Educators learn a lot from watching one another in the classroom.
Regular class observation sessions are a part of the routine in Greenup County schools, where Greenup County High School principal Jason Smith organizes sessions that take high school and central office administrators to other schools in the district.
Smith recently added his teachers to the observation schedule, and that got him thinking about inviting non-educators to visit the high school to watch typical classes in session.
So that’s what he did. On Friday, about 25 parents and community leaders visited a cross-section of classes to get a better understanding of how teachers do their jobs and how Greenup County High School is working to improve its low-performing status.
“We’re doing lots of great and wonderful things, but a lot of it is not getting out of these walls,” said Smith, who is the second principal to helm Greenup County since the state placed it on a list of the lowest-performing schools in the state in 2010.
Greenup was placed in low-achieving status when it joined the bottom five percent of schools in reading and math test scores. The ignominy was leavened by a state improvement grant of $1 million per year for two years, with another $500,000 or so anticipated next year.
With the money and a stern and severe shakeup of instructional practices, Greenup has risen to the 42nd percentile rank since then. That doesn’t equate to the proficiency required for a successful turnaround, but it does clearly demonstrate that the new practices are working, and supports his expectation that proficiency is attainable by the three-year turnaround deadline, Smith said.
That is what he wanted outsiders to see Friday. “My goal was for people to see teachers teach and students learning, and the culture we’re trying to build here of effort and hard work,” he said. “When you’re in turnaround, there is no magic pill. There’s no pixie dust.
“Last year, the first year of the turnaround, we made a tremendous leap. The teachers and students know, but the community doesn’t.”
For about an hour, visitors watched from the back of classrooms while teachers and students went about their business. Smith said none of the classroom sessions was set up. “This is no dog and pony show,” he said.
They saw a spirited discussion on charter schools in Brandi Litteral’s anthropology class. A dozen students chimed in with minimal moderation from Litteral, who posed as many thought-provoking questions as she answered.
They listened in a math class as teacher Jeani Gollihue went desk to desk for mini-counseling sessions on choosing courses for next year.
Amanda Hensley’s English students were reviewing expectations for an upcoming end-of-course assessment.
Visitors also looked in on science and art labs and vocational classrooms.
Parents in the district hear a good deal of talk about school failings, “a lot of negative stuff,” said Amy Webb, one of whose children is an eighth-grader at McKell Middle School and will be attending the high school in the fall.
“This has changed my mind,” she said. Seeing teachers and students engaged with one another was encouraging, she said.
The negative reports were all true at one time, but turnaround efforts have been effective, said Mark Elkins, the parent of eighth- and fifth-graders and a member of the Wurtland Middle School council.
Elkins believes teaching strategies are only part of the explanation. “I’ve seen a change in the mentality of parent and community involvement,” he said. “It’s going to take a community to fix this problem. It’s not going to fix itself.”
School officials want Friday’s visitors to share what they’ve seen with others in the district. Smith said he would invite them back in the fall for another look.
MIKE JAMES can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2652.