Sunday, March 30, 2014

How Bolivar High School became a 2013 National Blue Ribbon School

Gov. Jay Nixon visited BHS to speak to students.
After Bolivar High School was announced as a 2013 National Blue Ribbon School, I received a number of phone calls from other districts, agencies, and even the governor's office congratulating our school on the honor, but also asking what we did to achieve such uncommon results with our students. The callers were interested to know what programs we used to enhance learning, did we have an extended school day or school year, could they get a copy of our school improvement plan, and more.

A few of the conversations seemed to end in disappointment as I explained that we didn't utilize any externally developed programs, nor did we have additional learning time through an extended day or calendar. I explained we would be happy to share our improvement plan, but it was not really the reason for the excellence reflected in our results. We operate as a Professional Learning Community (PLC), but that is part of our process and not a program. Although our strategic plans are important and help guide our work, the essence of our success is the people who work in our school--teachers, students, and support staff--who value relationships, community, and a culture of learning. In short, our success is attributable to people, not programs.

It seems that most school improvement efforts largely ignore culture. The culture of a school can be difficult to describe and quantify. But I will do my best to share a few of the things that I believe make our school culture effective for learning. Of course, these qualities aren't present 100% in every situation. We all make mistakes and have off days, but overall the culture of Bolivar High School nurtures these qualities.

1. Teachers, staff, and students genuinely care about one another and celebrate each other's successes. Sharing celebrations and "gratitudes" is routine at meetings, through email, and in personal conversations.

2. Honest communication is encouraged to solve problems and support learning. Staff are given latitude to challenge the status quo, and develop solutions that work for their classrooms.

3. Trust and respect are highly valued. Individuals have confidence in one another and are respectful of differences. Teachers support the work of other teachers and encourage students to do the same.

4. Teachers and staff are committed to helping students learn and just plain helping students. While learning is the focus, everyone is committed to helping students who are in need. Teachers invest in the lives of students.

5. Desire to learn, grow, and improve. Teachers and administrators are learners who seek new knowledge, admit mistakes, and model life-long learning for students.

6. High expectations are evident for all. Blaming and complaining is not commonplace. Instead, individuals take full responsibility for solving problems. If it is to be, it starts with me.

7. What's important is important. Frustrations over dress code issues or other building management issues are secondary to matters that strongly impact learning.

8. Risk taking is encouraged. Teachers and students try new things in a supportive environment. Failure is viewed as an opportunity for learning.

9. Involvement in decision making. Our building leadership team consists of teachers who help set a direction for the school. Where possible, decisions are made at the classroom or department level.

10. There is a strong pride in the history of the school, it's story, and the traditions that bond us together. We tell the stories of our past and celebrate the tradition of excellence, but we are also always looking eagerly to a positive future.

It was truly an honor to receive the award. We were just one of eight schools in Missouri and among just 236 public schools in the nation to be recognized as a Blue Ribbon School for 2013. The award was based on high achievement in ELA and math over multiple years as measured on the Missouri End-of-Course (EOC) Exams. In addition, we were required to complete an application process. An excerpt from the application follows and the full application document can be viewed through this link:
 pdf icon to print school application

Bolivar High School is located in Bolivar, Missouri. The town was named for Simón Bolivar, the South American political and military leader. On July 5, 1948, U.S. President Harry S. Truman and Venezuelan President Rómulo Gallegos visited the town to dedicate a statue of Simón Bolivar. Soon after the visit, BHS students voted to forfeit “Tigers” as the BHS mascot and adopt “Liberators” as the school’s namesake.

Nearly 10 years ago, BHS sent a group of teachers to visit Adlai Stevenson HS in Lincolnshire, Illinois to learn more about Professional Learning Communities (PLC). From this initiative, the school engaged in a comprehensive PLC certification process and developed a strong vision of improvement to ensure high expectations of achievement for all students.

As a result, the school has cultivated a culture of collaboration and a focus on results. Teachers collaborate weekly with the sole focus of improving student learning. Each content area has developed essential (priority) standards that align with the Missouri Core Academic Standards (MoCAS). Teachers utilize formative assessments and feedback to monitor student progress and guide instructional decisions. Students who are not proficient receive additional time and support until reaching mastery.

The unwavering focus on learning has resulted in increased student achievement. The successes have been a result of incredible commitment by talented teachers and staff, along with excellent parent and community support. Although nearly half of our students are economically disadvantaged, we send 70% of our students to 2-year or 4-year colleges/universities. Moreover, our free/reduced lunch population has performed extremely well on state tests as we strive to ensure that all students learn regardless of socio-economic status or any other factors.

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