Field Trip: Turnaround

  

New leadership, a new partnership and a lot of hard work. This is the story of Bonneville Elementary’s journey from underperformance to academic rigor and a renewed culture.

In 2014, Bonneville Elementary was in the bottom 1% of elementary schools in Utah. Ogden School District saw the need for change and sprang into action. With a new principal, a partnership with school transformation organization Ed Direction and a willingness to ask hard questions and roll up their sleeves, Bonneville Elementary is a completely different place today. This is their story.

In this interview, we speak with Janice Bukey, Principal; Sarah Roberts, Executive Director of Instructional Leadership; and Dr. Hollie Pettersson, Ed Direction’s co-education practice lead.

  • A close look at the before and after
  • Steps that the school took to identify and address the root causes of the issues
  • How they worked to change the culture of the school and have open, honest conversations about teaching
  • Their results, and words of wisdom for school leaders who might face the same challenges

Full Transcript  

JANICE BUKEY: My first day in, I walked up and down the halls, and quite honestly, I was in dismay.

Leaders in K-12 education have a lot of great stories to share.

HOLLIE PETTERSSON: One thing that we noticed about Bonneville Elementary when we started working with them was that their scores were telling a different picture than what we saw as the potential of the school.

New ideas. New ways of thinking. Creative problem-solving.

SARAH ROBERTS: We needed to take a big risk and get big rewards. And we saw this rising star instructional leader with a smile on her face for every child and every parent, and a can-do attitude, and plopped her into a building that was feeling lost.

Every other Friday, we bring you a new story of innovation in K-12. Superintendents, principals, HR directors, instructional coaches and more talk about what they’re learning and share how they’re tackling challenges and making better decisions for their staffs and students.

From Frontline Education, you’re listening to Field Trip.

Today we’re speaking with Janice Bukey, Principal of Bonneville Elementary School in Ogden, Utah. She’s joined by Sarah Roberts, who’s the Executive Director of Instructional Leadership at Ogden School District; and also with us is Dr. Hollie Peterson of Ed Direction, an organization that works with schools, districts, and nonprofits to produce transformational change.  School turnarounds are their sweet spot. Janice, Sarah, Hollie, glad you can be here.

JANICE BUKEY: Thank you. Glad to be here.

HOLLIE PETTERSSON: Same here.

 SARAH ROBERTS: Glad to be here.

Bonneville Elementary School is about 45 minutes north of Salt Lake City. It lies between the Great Salt Lake and a range of stunning mountains. Looking at the school building, you can see words like “Kindness,” “Honesty,” “Perseverance,” and “Courage” — words that convey the kinds of traits they try to instill in their students.

About half the students are native English speakers. It’s racially and socioeconomically mixed.

JANICE BUKEY: We have families there that are third and fourth generations, so their great-grandparents attended Bonneville, and then we have a highly transient population as well, students that move in and out, both within Ogden schools and then outside of Ogden.

So a little bit of everything, but you would love the feeling that you get when you walk into our school. It’s a great family and family community.

In 2014-2015, Bonneville Elementary was struggling. When Janice started as principal at the end of that spring, she took a look around.

JANICE BUKEY: My first day in, I walked up and down the halls, and, quite honestly, I was in dismay. I was really concerned about, in some cases, the lack of appropriate instruction for kids. I was concerned about behaviors in the classrooms as well as in the common areas, but what I did see in spite of all of that were some very dedicated professionals working so hard with what they knew and with what they had, to make a difference in their classrooms and to ensure that their students were getting the appropriate education and opportunities.

Janice saw a community that felt a bit defeated. She speaks highly of the people she works alongside in the building. She saw that they had been working so hard, yet weren’t seeing the kind of success that they wanted.

JANICE BUKEY: And it really is not a reflection on any one individual or even the group of individuals as a whole. I think there are a lot of things that contribute to a school being in that state, and so I just knew we needed to get a good team of those hard-working individuals and people smarter than me together, so that we could figure out what we needed to do to turn that around, because I knew we could. I knew that we could do that.

SARAH ROBERTS: Things were not showing progress, academically, as she described. Socially, we were having parents who were concerned about bullying and feeling that their kids weren’t safe at school, and that there wasn’t a plan for safety or for improved student learning. We had a downward trend in every academic area despite having a flagship dual-language immersion program, and parents who were choicing into this school, and teachers who were on board with a vision and mission of creating a culturally, linguistically and academically rigorous and diverse environment, but over the last few years had actually seen not just stalling of academic outcomes, but pretty marked decline.

That’s Sarah, the Executive Director of Instructional Leadership at the district. In Utah, the bottom 3% of schools are considered “turnaround schools” that need additional supports. At the time, Bonneville Elementary was in the bottom 1%. And Sarah said that a feeling of defeat was beginning to creep in. Teachers were looking at their data, asking questions like, “Do I need to reteach each one of my lessons? How do I get more parental involvement? How do I get more support in my classrooms?”

SARAH ROBERTS: None of these questions had answers. Everyone had been asking these questions for a little over a year, and it became very apparent that we needed a reset.

So in her first ever administrative role, Janice was asked to come in and lead the turnaround.

SARAH ROBERTS: We saw this rising star instructional leader with a smile on her face for every child and every parent and a can-do attitude, and plopped her into a building that was feeling lost.

As you might have noticed already, Janice thinks really highly of her teachers and staff. She saw a ton of leadership potential on her team, saw that they cared deeply about their work, and for the students. But they were discouraged. And that makes it harder to do things like collaborate with other teachers.

She decided to sit down with each staff member, one on one, just to get a read on things.

JANICE BUKEY: I started with teachers, but then I also met with support staff. I met with every one of my kitchen helpers, my playground monitors, my custodian. I sent out a survey to each of them and just asked them basic questions. We started with questions like, “What is your favorite part of Bonneville?  What is the most satisfying time during your day?” — trying to get them to focus on the positive, and then I asked them to share with me their top three concerns, whether it had to do with instruction or culture or relationships, just anything. So I took the results from that survey and then had these one-on-one meetings.

During that time, it was a wonderful opportunity for me not only to build relationships but to help them to see that I was there to help them be successful in their work, and to start those conversations about, “Where do we begin this work?” and to make sure that they understood that they weren’t going to be doing it alone, that we were going to do it together, and that was the only way that it was going to work.

In 2015, Janice and her leadership team took several days of specialized leadership training with Ed Direction – the organization we mentioned earlier. They covered topics like the structure of PLCs, how to have effective school leadership meetings, identifying evidence-based practices, and so forth. When they received notice that the school would be placed in turnaround, Ed Direction was one of the organizations they could choose to work with to receive specialized coaching. Janice’s team discussed it, and everyone agreed they wanted to continue their work with them.

HOLLIE PETTERSSON: Yeah. Ed Direction’s model is a little bit unique in that we invest in teachers.

That’s Dr. Hollie Pettersson, Ed Direction’s co-education practice lead.

HOLLIE PETTERSSON: When we look at a school that is struggling, our first assumption is that the people who are in that building definitely want to see students learning and growing; they just need additional support to make that happen. We have recognized that instruction is the best lever we can pull to improve outcomes in schools, so we work with leadership development. We focus on evidence-based instructional strategies, including alignment of curriculum and assessment. Then we focus on building a culture that’s inclusive and that is focused on collaboration towards a common goal of students achieving.

Hollie said one thing they noticed was that Bonneville Elementary’s scores told a different story than the potential they saw in the school. So they set out to work with Janice and her team, with much-appreciated support from the district. Hollie said she loved working with Ogden School District.

HOLLIE PETTERSSON: Because in many turnaround schools, the principal is left on their own, even in large districts, but that was not the case in Ogden. We had identified, hand-picked Janice to turn this school around, and they were standing right side by side with her to help her make it happen.

Janice and her team were optimistic and excited to start the work. And yes, the district was supportive — but they knew that school turnarounds aren’t easy.

SARAH ROBERTS: Where I think on our end of the district level, there was a lot of wait-and-see in terms of our expectations. We had had schools go through multiple types of turnaround before in the state of Utah and in our school district specifically. We had had turnaround processes that focused on structures, turnaround processes that focused on leadership, turnaround processes that focused on systems. We had not had what we were hearing from Ed Direction was going to be this very comprehensive look at how those pieces work together in the classroom for impact on students.

Hollie mentioned investing in teachers; that had not been a part of any of the top-down and previously mandated turnaround processes, so I don’t think we went into this with particularly high expectations about the benefit that can be reached from this process. We frankly felt we had seen and done a lot of turnaround work before, and I can tell you, when I sat down for my first meeting a few months in and saw the appraisal, my expectations changed from wait and see to a lot of questions, almost overwhelmed at how comprehensive the look and the plan for this turnaround was going to be, compared to the four, that I can count, very specific turnarounds we had done before in other locations.

Hollie said Ed Direction began with a root cause analysis – finding out what was really the source of challenge for students not making proficiency. They began a series of interviews at Bonneville, beginning with Janice – what were her goals, and what did she already know about what was going on? And then they continued interviewing the teachers as well, since they were so critical to the plan.

HOLLIE PETTERSSON: We also did focus groups with the students to ask them what they liked about their school, what they would like to see different, and we did a parent focus group where we had a translator, a Spanish-speaking individual who could pair with me so we could meet the needs of the different languages in the room.

They also looked at each of the classrooms twice, paying attention to active versus passive student engagement in the classroom, and looking for key features of good instruction. Was it clear what the learning intention was? Did the assignment align with the rigor necessary to meet that learning intention? They looked into leadership at the school, as well as at how curriculum, instruction and assessment lined up together.

HOLLIE PETTERSSON: What effective practices were already happening at the school? What had been tried in the past that maybe if it had been given more support, would have gotten more traction?

Then we looked at the culture and climate of the school and the inclusive nature of not only the school but the community. Do the teachers see students with diverse backgrounds as a positive thing, or do they see it as a challenge to overcome?

From these questions, Ed Direction came up with an appraisal of the school … and then worked with Janice and her team to develop a 2-year skeletal plan. I asked Hollie what their findings were.

HOLLIE PETTERSSON: The thing that really jumped out at us was twofold. One, we were not leveraging the community in a way that would make a difference, so there were small missives that went out to parents to communicate with them. Obviously, Janice was incredibly accommodating when parents came in to talk to her, but the teachers were not taking a proactive approach to including the parents in the learning of their students. So that was one thing that we identified to really focus on.

Another thing we identified is that the teachers were telling us that they were a little bit of a fractured staff. They had different groups of teachers who enjoyed working together, but they didn’t have really inclusive teaming, which is what we needed to be able to make a difference at Bonneville, so we had to do some work with her teacher-leaders and teachers in general so that they would understand the power of collaboration focused on a goal.

The other thing that we noticed was that the school had done so many things, as Sarah alluded to. There have been a lot of work done in the district. They had done so many things that they had lost track of what their focus needed to be, and we had to help them narrow that focus, to remove some of the other items that they were working on that, while they were really worthy efforts, didn’t necessarily come to the top when we did our root cause analysis.

I asked Hollie to share some of the recommendations they made.

HOLLIE PETTERSSON: This was the best public/private partnership I’ve seen in a long time, because the public entity, the school and the district, were very willing to come to the table and make adjustments. We felt really confident in making adjustments to our work as well because of the competency that Janice and the team at the district had, so in saying that, some of the specifics that we really noticed, teachers were trying to do their best to work with students, and I said “work with students” instead of “instruct students.”

They were trying to keep the lid on the potential problem, and what Janice needed her team to do is she needed them to dig into the standards that they should be teaching their students and identify ways that they could build a learning progression, so that week by week, the students and the teacher knew what the targets were, what the success criteria was, to know if they were successful or not. They also needed a way to better utilize their in-district assessments and the assessments that the teachers were creating in their collaborative groups, so that first round, we really looked at the materials the teachers had to teach with, and we talked a lot about rigor, because we weren’t seeing it.

Janice made some really strong efforts to connect the dots for the teachers between the materials that they utilized for instruction and the level of rigor in the standards.

In doing this, they learned that Janice had some real strengths on her staff that they hadn’t used effectively in the past. I asked Janice to talk more about what it was like for her as they put the recommendations from Ed Direction into place.

JANICE BUKEY: In the beginning, it was overwhelming, quite honestly, because I wanted to focus on the things that they recommended, but I’m the kind of person who wants to do everything all at once, and so it was difficult to prioritize in the way that they were asking me to do. And it was difficult even when my executive directors at the district were having me prioritize, because, to me, everything is so important, because everything contributes to the success of our students and building those possibilities for their future, so as a new administrator, I had some learning and some growing to do with that.

But then on the other hand, because they gave me those focal points, I was able to overcome my own tendencies to do too much at once and focus on what we needed to do. When they gave me the first findings report and we began setting our goals, it really aligned with what I had already thought that we needed to do but just didn’t know exactly how to do it. So having that counsel from them and the regular communication with them really allowed me to keep the focus even when things got a little bit overwhelming.

Okay. And then what happened? What results did you see as you implemented these changes?

JANICE BUKEY: Well, it started sort of big picture. We started seeing improvement in overall culture, and that includes the culture of our collaborative meetings during PLCs. Because we’re a dual immersion school, previously the dual teachers did their thing, and the regular ed teachers did their thing, and we knew that we needed to bring them together to focus on the standards, so we were able to do that.

Honestly, there were some times when it was quite painful in PLCs. There were high emotions at different times, because this was a completely different level of work that we were asking these teachers to do, but we were doing it right alongside with them. We also had the help of additional coaches from Ed Direction that would sometimes participate in those PLCs. At the same time, our district received some training on backward design, and Ed Direction was very supportive of that and helped us to fine-tune that planning process.

I took some data my first couple of week there, in that spring of 2015, and at the time, out of 25 teachers, I had two teachers that could show me any kind of planning that they had done for that particular week that was coming up. It wasn’t that they didn’t have a plan, but the level of planning wasn’t where it needed to be to ensure that we were giving the best instruction possible, so we were really able to hone in on that process during PLCs.

They also focused on formative assessments that were short but rigorous, so they could assess where students were at more regularly – weekly, even. That gave them ongoing data that they could look at, to inform their planning. They’ve continued to perform these assessments over the past three years.

JANICE BUKEY: We have basically four levels of assessment. We have a daily assessment that is a new practice for us as of last year, and that’s just the use of basic exit tickets in the classroom and just those quick, “Did my students do what I thought they should be able to do by the end of this lesson?”

They also look at data each week to inform instruction for the next week.

JANICE BUKEY: “Did they get it? Did they not get it? What do we need to reteach? How do we need to reteach it?” Answering all those questions.

The district does interim assessments – looking at the broader picture every six weeks. And then there are end-of-level assessments as well. Each year they look at data from the whole year. They measure progress, compare to the previous year. They look at data from each cohort of kids, from each grade level.

JANICE BUKEY: So that we can not only assess our progress as teachers with our instruction with each group of kids, but we’re also looking at, “Do these students who were in second grade last year improve in math this year by this time?” So we’re looking at it from all angles.

Hollie said they also look at implementation – is the plan being implemented as the team intended?

HOLLIE PETTERSSON: So we have an Ed Direction coach in the building every week, and at regular intervals, that coach collects classroom data, to go in and watch the teachers in action and collect data on how the students are responding to instruction. Then that  is shared with Janice and her team to decide if their plan is on the right path or if we need to make a course correction.

They also bring in an outside team each year to do a progress monitoring appraisal so they can see how things are going.

I asked Janice, how is Bonneville Elementary different now from how it was in 2014-2015?

JANICE BUKEY: Oh wow. Well, let’s see. I’m trying to think where to begin. quite honestly. If you start with the affect of the school, I guess I can best describe it by what other people tell me. Sometimes these are people from the district; sometimes it’s parents or community members; they will walk in, and they’ll say things like, “Oh, wow, it’s so different here.” And I’ll say, “Well, we got new lighting in the hallways,” which really was a plus, by the way. They’ll laugh, and they’ll say, “Well, you know, it kind of feels different.” And I  said, “Well, we’re really focused on what we need to do, and we have worked hard on our school culture.” So there’s that. There’s just the feeling. There’s the positivity.

I would say when you walk in now, and you go into a classroom, and this isn’t 100% of classrooms, obviously, but most of the classrooms you’ll walk in, and teachers are walking around, and they’re teaching on their feet. You can see a lot more evidence of routines and procedures. You’re going to see in most cases happier children, children that are engaged in learning and that have relationships with their teachers.

She said the level of respect has gone up. And students are using more academic language.

JANICE BUKEY: Students being able to tell me what it is that they’re supposed to be learning that day and how they’re going to prove that they’ve learned it. You’re going to see more student goal setting, more accountability for their learning. We have an increased emphasis on things like attendance and the importance of school. More specifically with academics, we’re teaching science now, and there wasn’t always science instruction going on.

We have very targeted Tier Two interventions, particularly in our lower grades for reading. What else? There’s just a lot, but most importantly, teachers know what they’re doing. They know what they need to do. They’re committed to doing it, and they’re doing that work every day, and they’re not hiding from it anymore. They’re highly engaged, and they’re enjoying the success. We’re a little bit harder on ourselves now than we used to be. I would say the faculty used to just sort of throw their hands up in the air and say, “Well, you know, what else can we do?” We don’t do that anymore. Instead, we look at why is this happening and what do we need to do to address it and fix it.

Sarah said that as she visits classrooms in the building several times a month, she now sees shared expectations that are high and realistic. And teachers share best practice, and collaborate to solve problems. “Here’s what we did when that was happening in our grade level.” It’s been a cultural shift.

And Hollie also noted a cultural change.

HOLLIE PETTERSSON: What I’ve really noticed at Bonneville over the last two years is they’ve gone from a culture of compliance where people just nod their heads and say, “Yeah, I’ll do that,” and then go back in their rooms and do whatever they want, to a culture of shared commitment where teachers are having authentic conversations about what’s happening with their students or with students that they share and are making sure that they have that concept of collective efficacy top-of-mind. But this is more than just me. “This is we, and we are going to get this done together.”

We’ve seen a galvanization of the staff through this process, so really for me it reinforced that, if you want people to come together, give them a really hard task and help them have success with that task. And that’s what I’ve seen at Bonneville.

I asked Janice what she would say to other school or district leaders who might be able to relate to the challenges Bonneville was facing in 2014.

JANICE BUKEY: A couple of things from me, and obviously as a new administrator, I have a lot more to learn than these two amazing ladies that I’ve been working with. I would say, number one, to realize that nobody does this work successfully alone, and it takes those partnerships. With that though, it’s absolutely required that you can be 100% honest with yourself and others about your current reality, and also about what you think the potential is, and then also to be realistic in that process, knowing that it takes time.

We’re not there yet. We’ve made incredible progress, but I’m on pins and needles right now as I’m waiting for results on our assessments from this year. I don’t think that will ever change. Until every student is achieving at their potential or beyond, our work isn’t done. We’re always in school improvement. So that’s just the mindset that I’ve developed as a leader.

The other thing that I would say that we’ve had to do, and this is difficult if you don’t have a school culture that is already doing this, but you have to be very transparent with your data, not only with your teachers but with your students and, to a certain extent, with your parents and community.

I will never forget my first PLC when we had told teachers, “We’re going to bring the state in. We’re going to look at it together,” and I don’t think they really thought we would actually do that. They didn’t all have it, but I did. I had put it all into a little spreadsheet. We sat there and looked at it, and it was tough. It was a tough transition to make, but we were very respectful of one another, looking at our data, and that’s when we started to change from, “This is my work,” to “This is our work.” And it’s not just, “These are my students,” but “They’re our students.”  That didn’t come up earlier, but I wanted to throw that in there, because that mindset is really critical to making this work, getting the outcomes that we’re looking for.

And what about schools or districts who might be saying “You know, this sounds great – we could really use something like this” but might not be in a position to work with an organization like Ed Direction? Here’s Hollie.

HOLLIE PETTERSSON: I would acknowledge that they are already working hard. It’s in the media, and other folks have made it sound like turnaround schools just aren’t doing the work, and that’s not the truth. The truth is they maybe are working too hard on things that don’t have as high a leverage as other things that they could be doing, so I would acknowledge that they’re working hard, and then I would ask them to really narrow their focus. “What are the clear success criteria for your work?” And identify one, two, maybe three strategies that they’re going to work on over a long period of time so that they can get sufficient scale in their works. They could implement to a deep enough level that it has an impact on not only the students’ learning but the teachers’ day-to-day practices, their habits.

The other piece that I would throw in there is really looking at how you get your teachers to open their doors and to have authentic conversations about the work we’re doing together. And I think those two pieces: Narrow focus and clear success criteria, and a commitment to transparency, are probably the first two pieces that I would look for as a school.

That need for transparency extends to organizations like Ed Direction that partner with schools, Hollie said.

HOLLIE PETTERSSON: We’ve had times where we have had to have tough conversations. Sarah brought up coaching. We had one approach to coaching with her teachers that wasn’t deep enough, and we needed to make an adjustment so that we could get deeper, and that conversation was essential, with Sarah being transparent with us and Janice being transparent with us, so we as a team could adjust. Because every school, like Sarah said, you can do the right thing everywhere, but every school has its own context and its own truth, if you will, and we have to be able to adjust to that, so teams that do the work that my team does as external partners, need to be incredibly malleable and flexible to meet the needs of the schools.

SARAH ROBERTS: Obviously, this is difficult work, and this work started with people coming at it from very different perspectives, and the reality is, we had times where it wasn’t working. We had times where we didn’t have the focus at the school that we needed, and Hollie and her team had to push on that. There were times where we didn’t feel that we had the coaching that we needed for our new leader and for our teachers, and there were times where we were questioning, “How do we engage as partners?” Both Hollie and Janice have spoken to what we refer to as that growth mindset, and that we believe in the process to work through productive struggle and come out on the end at a better place and continually refining and improving.

It’s not just the lip service that we give continuous improvement in education. It really is that this is a belief in human beings, and we align all those amazing best practices with a love of the process and the people. You often see all the skills there and all the right things there, and that impact doesn’t come about or doesn’t get to the level that it needs to if you don’t align those hearts and minds with that. 

Hollie talks about our truth, and we talk about our data as being indicative of people, and we look at impact on all stakeholders, not just if we did all the right things. People get discouraged, and I think it’s important to know how very hard that was and that it isn’t just about the process. You can’t just do the right things. You have to do them united with the right people around the right intent and way of being.

We’ve been speaking with Janice Bukey and Sarah Roberts from Ogden School District in Utah, and Hollie Pettersson of Ed Direction.

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Field Trip is a podcast from Frontline Education. Frontline’s industry-leading software is designed exclusively for K-12, and is built to help school systems recruit, hire, engage, develop and retain their employees. For more information, visit FrontlineEducation.com/FieldTripPodcast.

For Frontline Education, I’m Ryan Estes. Thanks for listening, and have a great day.