Five Steps to Becoming A Better School

Glenn O. Swing Elementary School Principal Scott Alter explains how to turn a school around for the better.
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Eight years ago, Glenn O. Swing Elementary (K–5) in Covington was, according to Principal Scott Alter, ranked among the worst schools in the Commonwealth, with only 20 percent of students scoring proficient in reading and math. But in October 2014, Swing was designated a distinguished school by the state of Kentucky—the first in its district—grading in the 96th percentile on state tests. In a district where students often need extra support—90 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch—Glenn O. Swing has created a culture that breeds success. Here’s how they turned things around:

1. Don’t teach in isolation
The school experienced what Alter calls a “pretty decent turnover” four or five years ago when teachers began working as teams, either by grade level or across departments. By making lesson plans together and assessing student work, teachers not only support one another but are accountable to one another. When scores for second grade reading assessments came back, “we were analyzing everyone’s scores right there at the table,” says Alter. “You have to be really comfortable with each other to do that, to look at each other’s data.” This culture change did cause some teachers to leave, but those who remained were dedicated to transparency.

2. Give teachers time to do their jobs
A teacher’s work does not end with the final bell. There are papers to grade, lessons to plan, heaps of paperwork to file, and meetings—so many meetings. Glenn O. Swing has found that retaining the best teachers means respecting their time. There are no regularly scheduled all-school staff meetings. Daily planning time is protected, and one day each month the school brings in substitutes to offer a release day so teams have time to plan ahead.

3. Borrow from the best
Glenn O. Swing teaches Ron Clark’s “The Essential 55,” a list of habits meant to instill manners, industriousness, and accountability—things like holding open doors for others, saying “excuse me” if you bump into someone, saying “thank you.” Teachers go over a few essentials with their students every morning and then expect to see good behavior in action.

4. Provide constant student support
You can’t hold high expectations for kids—some of whom have emotional, social, and behavioral issues—without attending to their needs. Glenn O. Swing’s student support team consists of a counselor, psychologist, family coordinator, after-school coordinator, and a behavior coach. Every support team referral is tracked as closely as a student’s academic data, analyzed every week, at which point students’ behavioral support plans are adjusted accordingly and made immediately accessible to teachers. When parents can’t be reached for assistance, the support team makes home visits, too.

5. Create an environment that celebrates learning
The classrooms at Glenn O. Swing are brightly painted and the hallways are covered in photos of student-of-the-month award winners and honor roll recipients. There’s an outdoor classroom, built by Lowe’s Heroes, complete with a fish pond and garden space utilized by the garden club. The students participate in glee club, dance club, and a year-end art-show collaboration with the Carnegie Center. Everywhere you look, the school makes clear that it’s proud of its students.

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