Turnaround school stories in Washington, DC are few and far between. When they make it into the headlines they usually involve a school that has replaced all its staff and started from scratch. Orr Elementary’s turnaround story is different. The school has seen remarkably low teacher turnover in the past 5 years and the experienced staff is challenging the theory that veteran teachers can’t change their practice.
For Principal Michelle Edwards the turnaround is all about creating an environment where teachers and students can realize their full potential.
When Michelle walked into Orr Elementary in Southeast DC in the fall of 2004 as a brand new principal, her arrival was greeted with uncertainty from a staff that had persevered through a string of short-term administrators. As she got to know her students and staff, Michelle identified goals for the school and started bringing in partners, including Inspired Teaching, to help meet them. Michelle wanted to raise student achievement and create a professional learning community – but in order to do that she knew she had to ensure a positive climate for teachers and students.
Five years later Orr’s test scores in reading and math have gone up. The school is part of a district-wide model-school learning community, and teachers within the building are active participants in daily site-based professional development.
In this interview, learn more about Orr’s successes and the way Michelle, her staff, and her partners have made them possible.
How have your goals for Orr changed since you started working here in 2004?
Well, they’re being realized! But really they’re ongoing. Today people are more accepting of what we’re trying to do. My teachers are doing everything from attending conferences to actual on the job, in the classroom, training. They’re working side by side, coaching one another, demonstrating lessons, holding weekly grade level team meetings around instruction… We’ve gone from having retreats five years ago about how to improve our school culture to focusing now on boosting student achievement.
My teachers are able to do real data analysis on their own now. When I came to the school in the beginning we had someone else disaggregate the data from test scores once a year and tell teachers how the kids were doing. But now we’re doing that inside the building using our own benchmarks and checking them regularly. Teachers are more engaged in the process of knowing where children are having difficulty and what they need to teach next to help them learn.
How would you describe the Orr community today?
Orr is a very stable school where teachers are very committed to students’ learning and to the families. I would say it’s innovative as well. We’re trying a lot of things that are not necessarily happening in other schools in the city or in the country. My teachers are open to learning new things and trying to apply those strategies in their classrooms.
We are a workshop school where kids are able to do a lot more reading and a lot more writing about things that are meaningful to them. A focus on what interests kids is much more prevalent than it was back in 2004.
How would you describe your role at Orr?
I consider myself an instructional leader. I provide teachers with what they need in order to facilitate instruction in their classrooms.
What would you pinpoint as your secret to success in making the changes you’ve made at Orr?
I would say consistency, and providing support.
I’m asking teachers to do lots of new things but I’m also providing them with the supports to do them successfully. I’m committed to keeping the good things we have going for us in place. For example, the workshop model is something we will do until I leave Orr. They’re not seeing me do something different every year. Teachers appreciate that.
What I’m focusing on is their role as teachers, and becoming better teachers – not better implementers of someone else’s program, but better teachers. I want them to teach in response to what the kids need, not in response to some predetermined curriculum sequence or program.
How has Inspired Teaching helped you to achieve your goals?
Inspired Teaching was the pioneer partner in my building. They facilitated the first job-embedded professional development and started the discussions about teaching and learning, what lessons should look like, how we are treating children… Inspired Teaching really helped me lay the groundwork for culture building in the school and boosting the morale of teachers.
What advice would you give to a new teacher just starting at Orr in order to help him or her be successful?
Be a learner. Be reflective. Be willing to learn and get to know the needs of your kids, socially, emotionally, as well as academically.
Describe a breakthrough you’ve had with an Orr student:
There was a girl who was causing problems when I first got here, she was in first grade and she was already organizing her own little gang. Today she is a proficient student. I think the change came about when we introduced her to Writers and Readers Workshop. That transformed her.
Her behavior has improved so much. I think it was because her teachers became more prepared in their instruction. This student knew what was expected of her and she was given a choice about what she was going to read and write. Instead of having to sit there and get fed information all day she was able to take ownership over learning something and trying it out.
How would you describe the role of a teacher at Orr:
A teacher at Orr must: Expect to be first and foremost a learner. I expect them to be an observer. I expect them to be more of a facilitator. I expect them to be responsive to the needs of the students. I expect them to be prepared to work with kids, and be professional. I expect them to be reflective. I expect them to be smart too.
What can kids expect from their experience at Orr?
They can expect an environment where people care about them and respond to their needs academically and socially. They can expect to be surrounded by smart people who are learners themselves. They can expect a teacher who is willing to say they are learning too. That teacher will have high expectations for them. That teacher will believe that that student can learn and that they can be great. They should expect committed adults who are here for them.