A Miracle in the Mountains

How one of Appalachia’s poorest schools became one of its most successful by OLIVER THOMAS

Imagine a K-8 school in a remote corner of southern Appalachia with a student body that once qualified for 100 percent coverage of free and reduced school meals. Imagine a school budget far below the state and national averages and a well-worn building that has been in use for a half-century.

This is the reality of Grassy Fork School in Cocke County in eastern Tennessee, an area more famous for its moonshine and cock-fighting than its schools.

Buzz ThomasBuzz Thomas directs the Niswonger Foundation in Greeneville, Tenn.

One wouldn’t be surprised then to learn that Grassy Fork was identified in 2002 as a “high priority” school. The school’s perform-ance level was well below state average in both overall academic achievement and value-added scores that measure students’ year-to-year gains. Their state report card wasn’t pretty. It contained D’s and F’s.

Peer Mentoring
I run the Niswonger Foundation, a privately operating foundation whose mission is to improve the quality of education in northeastern Tennessee. In discussions with our foundation, Cocke County Schools Superintendent Larry Blazer had identified Grassy Fork as a school of “extremely high need,” but also one well-positioned to become successful. “They have a young principal,” Blazer reported, “and a faculty that wants to improve. They also have a strong community with a high level of parent involvement.”

I took the bait and hired Linda Irwin as lead consultant. Irwin was principal of Sam Houston Elementary School in Maryville, Tenn., one of the state’s top-ranked school districts. We assigned Irwin to work with the principal at Grassy Fork, Shannon Grooms, to develop a schoolwide improvement plan. If we liked the plan, the foundation would fund its implementation.

Grooms was a homegrown junior-college product in his first principalship at age 28. The task before him sounded daunting on the surface, but Grooms had something going for him that many principals don’t. He knew what he didn’t know. He also knew where to find what he needed. And, most importantly, he wasn’t too proud to ask for it.

Grooms also had something inside that no university can teach — a desire to excel. He wanted his school to be the best in the region, and his motivation was the right one. “Our kids deserve it,” I recall him saying.

Underdog Contender
So we decided to dance. The Niswonger Foundation and this underdog little school in Cocke County entered into a three-year partnership project aimed at turning Grassy Fork into a model for rural elementary education. The focus of the partnership would be on individualized instruction and student achievement. The bottom line would be this: Is every student learning, and if not, why not?

Three years later, Grassy Fork had joined the top 10 percent of Tennessee’s public schools. Both academic achievement on state tests and value-added scores were all A’s and B’s. In fact, Grassy Fork’s value-added scores were higher than most of its counterparts in Tennessee’s top-ranked school system. In 2005, 95 percent of the students were proficient or advanced in reading, and 94 percent were proficient or advanced in math. Needless to say, the school was no longer on the high-priority list.

Most encouraging of all is the fact that after our three-year partnership ended, Grassy Fork continued to improve. Last year, only two B’s showed up on the value-added and achievement report cards. The rest were A’s. This year was even better: seven A’s and one B. That’s what the experts call “sustained success” — something that only happens when the entire school culture changes.

As a testimonial to Grassy Fork’s extraordinary accomplishment, parents have begun voting with their feet. Enrollment has grown by more than 25 percent since the first year of the project.

Doomsday Beliefs
While the “miracle in the mountains” is a great education success story, it affects little beyond this isolated mountain community unless we can glean some lessons from Grassy Fork’s experience.

The foremost lesson is that low-income students can learn as well or better than their middle- and upper-class counterparts. Imagine that! Many people inside and outside the education establishment have assumed that economically disadvantaged schools, whether rural or urban, simply cannot compete with suburban schools.

Shannon GroomsShannon Grooms is the homegrown principal of Grassy Fork Elementary School in Tennessee, a high-performing school with a high percentage of low-income pupils.

What’s worse is that these people don’t appear to be speculating. They can produce charts and graphs showing that as the percentage of low-income students rises, academic performance gradually falls until you reach a tipping point of about 70 percent low-income when academic performance plummets. The data seem to dictate a single conclusion: Too many low-income students dooms a school to academic failure.

Grassy Fork’s experience lays to rest any lingering doubts about the ability of low-income children to learn and compete. Charts and graphs notwithstanding, these students outperformed most of their middle and upper-class counterparts statewide.

Second, we learned it doesn’t take an enormous amount of money to turn a school around if the people in charge know what they’re doing. The Niswonger Foundation spent less than $300 per child per year. School reform takes money, but not always a lot.

Third, professional development works, if there is follow up and implementation. Most teachers want to continue upgrading their skills, but few states or schools do an adequate job of giving them the training they need along with the follow-up support they deserve.

Several years ago I visited the Teachers’ Academy for Math and Science in Chicago, one of the nation’s oldest professional development centers. I was shocked when they told me that as much as 85 percent of what is learned in professional development is lost unless significant follow up and classroom implementation take place. As a result, the Teachers’ Academy provides eight hours of support for every hour spent in its training center. That means the academy staff is helping teachers with lesson planning, observing them in their classrooms, team teaching with them on occasion, and making certain everything learned through training is understood and integrated.

Networking Sponge
At Grassy Fork, the principal and the consultant analyzed the school’s student test data to devise a two-pronged professional development plan. The first piece focused on the development of teachers, and the second focused on the young principal himself.

We immediately introduced Grooms to AASA, the National Association of Elementary School Principals and a network of practitioners who were renowned both locally and beyond. At his first national conference, the young principal described feeling “like a sponge in deep water.” He added: “I soaked up all I could about school leadership and curriculum, and I collected so many books and pamphlets that my last evening’s task was to purchase an additional suitcase to get my new resource library back to Tennessee! I couldn’t wait to get back to work to start trying out some of the new things I had learned.”

Teachers reported similar experiences. All were given opportunities to attend key conferences as well as to make benchmark trips to academically high-performing schools. Professional development was tailored to grade levels and specific content areas like never before. One team of teachers traveled to Indiana for two days and wound up redesigning the way language arts were being presented in grades K-5.

“The teachers went from teaching reading to helping students begin to experience reading,” Grooms says. “Students began rotating from reading group to reading group with the teachers listening as students started to read with fluency and expression. Instead of rooms full of books, I felt like we were beginning to create authentic learning laboratories.”

Ideally, every school campus must become its own professional development center with at least one mentor/coach who is paid to help colleagues implement what they have learned. Using this model, a school can gain an enormous amount of academic ground in a relatively short time. Grassy Fork seems to have made this critical transformation. Now, professional development is taking place on campus as teachers have begun leading book studies of their own.

Grooms says the entire staff participated in devising the school’s improvement plan. “Quality teachers are, of course, the most important piece of the puzzle, so professional development is the centerpiece. By including teachers in the design of their own staff development program, you go a long way toward guaranteeing its success,” he adds. “I found that teachers didn’t chafe at the high expectations or at the concept of being held accountable when they were involved in the process.”

Throughout the transformation process, Grooms had a mentor principal who was on-call for consulting, day or night. This mentor took him to conferences, steered him to particular sessions, introduced him to best practices and touched base at least once a week to ensure the young principal didn’t get bogged down in his quest for total school improvement.

Shared decision making, quality curricula and a commitment to follow up that included the use of mentors for both teachers and administrators made Grassy Fork’s professional development program a colossal success.

Single Solutions
The fourth lesson learned at Grassy Fork was that no magic curriculum exists. No silver bullet. No single path to school improvement. Each school is different, just as each student is different.

Before any curricular decisions are made, a thorough analysis of individual student data must take place. Group data can help define a school’s core problems, but it provides little that can help improve individual student performance. As consultant Linda Irwin puts it, “Find each student’s learning gaps and fill them.”

Next, school leaders must work with the faculty to select a high-quality reading, math and science curriculum that has proven results and with which the faculty feels comfortable. Make sure it’s as interactive as possible.

After several benchmarking trips, Grassy Fork chose Orchard software to supplement its existing curricula and Star Reading and Yearly Progress Pro for ongoing diagnostic assessment of areas of strength and weakness. In truth, it could just as easily have been Plato or Compass Learning. Grassy Fork’s success was not based on the curriculum or curriculum supplements chosen. Rather, it was the result of taking a solid curriculum and modifying it to meet individual student needs.

Differentiated instruction was the key.

One teacher used three reading strategies, combining a phonetically based approach with the strongest assets of whole language learning to assist kindergarteners and 1st graders.

Fifth, Grassy Fork taught us that size matters — size of the learning group that is. I understand studies on this point may appear contradictory, but our experience at the Niswonger Foundation has shown that the smaller the learning group, the better we are able to teach. If you have to cut corners on class size, make sure you divide classes into smaller learning groups and differentiate instruction so the numbers don’t overwhelm you.

Sixth, recognition matters. School leaders do well to pay teachers all they can, but if you can’t find the money, find other ways to recognize teachers. Dinners out, awards, press releases and personal notes are just a few things every administrator or school board can do to recognize its staff. Good teachers need to be stroked.

Seventh, good before-school and after-school programs work. That means a program consisting of more than athletics and baby sitting. It means a strong program of academic tutoring aligned with what’s going on in the classroom. It also means strong teachers. Title I funds can be tapped to provide the stipends to attract those teachers.

In the case of Grassy Fork, it also meant a good software tutorial to back up those teachers. Finally, it means providing healthy snacks. Hungry or malnourished children cannot be expected to have the focus and mental energy necessary to learn, especially in an extended-day setting. A combination of strong academic tutoring, physical activity and healthy snacks is a cost-effective way to boost academic performance.

Finally, all of the academic success starts with a change of attitude, beginning at the top. Grassy Fork improved because the superintendent, principal and teachers wanted to improve. They committed themselves to hard work. They worked smarter too. Thomas Edison once said that a lot of people miss out on success “because it comes dressed in bib overalls and looks a lot like work.” A change of attitude alone won’t change your school, but your school will never change without it.

A Real Model
Imagine a school in your own local district. Perhaps it has struggled to improve or maybe it is growing dangerously complacent in its mediocrity or even in its failure. People are beginning to doubt if things will ever really change.

Then, think of Grassy Fork.

Oliver (Buzz) Thomas, a former school board chair, is executive director of the Niswonger Foundation in Greeneville, Tenn. E-mail: buzz.thomas@niswongerfoundation.org