Terri McCaughan was ready for a change.
She had worked at the Newport News Public Schools central office for a decade, and was five years away from retirement.
As executive director of curriculum and development, she worked on strategies to improve schools, including rewriting what students are supposed to learn. But once her team started their work inside school buildings, she felt removed from doing the real work of implementation in classrooms. So, she looked to return to her roots as a building principal.
“ ‘I would not mind going back to a school for five years and seeing if what we’re up here talking about is really what we should be up here talking about, and if it’s not, I’ll let you know, and we’ll go to Plan B,’ ” McCaughan said she told her bosses at the time. “And then I specifically said I wouldn’t mind going to Jenkins. It’s a great school, it’s got a lot of potential, it should be doing better than it’s been doing.”
Jenkins had not been fully accredited since 2010, and, when McCaughan took over in 2014, the school was conditionally accredited. Just 50 percent of students had passed their English Standards of Learning tests in the 2013-14 school year, 59 percent their history tests, and 56 percent in science. The only subject in which the benchmark for full accreditation was met was math, in which 70 percent of students passed, just clearing the line.
The next year showed some gains, many small: in 2015-16, 55 percent of students passed English; 60 percent history; 65 percent math and 56 percent science. Based on a continual lack of being fully accredited, the school was denied accreditation, despite an appeal from NNPS to the state.
The following year, every subject posted gains: 10 percent more students passed English; 11 percent more in history, 3 percent more in math and, most notably, 30 percent more in science. But it wasn’t enough to meet the benchmarks, and the school again was denied accreditation.
This year will be a different story. In the spring, 75 percent of students passed English, 76 percent passed math, 78 percent passed history and 74 percent passed science.
And when factoring in the results from students in remediation and other adjustments, the results jump even more: 80 percent English pass rate; 81 percent in math; 81 percent in history; and 82 percent in science.
So now, with McCaughan going into her fourth year at Jenkins, the sign out front of the school boasts: “Our prediction: Fully accredited.”
How they did it
McCaughan and Brenton Byrd, assistant principal at Jenkins for the past five years, both said a culture shift has been a key factor in earning the new designation, which officially will be confirmed by the statewide release of accreditation ratings on Sept. 13.
Teachers were tasked with helping students set goals at the beginning of the school year by asking their hopes and dreams. Asking a first grader to consider what she wants to get out of school helps create a purpose, McCaughan said.
“I think that started to shift student thinking and parent thinking and teacher thinking about, ‘Wow, we can do this. We can do really hard work, and we can do it really well,’ ” McCaughan said. “I think that was a big part of it. I think what we noticed happened when we took the time to do that is we really got to know the children.
“And we had good relationships with them before, but we got to really, really know them. And once you get to know a person, you get to understand how they learn better and you get to know what they like to learn about.”
Those relationships, the structures of which have been a three-year building process, meant that the learning climate and culture shifted from one that was compliance-driven to something more community-based, she said. Rewards no longer are given as a rote assessment for which students have an A; instead, students with goals at varying levels are recognized for making progress toward achieving them.
Teachers have been able to buy in through what Byrd called McCaughan’s “optimistic leadership style.” No idea pitched by a teacher is too crazy, as long as it’s safe and legal, McCaughan joked. It leads to a collaborative, supportive environment, they said. It helped ensure that teacher turnover is low, too; after an initial hiring of eight or nine teachers when McCaughan started, only a few teachers have left, mostly out of a required relocation out of town.
Jenkins is a Title I school, meaning it receives additional funding to overcome the challenges that come with having a high population of economically disadvantaged attendees; last year, 317 of the 427 students fit the criteria. Based on its academic results, it was considered a Priority School last year, meaning it was in the lowest-performing 5 percent of Title I schools.
A requirement of the designation is using a state-approved turnaround partner to implement reform models. Jenkins chose to partner with the University of Virginia, using services to bolster literacy and math education. Another math resource helped instruct teachers on how to implement curriculum, as opposed to working with students in small groups and diluting the power of extra help.
It paid off for Nikki Amburgey, a first-grade teacher at Jenkins. The Newport News native and Christopher Newport University graduate’s first teaching job was at Jenkins, and she is starting her fourth year.
She sees a statewide drop off in reading between when students leave first grade and start second, and is hoping that the ongoing partnership will continue to bridge that gap that teachers at Jenkins are working hard to address. She also said she’s hoping that the results will help encourage parents who may have requested a transfer to another school to give Jenkins another try.
And even though students don’t take SOLs in her room — they begin with reading and math in third grade — Amburgey and others in the school all pitched in to help tutor students who might need extra help in other classrooms.
“Last year, when it came to SOL time, everybody was pitching in, even though K-2 we don’t have SOLs,” she said. “But everybody was still hands on. … It literally took the whole community, the whole school. It took a village. We’re excited for the new year, and excited to see what happens next.”
Maintaining the status
The next step may be the hardest: remaining fully accredited in the school year to come. There could be a tendency to check the accomplishment off a to-do list, but McCaughan said the attitude at Jenkins is far from that.
She said she wants to continue to develop strategies to address students’ individual needs to meet them where they’re at while still challenging them cognitively.
“We’ve got to get better and quicker at knowing where children are, so that we’re not wasting any minutes of teaching something that they already know,” McCaughan said. “They’re all entering at different places, and we’ve got to get with the kids where they’re entering at so we can move them all at the same time. We’ve gotten pretty good at that as a division, but there’s always room for refinement.”
Jenkins can take a lesson from Andrews PreK-8 School in Hampton. Last year, it became fully accredited — for the first time since 2011 — after being denied the year before. Andrews was one of two schools in the state to move from denied to full accreditation for the 2016-17 school year.
The school division expects it will maintain that status this year.
When it became fully accredited, reading, writing, history, and social sciences and science SOL pass rates had all risen double-digits in one year, with math posting a six-point gain. The scores this year were fairly similar: 78 percent in reading, 81 percent in math, 79 percent in science. History and social sciences jumped another 10 points to 92 percent.
Principal Jeff Blowe said the achievements were, like in Jenkins’ case, the result of years of work. He’s about to begin his fifth year as Andrews’ principal, and credits putting the right systems in place to work collaboratively to better educate more than 1,000 students across 10 grade levels.
It took a lot of data analysis to, for example, find what might be working in teaching third graders reading practices, and applying it to eighth graders who may be slipping back in the subject. As is the case in Jenkins, teachers at Andrews are asked for input and ownership of their work as opposed to dictating what they must do.
Blowe likens it to a “one band, one sound” mentality popularized by the movie “Drumline.”
“It’s a collaborative effort to produce an outstanding band performance and band,” he said. “I took that and sort of connected it to what we do in the business of teaching and learning. I began to introduce the concept to the staff because it’s a very complex school, preK through 8, a lot of grade levels and departments. … It’s definitely been a transformation of thinking and a mindset, a collaborative, conceptual understanding that everybody has a stake in this. We have a part to do in this. It’s all hands on deck.”
Hammond can be reached by phone at 757-247-4951 or on Twitter @byjanehammond.