STANFORD — When Lincoln County High School was designated as a "persistently low-achieveing" school in October 2011, school and district leaders began making changes immediately in an effort to turn around the school's performance.
Now the state team of veteran educators sent into the high school to help it improve say that early work laid a good foundation for the changes they're charged with bringing about.
"They immediately started trying to put some things in place to increase student achievement," said Sam Watkins, leader of the three-person education recovery team. "I think the school had been primed so when we got here, the conditions were favorable for us to be very effective. We hit the ground running, so to speak."
Watkins and two other education recovery specialists — Vanessa Worley and Lori Hollen — have been in the hallways and classrooms of Lincoln County High School since this school year began, talking with students about their experiences, training teachers on curriculum strategies and teaching administrators how to maintain an atmosphere of continuous improvement.
"Our main job is to help the school build systems and work ourselves out of a job," Worley said.
Watkins, Worley and Hollen are one of multiple education recovery teams whom the state deploys to low-achieving schools for three-year periods.
All three members of the team have long careers in education and multiple educational degrees and certifications.
Each team member has a specific area assigned to them — as the leader, Watkins deals with administration, while Worley is an English and reading specialist and Hollen is a math specialist.
But those roles only remain in place to a certain extent and there's a lot of "overlap," Watkins said. Any one of them might be called on to help teachers or administrators in different areas depending on the day, he said.
"We've got a pretty wide basis of research to show us what works and what doesn't," Hollen said. "We try to pull from what works."
The recovery team's task is not a simple one — it seems less like a jigsaw puzzle and more like a Rubik's cube.
Effecting changes on a school-wide level means working on all the different pieces of the puzzle at once, Watkins said.
While there is currently an emphasis on "curriculum alignment" — essentially, making sure the school is teaching students the same content they will be tested on — the team is also busy helping school staff understand data from student assessments and fine-tune their teaching strategies.
"You can't really separate those three pieces out because we do work on all of them all at once," Watkins said. "But right now we would have to say that curriculum alignment is in the driver's seat."
By the end of the school year, the first draft of the school's new curriculum alignment will hopefully be completed, allowing the focus to shift somewhat to the other pieces of the puzzle.
But even when curriculum alignment is no longer the focus, it won't ever be done completely.
"Everything is always a work in progress," Worley said. "Nothing will ever be finished, but their (the high school's) systems will be stronger."
The over-arching goal of the recovery team is to pass on their methods for continuous improvement to the high school's staff. Then, when the team leaves at the end of the 2014-2015 school year, the school staff will be able to keep improving on their own.
"Eventually our goal is that we play less and less of a role as that capacity is built," Watkins said.
To that end, the team is working with "professional learning communities" — groups of teachers assembled across the school — that meet together and try to improve each other's teaching abilities and methods.
The school already has some strong teacher leaders who are eager to improve the school's performance, Worley said. Building and improving that infrastructure of leaders within the school will be essential to maintaining improvement, she said.
Getting to know Lincoln County
School and district leaders are meeting with the team every week for workshop-like sessions where status updates are shared and current progress is discussed.
From building a master schedule of classes to learning about classroom strategies for helping students remember their lessons, the meetings' topics can be varied.
At a recent January meeting, attendees discussed broadly how to align their school activities and strategies with a state model. Right after that, they began looking through test scores from individual students, identifying trends where teaching strategies might not be working.
Watkins said he's happy to be working with school leaders who are capable have "a good work ethic and desire to help students."
"They've been very eager to move their district forward," he said. "Not every educational recovery team has those luxuries."
All three team members live elsewhere in the state and commute into Lincoln County every school day. Such a setup is actually beneficial, Worley said.
"You almost need to come in as an outsider because then you come in with a fresh perspective," she said.
As the team members have walked through the school and observed classrooms in action, they've gotten to know teachers and many of the students
Worley said it's hard to put into words the experience of become a part of the high school and getting to know everyone, knowing she'll be gone in three years, potentially on to the next school in need of help.
"We may not know every kid in the building," she said. "But there's not a kid in the school we don't care about."