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A Culture Shift Transforms Achievement in West Virginia

Principal Carter Hillman of Richwood High School greets students on the first day of school.


In December 2010, Richwood High School in Nicholas County (W.Va.) Schools was identified as a low-performing school by the U.S. Department of Education for failing to meet adequate yearly progress (AYP) under NCLB. In addition, a survey completed by the school staff in the spring of 2011 found that Richwood High had a “balkanized culture with toxic tendencies.” It meant, in part, that the school’s teachers had problems with collaborating, and the school staff, including teachers, resisted change and had a sense of hopelessness and pessimism. The school identified three main areas of concern: shared leadership, instructional practices and school culture.


So in the spring of 2011, the leaders at Richwood High focused on changing school culture as the foundation for school improvement. To revitalize the staff and get them excited about change, the faculty studied the book Our Iceberg Is Melting by John Kotter and Holger Rathgeber, which offers an eight-step process for leading change in any organization. A transformational process was put in place.

“Once it was revealed that we were low-performing, we were given harsh choices,” says Carter Hillman, Richwood High’s principal. “We knew we needed to change or we were going to get taken over by the state. Being rock bottom is sobering, but we realized that we are a team and that change is possible.”

Committees Uncover Problems

Five subcommittees comprised of teachers—for communication, raising expectations, morale, policies and collaboration—were formed. As an example of their work, one subcommittee found a lack of student interest with a state test that doesn’t affect grades or show up on transcripts. In response, says Hillman, the subcommittee created a “unified school effort focusing on what Richwood High means to the students and what are they are doing to show such.”

There were also inconsistencies in teachers supporting one another professionally, so the subcommittee created a program called Accountability Partners. An individual teacher and another staff member hold each other accountable with tasks such as updating grades or keeping accurate attendance records. “Just a simple layer to remind everyone that we are all part of a team and need to support the school policies and procedures for us all to be effective,” Hillman says.

New Attitude, New Culture

Around the same time, the high school partnered with EdVenture Group, a company that offers a multiphase program called Who Took My Chalk?, which helps schools adapt to cultural changes that the school needed to address. The school was able to fund it with federal School Improvement Grant money. According to Hillman, the transformation began after EdVenture ran a two-and-a-half-day retreat for the staff in June 2011 that focused on team-building activities and collaboration.

“Before the 2011-2012 school year, we had a lot of teachers with a lot of talent in their own little worlds,” says Susan Johnson, veteran English teacher and leadership team member at Richwood High. “They weren’t sharing information; they felt like they didn’t need any professional development and didn’t have any connections outside of RHS. Now we collaborate weekly, more than half of the staff has gone to a national conference for PD, and teachers are regularly helping each other brainstorm ways to help individual students.”

Student Buy-in Pays Off

Student input was also incorporated into the overall plan for transformation. Students created a student-based, student-led group to discuss their concerns, develop possible solutions, and present them to the administration. For example, students wanted a juice machine in school. Hillman couldn’t find a machine that offered juice in bottles, only cartons, which he didn’t want around the school. So the students found a company that was willing to work with the school, and provide bottles. “We now have a juice machine,” Hillman says. In addition, every Monday morning, students take part in “Jump Start Meetings,” in which they discuss successes such as student awards in poetry and science competitions, as well as the school’s calendar of events.

Last spring, students were concerned about the upcoming Westest II—the state assessment test for grades 3-11 in math, science, social studies and reading/language arts—because of the busy block scheduling they endure every day. They presented a petition to the administration requesting time to prepare for the test. In response, the school created a weeklong review schedule in the spring.

“Everyone—from teachers to the football coaches—was encouraging the students to try their hardest on the state test, and it paid off,” Hillman says. “In 2012, students improved test scores across the board by 5 percent, and math and reading increased by almost 9 percent, which is a total of 18 percent since 2010.”  

In addition to these improvements on the state test last year, enrollment in AP classes increased from 38 students in 2009-2010 to 74 students last year; attendance rates rose from 90 percent the same year to 96 percent last year; and the graduation rate rose from about 76 percent to 80 percent from 2010 to 2012. RHS is now the only secondary school in Nicholas County to meet AYP in all areas.

Courtney Williams is a contributing writer to District Administration.