September Strong: Staying On Mission at Harlan Elementary

By Jill Edwards

About a month ago, we began our year at Harlan Elementary in Florence City full of excitement and anticipation about the days to come.

As I’m sure you know, the first few weeks of school are a whirlwind of activity — building relationships with our students and families, establishing routines and procedures, and setting expectations for success.

Before the first day of school, our leadership team discussed goals for the new year and created this Mission Statement:

There are always growing pains, as teachers and admins tweak our plans based on real world needs and just settle into the day to day. As we pause for a deep breath in mid-September, we want to take a moment and look back on those first 30 days to consider what we as administrators are doing to support this mission on a daily basis.

Although we still have much to do, there are some things we have started strong and want to celebrate.

Our Daily Planning Plan

Our master schedule (which I can take no credit for creating) allows our teachers to have 90 consecutive minutes of planning every day. This means they have 30 minutes of personal planning and an hour for common planning time.

During collaborative planning, there are five different focus areas. Of the five, one is led by our principal, one by our instructional partner, and one by me. The other two are led by the academic leader or a specialist.

Our principal Dr. Thomas Casteel meets with 2nd grade for the Turnaround Initiative professional development.

This routine and structure has been powerful in helping us begin to work on the first part of our mission – creating a culture of high expectations. Although we are still in the early stages, I am proud that the “day to day” has not gotten in the way of us protecting this valuable learning time.

Our Positive Behavior System

Another great beginning has been the implementation of a positive behavior system that uses “Falcon Bucks” (implemented by all our elementary schools this year based on what we learned from one of our middle schools).

Students receive “Falcon Bucks” each week for Attendance (being at school 100% of the time EVERY day) and for having good conduct based on the 3 behaviors: Be Respectful, Be Responsible, Be Safe. Students earn Falcon Bucks for grades as well. We have Praise Referrals that every staff member (teachers, staff, custodians, cafeteria, and even bus drivers) can give to students who go above and beyond.

Students are able to spend their Falcon Bucks weekly or may save up for larger incentives. This has really helped shift the mindset of adults and children alike from punishment and consequences to reward for making good choices. Many aspects of the program help with motivation, awareness of self-worth, confidence, and pride.

Zip-LOCKED on Reading

As we think about our entire Harlan Community, we think about those inside the building as well as family and neighborhood. Outside our school walls we are actively working on building relationships with our parents and family by creating opportunities for them to support students at home.

We’ve begun a program called “Zip-LOCKED on Reading” and send a baggie of books home with every student along with a letter about the importance of reading 20 minutes per night. Every time a student brings the baggie of books back, they receive a new set of books to take home. Students are able to exchange them as often as they like.

The Value Videos Project

Parents are also participating in a “Value Videos” project. Parents are recorded by our instructional partner talking about ways that the Harlan Community supports their child as well as ways they help their child connect their learning at home.

These videos are uploaded to our social media for other families as well as our staff to enjoy and learn from as well. In addition, we are working to have at least one family event per month that invites parents and other members to school. Some of these events are during the day – some in the morning, some afternoon – and others are in the evening. Our hope is to find a way to reach every family, whatever their schedule.

Browse an issue of Harlan Elementary’s weekly online newsletter
created in Smore by Instructional Partner Melanie Harris

Classroom Visits and Feedback

Our Harlan Community is also everyone inside the building. Even though we have increased time for professional development during common planning time and have many events and activities that take up time, it is still vital that we spend time in the classrooms observing what matters most – the learning of our students.

As administrators, we have made it a priority to visit every classroom on a regular basis. Our instructional partner also participates in walkthroughs and has helped us include our teachers at least once per month.

After leaving each classroom, we provide feedback to the teacher – what we thought went really well and also an idea, suggestion, or question about something that might improve the learning opportunities in the lesson.

In prior years, I know I participated in a lot of walkthroughs but this year we have been really conscious about leaving very specific feedback with our teachers. I have been amazed at the dialog this has opened between all of us – and most importantly that it is completely related to the instructional core.

September has started strong but we must continue to work hard – every day – to bring out the best in ourselves and our students.

Jill Edwards is assistant principal at Harlan Elementary in the Florence City (AL) Schools. Follow her further adventures on Twitter @jillae0823 and contact her via [email protected]