Transforming Student Achievement

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A culture of high expectations and high support is transforming student achievement and post-secondary readiness in Rhode Island

Cumberland High School - Cumberland, RI

The National Association of Secondary School Principals recently named Alan Tenreiroprincipal of Cumberland High School (CHS) in Cumberland, RI, the 2016 National Principal of the Year. Only in his fourth year at CHS, Tenreiro has implemented changes that have dramatically impacted student achievement in a short period of time. In his words, aligning work with the goal of ensuring that students are not just “post-secondary eligible but post-secondary ready” has made a world of difference. In addition to improvements in standardized test scores, the graduation rate has increased from 80% to 87.5% and chronic absenteeism is down from 22% to 14%. Beyond these measures, Tenreiro and his staff have transformed the culture from one of low expectations and inconsistency to one of high behavioral and learning expectations and pride. While Tenreiro points to many efforts responsible for this change, we highlight just a few.

Since 2012, Tenreiro and his staff have invested in three areas of change to ensure that students are prepared for college and career: (1) creating a culture of high expectations along with high levels of support; (2) investing in capacity building for students and staff; and (3) moving to proficiency-based learning. Tenreiro says that the end of result of these changes is a personalized learning experience that supports post-secondary readiness.

The culture of high expectations applies to every student at CHS. One significant change Tenreiro made was to de-track courses and open up AP classes to all students. In addition, CHS increased the number of AP course offerings to 21. CHS also began requiring – and paying for – all 10th and 11th grade students to take the PSAT. “We started using the PSAT to identify kids who have the ability to do rigorous coursework, but who might not think of themselves as AP students,” says Tenreiro. He reports that the number of AP tests taken has increased from 106 to 531 in three years, and the number of students earning college credit based on their scores on these tests has increased by 50. “Even for those kids who don’t earn college credit, we are helping increase their post-secondary readiness,” he says, adding: “If they can get through these college-level courses, it certainly bodes well for their persistence in college courses in the future.” CHS has also expanded STEM courses to include pre-engineering, robotics and biotechnology.

Another example of the shift towards a culture of high expectations was requiring all students to complete at least one application to a post-secondary experience in order to graduate, which may include a degree program, a career certificate program, an apprentice program and/or a military program. CHS counseling staff supports students who need help with the application. Tenreiro reports that this graduation requirement has increased CHS’s college acceptance rate to 86%. CHS has also started a College Potential Program, busing first generation college-goers and economically disadvantaged students and their parents to two colleges for tours and information sessions on admission and financial aid applications. Tenreiro says that counseling staff will support this new effort by following up with students to help with applications.

Tenreiro has also structured his leadership team to support this culture of high expectations and high support. When he started at CHS in 2012, Tenreiro hired two assistant principals that are responsible for teaching and learning and brought two teachers into the leadership team as deans of school culture and discipline. Tenreiro and his staff also implemented the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) program to define, teach and reinforce positive and respectful behavior in the school. “I came into the school when there was a downward trend and discipline wasn’t where it needed to be,” Tenreiro says, “and once we implemented PBIS, the suspension rate and chronic absenteeism went way down.” He notes that teachers saw so much success with what he calls “first order changes,” that they were very willing to try “second order changes” such as new techniques in assessment development, grading practices and systems in instructional practice.

Another significant change was a switch to a standards-based grading system and report card. According to Tenreiro, this is a natural fit, as part of the CHS culture of high expectations is being clearer about these expectations. Another bonus of standards-based grading: a focus on proficiency that translates to college and career readiness. “Standards-based grading puts a big emphasis on transferable skills instead of just content,” he says. Tenreiro point to this new system as fundamental to other changes as well: “While standards-based grading is only one piece of the larger puzzle of curriculum and assessment, it was only when we changed the reporting system that we had to fundamentally change what we were doing in the classroom.” To that end, Tenreiro has restructured the school schedule to allow for more professional development; PD focuses on instructional practices to differentiate learning for students and trains teachers in blended learning techniques to support this.

Tenreiro reports that students who had opted out of CHS to attend other schools are now coming back. “The results of our work have been overwhelmingly positive,” he says. “Our students develop the critical thinking and technology skills required by employers and higher learning institutions,” Tenreiro concludes, “and we have built a school wide community that on a daily basis demonstrates respect, tolerance, courtesy, and compassion for its members.”

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NEASC 2015-11