday, every resource teacher (P.E., Library, Music, ELL, Special Ed, and the Guidance Counselor) works with struggling readers. The students are divided by gender so teachers can easily find articles, stories and small books that fit their interest. English Language Learners are included in each group. Each teacher has two groups of 4-5 students, two mornings a week. They guide them through expository articles at their ability level, digging deeply into vocabulary, comprehension and fluency. In this way, the school is able to reach 50-60 kids per week with intensive small group intervention.

Students on grade level also get concentrated reading time from 7:30 to 8 a.m. daily. During that time, they read independently, orally or in literature circles in their home bases (homerooms).

Teaching out of the box
Among the "out of the box" methods Boaz teachers employ to address student needs is the Zeroes Aren't Productive, or ZAP, approach to grading. ZAP makes it difficult or impossible for a student to "earn" a zero. There's also Fix-It Friday, during which students may be required to leave physical education, computer, library or music to complete unfinished work in content areas. The OSCAR program (On School Campus Alternative Remediation) provides for students to stay after school three days a week to make up work. And high school tutors come in once a week to help kids who've been identified as needing extra assistance. BoazMonitorWEB.jpg

The school also focuses on writing across the curriculum. Previously, readying students for the Alabama Direct Assessment of Writing (ADAW) was mainly the responsibility of 7th grade language arts teachers. To spread that responsibility, the school conducted faculty book studies on consultant Rick Shelton's writing handbook, Write Where You Are. Shelton also visits the school four times a year to model lessons.

In 7th grade, teachers embarked on a "writing camp." During the first semester, language arts teachers introduce and give explicit instruction and practice on all four modes of writing. Social studies teachers support language arts teachers in at least expository and persuasive writing.

"After Christmas, the English teachers revisit one mode of writing per week," Duke explains. "The task is then handed off to Social Studies, who reinforce that mode for a week before handing the task off to science, who then hands it to math. In this way, we completely immerse students in the modes of writing for the months leading up to the ADAW."

The school also administers teacher-generated writing assessments to 6th and 8th graders at the same time 7th graders are taking the state test. The practice tests are jury-scored by teachers in the same fashion as the ADAW. This helps identify weaknesses and strengths school-wide so instruction can be tailored to student needs.

At Boaz Middle, math gets equal billing with reading and writing. All content area teachers feel comfortable helping math teachers. "I coined the term math moment," explains Jeff Sanders. "Every content teacher is given a math problem every week to go over with their students. I also send out a math word of the week, and every Wednesday, the language arts teachers use it in their vocabulary lesson so the students learn what the words mean." In addition, math teachers review each new unit to identify fresh vocabulary words, then give the list to all other content teachers so they can reinforce them.

Reflecting on success
As the numbers show, the changes that have taken place at Boaz Middle School during the last eight years have dramatically improved student achievement. The school reduced discipline referrals from 567 in 2000-2001 to 150 in 2006-2007. They've reduced the failure rate to zero. In 2006-2007, 89% of all 6th graders, 91% of all 7th graders and 93% of all 8th graders scored proficient or above on the math section of the ARMT. Also in 2006-2007, 96% of all 6th graders, 95% of all 7th graders and 95% of all 8th graders scored proficient or above in reading.

Another impressive statistic: the school was able to improve writing scores by more than 20 percentage points in 2007. According to ADAW data, the 5th grade class at Boaz Elementary School in 2005 had 67% of students at levels III and IV. In 2007, when those same students were in 7th grade at Boaz Middle School, 88% of them scored proficient (level III) or above.

BoazScienceWEB.jpg"This is not the same school it was five years ago," says Connie Morgan, who moved from BMS to the district office last year. "We have some teachers who've been teaching 25 years, but they are not the same teachers they were five years ago. And it wasn't because we purchased a lot of programs. It was because we changed the way we think and the way we were doing things inside the building."

"It wasn't an easy journey," says teacher Jenny Franks. "At first, there were a lot of hard days where I felt like nothing was working and I wasn't being successful at all. Then, the very next day, I'd hit on something and it would be great. Eventually, there were more great days than bad days, and now it's second nature. If we hadn't taken the journey, it would have been a tragedy."

"Our teachers will tell you that this is the toughest job they've ever loved," says Landers. "It's hard to teach the way we do it here. It's harder to teach good grammar and sentence structure using literature instead of a textbook, because you have to go out and find the material. But that's what captures the students."

"We have to find a way to make learning entertaining to the video game generation," he insists. "Our teachers are not just dispensers of knowledge. They equip our boys and girls with the tools to go out and find the knowledge for themselves, and then use that knowledge to make their education a more positive experience."

For additional information, please contact:
Boaz Middle School

Adapted with permission from the Alabama Best Practices Center.

Full citation:
Jennifer Pyron, "The Road from Good to Great."  In the Fall 2008 issue of Working Towards Excellence: the Journal of the Alabama Best Practices Center, Volume 8 Number 1.

Copyright © 2008 by the Alabama Best Practices Center.

Click here to access the original article as contained in the Alabama Best Practice's Center website.

Photos courtesy of Boaz Middle School

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