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Fulton principal on defying the odds: 'Good is never an option when better is possible.'

Serena Lowe, the principal of Conley Hills Elementary School in East Point, sent a note about her Fulton County school, which, despite high poverty levels, scored an 80.2 on the state's latest College and Career Ready Performance Index.

The College and Career Ready Performance Index is used to show which Georgia schools are "persistently failing." Determined by several factors including test scores, student growth and reduction of achievement gaps, CCRPI scores are supposed to be roughly equivalent to the result a student can get on a test, with a grade in the 70s being average.

If voters pass Gov. Nathan Deal's proposed Opportunity School District in November, the state will take over schools based on chronically low CCRPI scores. According to Department of Education data from the 2014-2015 school year, the average CCRPI score for a Georgia elementary school is 76; the average for a Fulton County elementary is 77.4.  Conley Hills Elementary's score of 80.2 surpasses the state and Fulton averages.

“For those who believe poverty and poor performance are synonymous, Conley Hills has proven them to be wrong,” said Conley principal Lowe.

I asked Lowe to share the policies, practices and programs responsible for her school’s success. Here is her essay:

By Serena Lowe

In the wake of a possible state takeover of low-performing schools, I would like to introduce you to an impoverished Fulton County School that is beating the odds, Conley Hills Elementary in East Point.

With 700 students, a 98 percent free and reduced lunch rate and a high special education population, this Title I school not only consistently outperforms schools with like demographics but also boasts scores above some upper middle-class communities based on Georgia's College and Career-Ready Performance Index. Our latest score -- released by the state in May -- is to 80.2. (Past scores: 2013-57.6, 2014-70.5, And 2015-73.6.)

With the majority of the Georgia schools eligible for the proposed Opportunity School District being elementary schools, the AJC Get Schooled blog asked for our “Secret Sauce."

Many educators are looking for the "perfect fix" to improving student achievement. They hear about schools with amazing gains and are eager to seek out the administrators from those schools to help them duplicate the same success at their own schools.

Unfortunately, educating students is not a "copy and paste" process. The schools that are most successful in improving student achievement have been through the fire and have tested enough strategies/programs/curriculum changes to know what works and what doesn’t. They take the time to learn what motivates their students, parents, and teachers. They do not accept defeat and strive daily to make the greatest impact possible.

Our approach is simple. We do what we need to help our students succeed. Teaching and learning at Conley Hills is student-centered, needs-based, research-driven, and unapologetically HUMAN.  We have taken intentional steps to get to know our community, our families and, most importantly, the needs of the students we serve. We believe in strong leadership, results-based teaching, and high expectations of staff, students and parents as well as stakeholders. We cultivate and promote a never-stop learning, never-stop growing, never-stop striving, and never-stop believing in our abilities as a school.

We take our role as seed planters into America’s future seriously. Therefore, if an instructional initiative does not work, we stop it. If an instructional initiative is successful, we promote it, and continuously refine it.  We adopt and implement many innovative teaching practices to stay on the cutting edge.

However, we still use a few “old school” practices that are tried and true. We expose our students to experiences they may never have access to otherwise and we continuously promote college and career readiness.  At Conley Hills, good is never an option when better is possible.  In this spirit, we have adopted the following beliefs and practices into our school culture

1. Belief: All students can learn.

Practice:  Conley Hills is a place where teaching and learning is personal. We offer differentiation for both our students and teachers. We want our students to learn in multiple ways. Conley began the journey to differentiation by examining achievement data, conducting needs assessments, identifying individual learning styles, and conducting interest inventories. It is commonplace to see students engaged in custom work stations, choice boards and flexible groups. Teachers participate in professional learning in cohorts, through “speed dating,” or based on choice.

2. Belief: Teachers must continuously learn and be scholars of the subject matter they teach.

Practice: Not only do we implement needs based learning for students, but we also offer need-based professional development for teachers. At the beginning of each school year, every teacher receives a risk-free diagnostic observation for coaching and goal setting purposes only. We then determine the professional learning needs of our teachers by considering their evaluation scores, examining student achievement data, conducting needs-based surveys, identifying instructional trends, and conducting interest inventories.  We provide ongoing professional learning, personalized professional development, instructional coaching and support.  And we desire for our teachers to instruct in a manner that reaches all of their learners.

3. Belief: Our student population does not have access and exposure to the same educational opportunities, programs or enrichment as the majority of their same-age peers.

Practice: We became a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Charter School. This has been a three-year process which involved the full engagement of all of our stakeholders. Students engage in frequent STEM labs, experiences, competitions, and problem solving. Additionally, we have increased stakeholder involvement by bringing them in to show our students how they can make connections between what they learn in school, the real world and their career goals. We are also pursuing Georgia STEM Certification. So far, we have seen a steady increase in reading achievement, STAR math scores, and our overall CCPRI score.

4. Belief: Behavior and culture are important. Our students and parents want to learn in a safe, orderly, and stimulating environment. Even so, they still need encouragement.

Practice: We implement and promote Positive Behavior Intervention Systems; also known as PBIS. This program is a research-based approach to improving both school discipline and culture through the implementation of universal expectations, emphasis on school attendance, student centered-approaches, relationship building, focus on positive behavior, and restorative practices. Over the past three years, Conley Hills has experienced a steady decline in discipline referrals up to 15-plus percent and an increase in student attendance by 4 percent. We are now a state-recognized PBIS school.

5. Belief: Exceptional instruction is essential.

Practice: We recruit, retain, and cultivate top-notch teachers. This is done by careful selection processes.  Teachers who desire to join our team must not only meet Fulton County’s requirements to enter the teacher pool. They must also complete a panel interview, a demonstration teaching lesson, and additional reference checks. Additionally, new teachers are automatically engaged in our Teacher Induction Program, which is led by a team to include administrators, teacher-leaders who also serve as mentors, a virtual coach, and instructional support staff. We also ensure that experienced teachers receive ongoing instructional coaching, differentiated support, and opportunities to reach their full potential.

6. Belief: We believe in educating the WHOLE child. Our parents love their children, and expect us to also.  Many of our families need help outside of what happens in a classroom.

Practice: We provide numerous wrap-around services and support for our families.  In these efforts, we offer extensive support for students experiencing homelessness to ensure they are still attending school and try to limit transfers as much as possible. We also have a unique relationship with a community counseling agency that provides mental health services to our students on-site. We rely on the generosity of several donors and business partners who provide emergency financial support to our neediest families.  Students who need food over the weekend participate in our “Blessings in a Backpack” program.  We seek the help of programs such as “Toys for Tots,” local mentoring programs, and any other program that might meet the specific needs of our students.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.