An interview with Steve Tullar, Principal, Westminster Community Schools, Westminster VT
Westminster Community Schools is finishing their second year implementing EOL in a single classroom. The students were in grade 5th the first year and in grade 6 the second year. The same teacher stayed with the class both years. The 5th grade year was the first time these students were together in a single class. In their 4th grade year, administration became aware that this group was different than previous 4th grade classes. In Principal Tullar's words, "this particular class of students struggled against the confines of the school." Evenly male and female, these students were challenged with social and emotional issues that resulted in inability to effectively participate in group work, removal from the classroom and attendance issues. Due to the positive changes in behavior, desire to remain in the classroom, team work and attendance, Principal Steve Tullar choose to continue the EOL implementation with this class as they moved into fifth grade. The following are Principal Tullar's reflections at the end of the second year of EOL implementation.
How would you describe your Edge of Leadership (EOL) program to someone who is brand new to EOL?
What we've worked on in this program is two-fold. First, helping student become aware of themselves within a group or community. And two, to help them work on having a positive individual role within that group or community.
What we saw initially, 2 years ago, was that this group of students was very individualistic. When they had a thought or had a sensory input, they just expressed it, without regard for the group. We thought as they moved to fifth grade, those outbursts and comments were holding them back in terms of social and emotional progress. The majority of this group had demonstrated they could do academic work, but frequently, social/emotional behavior caused barriers to doing the work consistently.
What we found over the two years was that these same students have become responsible, community minded and school leaders. Their decisions are more aligned with developing a positive community. I'm not saying 100% was EOL but that was where we put our focus. We realized that we could build on what was learned and experienced on the EOL days and pull the student back into that mode later. EOL gave us a foundation in how to work with these students.
Did you receive feedback on any changes that were seen at home or from parents/guardians? When they were in 4th grade there was a constant barrage in bullying reports or conflicts. We had both the school counselor and behavior specialist involved and realized needed more support for more progress. In individual conversations, parents have noted that their child has become more invested in school and is having less difficult with peers.
In what ways did the 2013-2014 EOL implementation meet your expectations?
There were a couple of specific things we were hoping would happen. We wanted to provide these students an opportunity to learn about themselves and what they are capable of doing. The reflection component of EOL activities helps students identify what was it was they did that was effective and successful. Then we, the adults, could build on that with new experiences. EOL is based in experiential education. Students learned new skills and how to tackle new things. They learned how to avoid pitfalls that happen in the school setting. And also became very considerate and aware of who brings what strengths to the group.
This was exhibited in the sixth grade culminating projects. This year they focused on doing community service in groups of three and four. They were not buddy/buddy in these groups but were being really responsible, following through, doing things that these students would not normally stick with. And this was very unexpected because in the past they were defiant in terms of things they didn't want to do. What we saw in these culminating projects was the ability to apply the skills learned through the EOL program.
Can you talk about any specific outcomes that are supported by local data?
We've seen attendance rates increase. One child who was chronically tardy or absent has had steady attendance this year. (2011-12 -32 absences; 2012-13- 17 absences; 2013-14 - 14 absences)
Previously (2011), 63% of these students scored proficient or above on the state tests for math and and reading. 74% of the students in this group scored proficient or above on both tests in the fall of 2013. Results school wide show that 48% of our grade 3-6 students are proficient or above in math and 64% of our 3-6 students are proficient or above in reading. In 2012, 73% of the states' students in 3-8 grade were proficient or above in reading, and 65% were proficient or above in math. That same year results for this group of students taking the test in Westminster had 67% proficient or above in reading and 69% proficient or above in math. At the end of sixth grade, 85% of these students met or exceeded grade level targets in reading and 90% of the students met or exceeded the end of year grade level target for math.
Discipline was a major focus in fourth grade and now it is rarely something administration has to get involved in.
Were there positive outcomes of the 2013-2014 EOL implementation that were different than what you anticipated?
Nothing jumps out at me. Very successful in all areas we set as priorities.
What specific behavioral changes or shifts did you observe in individuals that indicated that EOL was having a positive impact?
One significant shift is that students who were not able to speak up in 4th grade are now able to say to someone who is irritating them, "Will you please stop." They feel empowered to say "I can't work when you are doing those things" and then other students lend support. This is healthy behavior.
We have another group coming from 4th to 5th that is similar and we are committed to EOL and are hoping for a repeat.
What was the greatest success story in your EOL program or class this year?
A male student from another school site moved here in 4th grade and not much transition work was done. Clearly he was academically able but had some difficulties. Mostly he tried to stay under radar and not be noticed. He would fool around with other kids but didn't want to be seen by teachers and adults. Over the last six months, there have been big changes in how he presents himself. When I'd walk in a room, he didn't want to be noticed. A few days ago I had just gotten my summer hair cut. He was by the door when I came into the classroom. Generally he says good morning kind of sideways and turns to walk away. This day as he turned to walk away he stopped and said, "I like your hair cut." For him to make an appropriate personal comment to an adult highlights his growth and confidence.
What happens when they leave sixth grade? They will be split between four different middle school options. We are working with High 5 on an EOL academy for MS students that we will host and invite our 7th graders back to check in. We will also work with them to extend their learning in new areas and back into their current schools. Ideally we would like to involve the administrators for components so they can support the application of this learning.
Are there areas of service, training, delivery or content where you believe High 5 could improve the EOL program at your school?
I can't think of anything except more time and days. I started having Jim Grout and High 5 work with my staff. More of that would help teachers understand some of the roles and parts of leadership that are important and how each teacher has a role in leadership. That would help us grow as a school.
Steve Tullar has been Principal at Westminster Community School since June 2005. He teaches a school leadership course entitled "Teacher as Leader" at Keene State College.