A six-million-dollar opportunity doesn’t present itself very often for local schools—or any other organization, for that matter. But then again, neither does the chance for all stakeholders in the organization to sit down and bring a substantial change to the way it reaches and delivers services to customers. It’s not for a lack of trying. After all, in a school district, what grand plans can be built in the few minutes or hours each week that our staff is not in contact with students?
Last spring, as our administrative team evaluated options and opportunities, it was evident—and had been for quite some time—that students were falling behind once they reached high school. That had to change.
Opportunity at Peoria High
Peoria High School had the unique opportunity to apply for a federal grant, offered through the State of Illinois, aimed at providing the paycheck to solicit the best ideas and plans for increasing achievement. While unique in itself for any individual school, the opportunity was also unique for Peoria Public Schools as a whole. It would be the second chance at developing a restructuring plan for a high school utilizing the same grant.
Manual Academy had just finished its first year participating in the three-year grant, and provided many areas to learn from and build on to not only reach Peoria High students, but ripple through the entire district. So how do you create a plan, following a stringent scoring matrix provided by the state, that would not only win the grant money for Peoria High, but also give the district and the community confidence that the plans tied to that money would have the impact of a tsunami in Peoria, flooding the district with meaningful change?
The answer came from the sea of experience that already existed within Peoria High School. After reviewing the scoring matrix with staff members, asking for their input and seeking a plan to move the school forward, district administrators asked the staff to develop and own the design. Staff members selected their own grant writing team and were eager to think about what could be done differently or in addition to what already existed in order to provide exceptional service to our students.
The grant writing team met with administrators and routinely reported back to the full staff with the ideas they developed. The end result was a plan that validated each and every staff member, increased the building’s energy, presented a comfortable exchange among staff, and most importantly, promoted an environment of trust and true, shared leadership.
The Pride of the City
The plan developed a new culture for the school, which further expanded many ideas. Now known as “The Pride of the City,” one new initiative is “Pride Time,” a shortened period during the day in which every staff member is assigned 15 or fewer students for the entire year. The period isn’t designed for academic instruction, but rather is a short time that allows staff to build relationships with students, revisit expectations, talk about issues that may be interfering with their education, and make regular phone calls to parents. The advisory period also provides time for students to create their own data notebooks, allowing them to track their attendance, academic, discipline and standardized test data. Advisory teachers assist students as they “dig in” to their data to assess strengths and weaknesses, and then make decisions that move them toward reaching their goals.
Another initiative developed from the grant writing process included the implementation of a Freshman Academy. Not only are all freshmen at Peoria High housed on the same floor, where they have most classes, but other programs for these new high school students have been introduced this year. A graduation coach supports them and helps ensure that they are following a plan to stay on target for graduation.
Two programs were held over the summer for these students. The orientation and welcome at the beginning of the summer allowed them to get into their new high school, get acclimated to the environment and meet some of the teachers. A second orientation held a week prior to school starting helped them learn the expectations for PHS students, get accustomed to opening a locker, learn the structure of a seven-period day, meet with their counselors and more. The programs were designed entirely by PHS staff, who realized the need to better connect with incoming freshmen so they would be more prepared for a successful high school experience.
Staff also recognized areas in which professional development is needed. Student behavior supports, teaching engaging lessons while utilizing each minute of every period, and reviewing data to make instructional decisions are just a few of the areas teachers identified. This honest feedback is allowing the district as a whole to not only offer professional development that will help our teachers better instruct our students, but also plan a PD calendar that our staff is interested in district-wide.
Waves of Change
If you haven’t heard, the “grand plan” developed by the PHS staff allowed Peoria High to be one of the only schools in the state this year to be awarded the full $6 million School Improvement Grant over three years. While we are proud of that accomplishment, we are more excited about the meaningful changes already taking place, developed through the grant writing process. Even more remarkable is the staff that developed the plan and built the momentum and focus to now carry it out every day for our students. They realize it is hard work, but have not allowed any small storms to change their perspective.
Back to that tsunami. The impact of the teamwork and solution-oriented staff at Peoria High has been so great that even before the school year started, ideas reached other schools and started to take shape outside of the PHS walls. Richwoods, just like Peoria High, added a seventh period to allow students more opportunities in classes they otherwise would not be able to take. All three high schools are participating in the pilot of a new evaluation tool. All schools added 30 minutes of instructional time to the school day with the approval of a contract agreement with the Peoria Federation of Teachers. The Peoria Council for Continuous Improvement was born, allowing community members, administrators and other representatives to provide feedback on changes and initiatives occurring within Peoria Public Schools. These are just a few of the waves we feel have been created or enhanced by this process.
While these changes may not seem like earth-trembling movement, I appreciate the leadership our staff is showing as we shake up a learning environment that will better help our students succeed in school and be more prepared for their future as they graduate from the Pride of the City and each of our schools. iBi