Watering the Bamboo

by Ariel Reynolds on Mar 23, 2016

in Team & Family

At KIPP Houston Public Schools, we never want to reach a plateau where we are not improving. We don’t want to claim to be perfect or to have education issues solved. Transparency raises standards and these standards create a better future for ALL children.

During the 2013-14 school year, KIPP Dream Prep’s STAAR performance made the state’s “Improvement Required” list, and was classified as a focus school for KIPP Houston Public Schools.  2014-15 brought significant improvement gains, meeting the state standards for STAAR and bringing Dream out of its focus school status for the 2015-16 school year. Here is their journey to success.

How We Fell Behind

During the 2013-14 school year, Dream officially became an “Improvement Required” school with the Texas Education Agency (TEA), meaning standards weren’t being met and student achievement was low. These problems were far beyond the control of any one person. Through a series of transitions and a loss of a unified vision, the school had become disjointed without common goals or language. Though no one individual was responsible for the poor performance, a series of leadership and teacher transitions, a loss of a unified vision, and a lack of clear data points towards rigorous goals caused disjointedness and low performance. These issues caused a serious misalignment with our promise to prepare every child to go to and through college. While there were certainly extraordinary things taking place in individual classrooms at Dream, student achievement data overall revealed where our students were not meeting expectations – something for which we had to take responsibility and make changes. It was never anyone’s intention to be anything but great for our KIPPsters, but the situation was bad; it was bad enough that clear and specific action needed to be taken.

Dream’s Turnaround

After changing leadership and revamping the school’s vision, Dream began an extraordinary turnaround – Office referrals dropped to one to two per week, down from often double digit referrals daily, student enrollment increased, and teacher retention reached a new high. To date, there have been zero out of school suspensions during the 2015-16 school year. 

The TEA’s processes associated with schools deemed “Improvement Required” pushed the leadership of Dream to dig deep beyond symptoms of issues, and to seek root causes of the challenges. After months of research, the school leadership looked at the data results longitudinally and learned there were systemic failures, much bigger than any one person or action, as well as clear and specific actions to take to resolve the situation.

Watering the Bamboo

School Leader, Celeste Barretto, once attended a summer math conference where she heard a story of bamboo farming from Greg Bell. These farmers must water their bamboo for three years without seeing results, and then during the third year, the bamboo grows 90ft in 60 days. Dream’s team used this metaphor as they pushed faithfully to create change at Dream. Results are never immediate, but the Team & Family knew they were watering bamboo, eventually resulting in change.

Actions Taken

Here are three main strategies used by Dream to execute such a powerful school turnaround:

1. Time is important. Dream focused on maximizing student learning time. This means (1) more time for kids who are behind; (2) morning routines are over and instruction starts at 7:45; (3) transitions to lunch or excellence are very short; (4) lesson plans must include a designated number of instructional minutes on phonics, math, etc., for each grade level. Beyond changing the schedule, Dream integrated real-time data into teacher monthly targets and student goals.

2. Less is more. Reading fluency was the specific skill our kids lacked, so Dream limited the scope and focused on this skill. Kids struggled with getting words off the page. They had low phonemic awareness and low reading fluency. Dream focused on all teachers teaching reading, making sure they were grounded in key concepts to ensure their kids mastered reading fluency. Next year, the school needs to work on rigor and reading comprehension, but in order to address this higher-level skill, they worked on fluency for a whole year first.

3. Student culture is key. The whole first year was rebuilding student culture, creating structures and norms that kids understood. Part of this was having teachers trained on social skills through Project Class, and part of this was having kids earn everything.

Dream’s turnaround is absolutely replicable. The staff wasn’t cleaned out, there is no magic solution. Instead, a school filled with hard-working people, committed to watering the bamboo every day will achieve great things for kids.