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Transforming Low-Performing Schools by Focusing on Literacy

Practical strategies for leading a turnaround

For administrators taking on the challenge of turning around failing schools, developing a strategic focus for improvement efforts is crucial. The Stringfellow Elementary School—a pre-K through 5 school in the Colquitt County Schools in Georgia—had been one of the lowest-performing schools in the state, was given a failing grade by the Georgia DOE and was under risk of state takeover.

Principals Tret Witherspoon and Josh Purvis helped develop and implement an ambitious schoolwide improvement plan for the 2014-15 school year, which included a focus on early literacy through a variety of approaches to instruction, intervention and family support. Within one school year, Stringfellow was removed from the state’s failing schools list after becoming one of the most improved and one of the highest-scoring elementary schools in the district.

In this web seminar, Stringfellow’s principals outlined the seven steps they took toward leading change, discussed how leaders can make change less challenging, and described how Stringfellow used Istation as part of its highly successful early literacy intervention program. 

Stringfellow Elementary School
Colquitt County Schools (Ga.)

This is my third year as principal of Stringfellow Elementary. I had the experience of sitting in on a presentation of Istation at my previous school, and we were completely sold, so I wanted to bring it to Stringfellow with me. At that point we had a School Climate Star rating of 2 out of 5. Well, two weeks ago we were awarded a rating of 4. That’s a major accomplishment if you look at where we were and where we are now.

Sunset Elementary School
Colquitt County Schools

We took seven steps toward developing our focus on early literacy.
1. Select the curriculum. You want to analyze your data and decide what is going to meet your individual needs. We vetted lots of curriculum choices and lots of software programs before we decided on our reading curriculum and on Istation.
2. Schedule your support. It’s important that your master schedule matches the demands of your curriculum. The same goes for choosing your software program. You want to make sure that you can devote ample time for your students to see the full benefit from any online software programs that you choose.
3. Ensure fidelity of instruction. There certainly can be pushback from veteran teachers who have been using other methods for several years, and you have to be willing to fight that battle and to hold the line, but with the student outcomes in mind. Even the greatest program in the nation is not going to be effective if it’s not done with fidelity. Doing anything with fidelity will improve student outcomes.
4. Implement some benchmarks. It paints a good picture for how your year’s going and allows you to intervene and provide support in areas where it’s needed before you get to standardized test time.
5. Analyze your data. You don’t want to just stop with conducting benchmark assessments. You want to fully analyze the data that you get from those assessments and make instructional decisions accordingly.
6. Provide intervention. Istation was a very important part of our interventions. We would fill up every available computer on the campus with students for 30 minutes, five days a week, to make sure that we were providing the best possible intervention. Coming along with our curriculum and piecing that with our intervention, we were also able to push our higher-achieving students to higher levels of learning.
7. Inspect what we expect. Monitor, monitor, monitor. Plan observations during the times that you feel it’s the most important. Communicate concerns with your staff. Make sure at the beginning of the year that they understand your expectations. If you expect them all to implement all of the curriculum with fidelity, they need to hear you say that. Encouragement and motivation are key. Praise areas of strength, and support areas of weakness.

Tret Witherspoon: In 2012-13 we had a CCRPI (College and Career Ready Performance Index) score of 46. The benchmark that determined whether or not you were on the state’s Opportunity Schools List or not is 60. Well, I am proud to say that this year we were at 63.8. Last year we were at 64.3, so we’ve had some consistency. We’re above the 50 line now and we’re hoping to continue to grow.

After three years of implementation, our CCRPI score grew 39 percent. There’s absolutely no risk of state takeover, and we’re one of the leading schools in our district in growth. Principals, instructional coaches and administrators from other school districts have come to take a look at our interventions, to take a look at how we use Istation, and they have been impressed.

National Education Consultant

Along with having a definite process to improve literacy, there must be research-based resources to support this ambitious effort. Istation is an award-winning e-learning program that supports school success, using a systematic process to support educators and to increase student academic performance.

With a strong correlation to state standards, Istation’s Indicators of Progress, or ISIP™, is a screener with computer adaptive technology that identifies each student’s zone of proximal development. With the ISIP, students are automatically progress-monitored in 20 to 30 minutes the first time they log on to the app each month. Istation is a valid and reliable way to not only identify students’ instructional levels, but also to allow teachers sufficient instructional time in the classroom. Once students complete any one of Istation’s screeners, the system seamlessly places them into the engaging interactive instruction where they will work in their own individualized learning path.

Additionally, the ISIP is a catalyst for the numerous data profiles that provide a way for administrators to informally visit classrooms to monitor student growth and the use of the intervention program. Because the ISIP is a national-norm progress monitor, many of the data profiles are color-coded to represent the tier placement of students.

For formative data to effectively guide instruction, it must be able to target individual student needs. The Priority Report assists teachers by identifying students who need special attention in specific reading skills. This extremely supportive document not only groups students for differentiated instruction, but provides a link to some of the more than 2,800 teacher-directed lessons that are fully scripted and ready to use for small-group instruction.

Teachers can also function in the blended learning environment by using the interactive whiteboard lessons that can be found in Teacher Station on the app, and Istation also has an excellent home feature that allows students to continue working in their instructional path away from school.

To watch this web seminar in its entirety, please visit: