Tuesday, September 6, 2016

TRIBE work makes the VIBE work.

I never thought that I would enter the world of being a Principal in the fashion that I did.  Last year, I was tasked with making a split-second decision that has forever changed my role, in both my family and my district; I accepted a Principal position at Vero Beach Elementary.  There was no sugar coating the reality of the school.  It was in need and serious action was required to turn the school around.

I was given the opportunity (blessing) to bring along a team of administrators on the journey. While only one remains with us on this adventure, I couldn't even consider this a possible task without her.  Rachel Moree, Assistant Principal and Lead Learner is the Yang to my Yin.  I don't think there is another person on earth more opposite, in the most amazing ways, to help us create a balanced positive VIBE as this journey to innovation takes place.

To be honest, I was nervous taking on the challenge. I had heard stories from local educators, warnings from colleagues about gangs, and horror stories of what to expect; let me just tell you... they were wrong.  This school was home to some of the most amazing little humans that I have ever met.  It took just one day to realize that this would become my passion and my mission. To help create the environment and belief in our TRIBE that we can and we will turn Vero Beach Elementary from a school of transformation, to a school of innovation.

I won't pretend that there weren't many moments from January through June that I didn't seriously contemplate, "what did I get myself into," and "am I really the right person to lead this journey?"  Several days I actually envisioned a camera crew jumping out and saying, "just kidding, you're being pranked." From students eloping from class, to almost 1,000 discipline referrals written and no clear tiered process of support for behavior at all; to irate parents cussing us out multiple times a day despite best intentions to help children through some stressful situations, we had our work cut out for us.  There were the nay-sayers who felt that I was probably too young, inexperienced, and lacked an elementary school background.  I had one thing going for me, the Superintendent believed in us and our vision. There were people from the district that were extremely supportive, and there were others who pretended to be to our faces, but would talk down about our school and our children to others.  What I have learned is that it doesn't matter how equipped you are for something, people will always find reasons to devalue the leader.  It forced us to hold our heads high and build our team from within.  Hey, they may have even been right.  However, what they didn't know or understand about me is that I never back down.  I have always loved the kids that others feel are "challenging."  I've never felt a kid was "too far gone" or "unreachable." Now, I just needed to take that sentiment and multiply it times 760 students. What they couldn't have understood is that I'm momma bear, and these are all now my cubs.  Watch out.

The good news is, those days of chaos were limited.  It's hard to immediately change an adult-centered environment into a student-centered one.  Sometimes tradition can be great and sometimes it can be something that people hold so tight to that they forget to look at what's best for children.

This is our journey. 

This is the story of Vero Beach Elementary.

Our Tribe is writing it together this year. 

What created the change?  Several key components:
Finding the true TRIBE, Accountability, Choice and Voice for staff, students, and the community, and starting with a positive climate.

1. Find the TRIBE
The administrative team opened the door to anyone who wasn't 100% committed to the hard work that would take place over the course of this new year.  There was complete transparency as to what the expectations were.  


We started at the end of last year by creating an atmosphere that required science-based collaborative units to take the forefront of our professional learning.  No more teaching in isolation.  No more departmentalization.  The students need a person- and the school needs consistency and less transitions.  While pockets of innovation were extremely impressive, we needed to shift our mindset to create a school and culture of innovation.  Our students all deserve to come in and feel loved and challenged.
We are no longer happy with "good enough" or simply "keeping kids safe." We have a year to make meaningful change in these kids lives.  We need to make every single day count.

Which lead to part 2 of finding the TRIBE, hire strong.

We ended up with 17 spots to hire for.  9 spots were positions needing filling from our substitute positions from last year. Yup, let that sink in.  What I will say is it gave us an advantage to hire first.  We didn't have to wait to find out if the subs were coming back.  This allowed me to really invest the time.  Which leads to my admission, this summer I became an addict.  I raise my right hand up and admit, I'm addicted to my districts online hiring system.  I spent every night diving deep into every single application that came through.  I vetted each applicant to make sure they were just right for the high-needs of our students.  It takes a very special person to work in a school where 90% of the students are on free-and-reduced lunch.  It takes an even more incredible person who will take this on when the principal tells them that although there are some challenging behaviors, we will not be suspending the students. I repeat. No suspensions.  If there was even a hint of hesitation, they were quickly removed from the list of potentials and I moved on.  Sometimes, this was after already putting in 5 hours of research.  I told applicants, "Hi, I've already stalked you and you seem like the right fit."Some laughed... Some were scared.  I think some of the most incredible were actually flattered by my 9:00 pm phone calls and direct enthusiasm to have them join our team. The result, the most amazing group of tribe members to join our staff of committed educators.

2. Create a climate of accountability
We have a huge data wall that takes up the entire front of the administrative office.  This data wall holds administration and our staff accountable.  It requires us to throw out old practices and prioritize on high-yield strategies that will help us make the learning gains our students deserve.  It empowers us to #failfoward and look to areas of success and ask the right questions to figure out how to multiply success across multiple grade levels.  It's not intended to be a "gotcha" but a way to open up conversations about best practice and eventually create a culture where we are begging to get into each others classes to see what is working for our students.

3. Give a voice to the staff
Before trying to figure out what we needed on our own, we listened to our staff.  We invited anyone who wanted to have a say to a round-table discussion that was held before school last year.  As a team we created our vision for the school year.  We chose to focus on our ViBE:

Visualize Success
Inspire Learning
Believe in the Tribe
Exceed Expectations.

This has inspired every action we have taken from the Tribal Council Leadership team.  The one that we found has been most difficult in breaking bad habits has been surprisingly, believing in the tribe.  We still have some staff that are quick to judge the students, or a situation.  It requires consistent accountable feedback to keep momentum moving forward.  However, when all stakeholders feel responsible for holding each other accountable, that is when true progress is made.

4. Give a voice to the students
Voice and Choice are two KEY elements to moving a school forward.  I'm sick of hearing people say that elementary students don't "know what they want."  Ummm... Yes they do.  They want to be heard and they have amazing ideas.  This year we completely revolutionized the students "specials" in 5th grade.  Noticing spikes in behavior, it was clear that the students had certain days that they would "act out."  The previous model required our students to do a day of each special, each week.  Very traditional.  (Ex. Monday music, Tuesday PE, Wednesday Art...)
The students are ready to CHOOSE what they want to be enriched with. As a result, we now have a full 5th grade band program at VBE, a student-run morning announcement journalism and camera crew team, a STREAM program, and two physical activity sports teams.  They love it.  You know why?  They chose it.
It's that simple.  Give the students a voice.

5. Give a voice to the community
VBE started a coffee-talk round table discussion with our families and community, we call it our "fam-unity."  Truth is, our school came out as an "F" by just one point on the Florida Accountability model. We have to embrace where we are if we're ever going to move forward.  That "F" created a sense of urgency that we have to acknowledge as leaders.  We wanted to hear and address their concerns and also share all of the innovating programs that will take place at our school.  Our first coffee talk topic focused on parent and community involvement.
Our second coffee talk topic focused on enrichment opportunities.  We have allowed the community to pick each upcoming topic to make sure it's relevant to what they feel we need to be addressing.  This requires us to be open, honest, and transparent.  Three things I feel all leaders should strive to be.

6. We prioritize building a positive climate
(This is the most important element)
This started with our summer retreat.  With so many new faces, we couldn't wait until the stressful days of pre-school inservice to get our staff meshing.  We planned a full-day retreat at a cabin in the orange groves.  It was full of creating staff songs, staff flags, tribe handshakes, interactive games, and good old fashioned team building. 

Grade level chairs did mini-pd sessions based on chapters of one of the most incredible books ever written to establish strategies for working with our students, Eric Jensen's book, "Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind."
It was essential for building the foundation we needed to bring our school from a strong positive climate, to hopefully a strong positive culture.

I have to thank my #PLN of #momsasprincipals for helping me come up with one of the most creative ways to build positive team building, goosechase.  It's an online scavenger hunt.  It was hilarious and engaging during our first week of school.

As we take our "little indians" from potential to fruition.  VBE will once again be a school that our community is banging down the door to get into to.  This is our journey.

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