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Change the Shape of the Floor

Jessica Gogerty Jessica Gogerty is being honored as a Champion of Change for her efforts in school turnaround.

Poverty can affect student achievement.  For years, North High School in Des Moines, Iowa, had been a victim of its demographics: as poverty rates rose, our achievement rates fell. Among Iowa high schools, North has some of the highest percentages of students learning English, served in special education programs, and receiving free or reduced priced lunch. A complacent and woeful culture developed among the staff and students as our test preparation efforts yielded only plummeting scores. By 2010, my beloved North High, where I had taught Physics for 13 years, was the lowest scoring school in the state of Iowa. That desperate spring, North won a School Improvement Grant (SIG) and began the transformational model that required a complete restructure of school leadership.

Consider the culture of a school – the assumptions and beliefs that go unchallenged and universally accepted – to be like the low spot on the floor. When you pour the water onto the low spot, it is where the puddles form. While with effort the water can be pushed out of its puddles, when the external force is no longer applied, the water will re-puddle exactly as before. This is the most important lesson I’ve learned over the past two years as a SIG school: to have an order-of-magnitude lasting change to a school, you must not push the puddles around – you must change the shape of the floor. 

North’s charismatic new principal was able to drive the conversations to solve the problem of low achieving students with the creation of School Improvement Leaders (SILs), or teacher leaders.  We changed the master schedule twice in the first year, creating new classes, bell times and embedded times for staff collaboration and support.  Changes were made in the attendance policy, discipline policy and the grading policy.  The SILs taught the staff how to collect and analyze data on student performance and led discussions about strategies to address deficiencies.  Teachers became empowered to help the students rise to their destiny instead of falling to their fate.

By the end of our first SIG year with over 99 percent of enrolled students tested, North students had gained 19 points in both reading and science and 11 points in mathematics on Iowa’s standardized test. The school had the same demographics and largely the same teaching staff. But now we had “One Vision, One Mission, One Destiny” as the instructional leadership harnessed the collaborative power of the adults in the school.

By design, SIG is a temporary infusion of resources. Government policy and programs can inspire and incentivize, but the people in the school must do the real work of cultural change. The SIG was an important catalyst for North. Without the additional manpower and resources, change at North would have happened much more slowly or not at all. It is easy to let tradition carry us—to allow our unchallenged belief in our capacity to determine what we will achieve—for good or ill. SIG gave us the impetus for the necessary introspection required to change the shape of the floor at North. We have begun the necessary transition to maintain this growth in student achievement and cultural change even after we graduate from the SIG program. Because North is changing its cultural floor, the benefits of SIG will continue long after the funding has ended.

Being recognized as a Champion of Change is humbling for me as an individual because while poverty matters in student achievement, it is the collaborative adult actions in the school that matter more. So, I can only accept this recognition on behalf of the North High team who worked so tirelessly. Thank you.

Jessica Gogerty is a National Board Certified teacher, a Presidential Awardee for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching, and a school improvement leader now serving at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, Iowa.