Focusing on Mission

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How a Focus on Mission Has Boosted Academic Performance

Springfield High School - Springfield, VT

When Bob Thibault became principal at Springfield High School in Springfield, Vermont, the school had one of the highest dropout rates in Vermont and a very low graduation rate: only 67% of student cohorts graduated in four years. On all other indicators, including PSAT, SAT and ACT testing, Springfield’s scores were below the state average.

Despite this data, the school wasn’t convinced it was in crisis. There was a sense among staff that many of these performance issues stemmed from the high-need, high-risk population that the school served (about half of Springfield’s students receive free or reduced lunch), and not from issues in the school itself. The school was just finishing its accreditation process, however, and in 2010, during Thibault’s first year on the job, Springfield was put on warning for its mission, or lack thereof. As Thibault says, “There was no direction.”  It was a wake-up call for teachers and administrators – while they knew academics were less than optimal, they hadn’t internally identified a lack of mission as an element essential to improving student performance.

Thibault knew that staff needed to work together to develop that direction and move beyond the perception that school performance was a product of demographics. “There are schools way less fortunate than us that perform better than we do,” he says. “We had to get past this.” To dig down into how to create change in their school, Thibault divided staff into small groups that used the “Critical Friends Group” approach. Thibault says that the small groups came to the conclusion that they couldn’t change many variables of their community, but “what we can control is how and what we teach.”

With a defined goal of improving instruction, Springfield began by hiring an instructional coach to work with teachers (they now have two full-time coaches on staff). Thibault also brought in the Penn Literacy Network, a professional development program that worked with teachers to give them a common language of instruction. He says, “Now when we discuss student engagement or an objective for a lesson plan, we’re talking about the same thing.” Springfield has also created a teacher-leader program to give high-performing teachers more coaching so that they can help lead peer learning communities. In addition, Springfield now has academic resource center to offer extra help to kids in need of academic support. Thibault says that many of these efforts came out of the NEASC visiting committee’s report and recommendations.

Recent data shows how these efforts are making a significant, positive difference in Springfield. Thibault reports that they’ve cut the dropout rate in half, down to 5% (from well over 10% in 2009). Springfield’s graduation rate has jumped by 15 percentage points to 82% of students graduating within 4 years. All of Springfield’s reading, writing and science scores now exceed the state average. Further, the number of disciplinary referrals has decreased, which Thibault attributes to the adoption of systems and structures to support students that were recommended by NEASC. Thibault reports that they have implemented about three-quarters of the recommendations that came out of their accreditation process.

The National Association of Secondary School Principals recently named Thibault the 2015 Vermont High School Principal of the Year “for successes in factors such as shaping a vision, improving instruction, cultivating leadership in others, and building a positive school climate.” However, Thibault credits the hard work of his staff for improvements at Springfield High School. “We still have a long way to go,” he says, “but we’re really pleased with the progress we’ve made.”

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NEASC 2015-06