Case Study: Connellsville Area Senior High School
Changing the Course of a Struggling Rural School
A Pennsylvania principal used NISL strategies to help Connellsville Area Senior High School make AYP for the first time and then applied NISL concepts at the district level as Director of Curriculum.
Since 2001, state testing had placed Connellsville Area Senior High School "in need of improvement" status. This same designation faced Dr. Tammy Stern when she walked through doors as the school's new principal in 2005. In her second year, she would receive support that would eventually help her turn the school around. The training came as part of a new statewide initiative, the Pennsylvania Inspired Leadership Program, to support principals in their first five years in the role. This initiative used NISL's Executive Development Program as the curriculum to strengthen instructional leadership. The NISL program provided a research-based foundation for changes Dr. Stern instituted, transforming school culture to one in which students and faculty have become a true learning community.
"When I became principal in 2005, I knew changes needed to be made immediately," Dr. Stern says. "That was clear to anyone who analyzed our performance data at that time. The Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) state testing began during the 2001–02 school year. Since that time, the senior high school had been in either 'warning,' 'school improvement,' or 'corrective action' state status."
Dr. Stern knew she needed to make dramatic changes, but she didn't have models of success to use as a foundation for action.
NISL helped Dr. Stern implement a range of initiatives at Connellsville. Stern credits the program with strengthening her decision making, giving her the confidence to make hard decisions. "Based on what I learned through my NISL training, I was able to devise a strong program that led the school to better student outcomes," she says.
"The NISL program truly impacted what I implemented as a senior high school principal. NISL's research-based case studies and change models helped me to achieve success as I began implementing the concepts embedded in them."
One of the case studies in the NISL program served as the premise on which Dr. Stern created the school's new master schedule. Previously, better teachers almost always taught the highest-performing students. Connellsville's second-year principal flipped this practice on its head. Based on evidence presented in the NISL program, Dr. Stern ensured that master teachers with strong pedagogical knowledge taught struggling students.
This and other key changes Dr. Stern instituted transformed the culture of the school. Now, these changes are having an impact at the district level since she became Director of Curriculum in the district. Staff members receive focused professional development that looks at student work and data as the basis for sharing best practices and improving student learning. They are organized into professional learning communities (PLCs) to promote continued professional growth. Dr. Stern herself has become a true instructional leader, conducting walk-throughs on a regular basis, looking for examples of excellent instruction that are shared with faculty and examining areas in which teachers need assistance.
Dr. Stern best summarizes the impact of NISL training on her school, staff and students: "When I first started as a principal, I felt like I had to beg staff members to attend meetings to review the data. The culture has changed so much in our district now! Staff members are asking for the data as soon as they are released so that, on their own, they can begin their analyses. I believe that the teachers are much more confident in their abilities to instruct students. They know that focused instruction is what the students need to be successful. There is also a more cohesive feeling about the senior high staff now that everyone shares the responsibility of meeting AYP. We met AYP at the end of my second year as principal (2006–07). That was the first time that the senior high had met AYP since we began state testing!"
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