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Educator Network on the Road: A Tale of a Few Schools

Educator Network on the Road: A Tale of a Few Schools

In the past month, I have had the opportunity to visit several different Educator Network members on-site and see their programs in action: Heather Magill in Florida; Zach Bost in Mississippi; and Andrew Drozdak and Alyson Long in South Carolina. At first glance, their three schools could not be more different. But after spending time with all of these educators and reflecting on what I saw, the similarities can’t help but bubble up and connect.

I went into these visits without much of an agenda, beyond observation and an intention to ask each educator the same series of questions and see how their answers differed. However, as you know, time is the thing that educators lack. I visited these Network members during regular school days, when they were doing their regular, day-to-day jobs; finding a block of time to sit down and conduct an interview was a bit naïve. (The best laid plans, right?) Turns out though that there is just as much value in simply being a fly on the wall, and some of the most impactful conversations happen organically.

I learned so much from this month of Educator Network member site-visits—perhaps most importantly getting a dose of reinforcement for the notion that ALL educators really are grappling with the same (or at least similar) core issues, and working towards the same goal of doing what’s best for their students. Here’s a peak into some of my key takeaways from visiting these three schools and four outstanding educators.

Stop 1: Heather Magill, STEM Instructor at Palm Beach Community Middle School, Palm Beach, FL

My first impression of Heather’s school? It’s ginormous, built like a college campus with classroom buildings in cinderblock structures, outdoor sidewalks, and large classrooms.

During a quick lunch, with students outside, and staff rolling in and out, I was able to have a great conversation with several educators at the school. We talked a lot about what was new in their teaching practice this year. All the teachers had their own quips to add, but the primary shift was a process change that was implemented in all levels of the STEM program. New tools were incorporated into classroom routines, like guided notes and action items. These tools provided a skeleton for the lesson and supported the instruction, which in turn supported the student learning. It helped to provide a framework for content, even if the student was absent. This simple process change had been a huge success in handing ownership back to students and putting them in control of their own learning.

Afterward, while observing Heather in her classroom I got to see this process in play—and it was really powerful.  Students were able to ask about questions from the previous day’s learning and classroom cohorts were there to support each other.  It was clear that every child knew the routine and benefited from it. 

Stop 2: Zach Bost, Principal at Central Elementary School, Lucedale, MS

Zach’s rural elementary school, which houses just over 700 pre-K to 6th grade students, bears little outward similarity Heather’s sprawling suburban middle school. Lucedale is a small town, but the region is growing, and Central Elementary School is seeing enrollment rise. Zach has been emphasizing social emotional learning (SEL) and positive school culture to meet this growth in population with growth in student achievement.

I spent the day with Zach and his students, arriving a little late due to a small miscommunication with the ever-trusty Siri. When I made it inside the school, students were there and waiting to welcome me with a handshake and introduction.  Every grade introduced themselves, and throughout my tour every student (!!) looked me in the eye, shook my hand and asked about my day. I was inducted as an honorary member of the Purple House, a school program dedicated to getting students involved in good works by providing warm clothes for cold families; I was interviewed for the school radio station; and I even served BBQ. I had an amazing time with these children, and with Zach’s teachers and staff.  It was clear that the focus of every person walking into this school was to make students and guests welcome. Much of this was owned by the students and it was evident in their grace and confidence.

Stop 3: Andrew Drozdak, Principal, and Alyson Long, Assistant Principal, Cayce Elementary School, Columbia, SC

Once again, Andrew and Alyson’s school was a huge departure from Zach’s rural elementary. Cayce is a large, nearly brand new, urban Title I school serving over one thousand pre-K through 5th graders. They run several distinct programs within the school in order to capitalize on teacher strengths and student needs. Ultimately, the plan is to meet all students where they are and in order to do that, every child needs to be matched with the program or process that matches their strength.

Andrew, Alyson, and the staff are able to provide self-contained classrooms, multi-grade gifted programs, push-in supports, and pull- out resources. They prioritize community involvement with a Fall Festival and Bingo Night events, emphasize personal relationships by following up with the students in the hallway or during the lunch period about their winning or absence. Classrooms offer flexible seating options and SEL resources, and students can play with bunnies in the library or guinea pigs in the assistant principals’ offices. They school was super focused on meeting the unique needs of each one of the 1,100 students. 

What amazes me at every school visit across the country, is not the money spent, the bells and whistles present, or the buzzwords being tossed around, but the dedication each site demonstrates to the education of our young people. The ‘business’ of education—the administration, the discipline procedures, the reporting, etc.—can easily stack up. But educators don’t let this interfere with putting their students first.

While visiting Heather’s, Zach’s, and Andrew and Alyson’s school, I watched each of the educators call every child by name, beam with pride when the shy child looked me in the eye and told me her name, and show off the classrooms that re-energize their commitment to education on hard days, all the while managing to address urgent business that followed us. The dedication to students is clearly present in these three programs, and it is awe inspiring.

What are you doing at your school that’s working? I’d love to see it in action. Email me to coordinate an Edmentum Educator Network on-site visit!