A+ Practice in Winterboro: Preparing for the Real World

At Winterboro High School there is no challenge too great to tackle, and no achievement too small to celebrate: Dropout rate … shrunk it; student engagement … increased it; teacher complacency … gone; community’s confidence in the school system … soaring to new heights.

It started with a new, collective mindset; believing it can be done, and that it should be done working together.

Principal Craig Bates recognized upon his arrival at Winterboro several years ago that the school was in great need of a change. The odds for the students to succeed were not stacked in their favor, with 85% of the small school population on free or reduced lunch and a discouraging 63% graduation rate.

The quaint school, built in 1936 with locally harvested stone, currently houses grades 5 – 12. Only 330 students make up the entire student body. In just two years since Mr. Bates implemented a multitude of changes, the graduation rate has risen to 87%. Also two years ago, only about 33% of Winterboro graduates were accepted into college. This past year that number exponentially climbed to 75%.

“Many of these students will be among the first generation in their families to achieve a high school diploma,” explained Mr. Bates during an Alabama Best Practices Center (ABPC) Instructional Round held at his school April 23rd. The children living in this poor, rural community have been instilled with a can-do and want-to attitude, which is demonstrated as well by the faculty and staff.

Mr. Bates and his faculty are committed to high expectations for every student at Winterboro. As a result, the school adopted the philosophy that every child can graduate and be ready for the real world. Every freshman class is encouraged to sign their name on a banner, committing to graduate in four years. This banner is displayed to remind them every day of their commitment.

In addition to the attitude change, another transformation took place in every classroom. Now equipped with a computer for every student, each class moved from traditional teaching practices to the Project Based Learning model (designed by the Buck Institute of Education). This approach has proven in a very short time to get students more engaged in classroom learning, and more motivated to participate.

“It’s common sense, really,” said Mr. Bates. “Kids are more excited about learning when they can see how what they are learning is applied in real-world situations. Plus, it better prepares them for college-level learning and the workforce.”

Collaboration was the key factor in making the transformation in Winterboro, explained Principal Bates, from the support of the Superintendent all the way to the students. And because of the changes, the school has received a lot of recognition and requests to share their successful strategies with other schools in the district.

In fact, Winterboro High School has been selected as one of the six winners of the National School Change Award. This recognition was created by the National Principals Leadership Institute to recognize school improvement, and will be awarded during its Summer conference in New York City this July.

“We get a lot of visitors that want to see how we do it, and we welcome them in our classrooms,” Mr. Bates noted. “We’re not perfect and still have a lot of improvements to make. But its clear that making drastic changes has had a drastic, positive effect on our students and teachers, and we are honored to receive national recognition for our efforts.”

When asked about the greatest visible impact, Mr. Bates remarked that the most evident change is in the morale and school pride among both teachers and students. The Instructional Round attendees found evidence affirming that change, noting that they saw a lot of smiles, were greeted by a number of students excited to tell them about their projects, and saw a lot of Winterboro-blue t-shirts proudly worn by students.

Mr. Bates added that giving students the skills and confidence to have engaging conversations with adults is an important career skill that his students had previously lacked. Visitors are often greeted by students who initiate the conversation with an out-stretched hand to shake and self-confident eye contact.

The critical components of the change outlined in the essay written for the National School Change Award were; “creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, communication, implementation of technology, and work ethic.” Mr. Bates explained that the students helped develop a “trust statement,” which became a student job description. This evolved to serve as the school’s mission statement.

In the project-based model, the students become the center of the “learning and the doing.” Their job is to “collaborate together through oral, written, and digital communication in order to become critical thinkers with a strong work ethic.

“This will enable all students to be creative, community-minded leaders.”

Emily Harris, an English and Math teacher at Winterboro, said that it was the creation of the project-based learning lessons that really brought the faculty together. In fact, she said that if those lessons had just been “given to them” by the Buck Institute, she doesn’t think they’d be as far along as they are now.

“Teachers OWN those projects, because they helped create them,” noted Cathy Gassenhiemer, ABPC executive vice-president.

A tremendous amount of time and resources was put into professional development for teachers to be able to work collaboratively in a project-based setting, integrating the effective use of technology into daily classroom activities, and shifting from lecturing to questioning and engaging students in critical thinking.

“We have some really creative problem solvers,” commented one teacher. “I learn just as much when the students are discussing and working through problems together.”

All Winterboro students carry their “trust cards” with them, which state; “As a scholar of Winterboro High School, I am responsible for my educational experience. I understand the level of professionalism and dedication that will be required to succeed not only at WHS, but also in the post-secondary and professional environments. With these expectations comes TRUST.”

With a reduction of 82.5% in the school’s drop-out rate since 2009, Mr. Bates confirmed that not one Winterboro student from the classes of 2013, 2014, or 2015 has chosen to leave school yet. What’s the reason? It’s possible that they are having too much fun learning and leading.