Talethia Harris sometimes has to intervene at Cromwell Elementary School to have a talk with those whose performance is not showing progress in academic achievement. And the intervention has to be the right mix of compassion and firmness.
Dr. Carla Holloway, left, an instructional leadership director for Shelby County Schools, works with principals at 13 schools in southeast Memphis, including Cromwell Elementary principal Talethia Harris, right, on running a school and maintaining student achievement growth.
Harris is the principal of Cromwell, and her intervention is with teachers at the school, a process that is just as aggressive as the intervention teachers in the Shelby County Schools system undertake with students who fall behind or seem to lose momentum.
“My goal was to be a teacher, and I think as a principal you still are a teacher,” said Harris, who began her fourth year as Cromwell’s principal this school year. “The principal title is nice. But at the end of the day, we’re still teachers. We’re still educators. We are not teachers in a classroom. We’re teaching adults. My role is a leader of learning.”
And just as teachers have Harris’ counsel, Harris has an adviser and counselor as well: Dr. Carla Holloway, instructional leadership director for a group of 13 schools in the southeast region of the school system.
Holloway is a veteran educator with direct experience in elementary schools over her 26 years at the school level. She was a principal at Hawkins Mill and Hollywood Elementary schools and an assistant principal at Sea Isle Elementary School before that, which was also her last assignment as a teacher.
Holloway travels among the schools, observing classrooms and counseling principals at visits that last two to three hours and are more frequent at schools with more students who are not performing at grade level. Those at the highest level may get one visit a semester and more autonomy compared to the six to eight visits at Cromwell during each nine-week period.
It is considered a level one school under terms of the instructional leadership development program.
“It is an effort to identify effective instructional leadership practices – how effective are our administrators,” Holloway said.
Her work for the old Memphis City Schools system included developing criteria to measure teacher effectiveness and strengthening the existing ways that school leaders, including principals, are evaluated. That process went countywide when the two public school systems merged this school year.
What Holloway observes in a classroom and her thoughts on what she sees are shared with Harris, who then acts on the suggestions from Holloway.
“If we see consistently with the weekly exams that the teachers are not using high-yield strategies, then there has to be intervention with the teacher,” Holloway said. “We can’t just say, ‘I taught it.’ This is about teaching and learning. You may have taught it, but they didn’t learn it. So now what? Those are the tough conversations.”
And the ability to have those tough conversations is what Holloway counsels Harris on, as well as leadership details like the chart in the school’s data room that lists where students rank in terms of their performance.
After a faculty meeting where Holloway watched Harris interact with her teachers, Holloway’s advice included putting Post-it notes for students who are just on the verge of moving up in one of the four areas of proficiency on the border between the two standards. She can also make sure missed connections between principals and the regional office or the school system’s central office are made – a phone call returned or an email answered.
The school’s data room is where each student’s progress is tracked, with Holloway checking to make sure Harris is up on how to align results across different evaluations and tests of student progress during the school year, from state achievement tests to Discovery tests to weekly assessments.
“Data rooms have been around for years and years. And they were colorful and pretty. But if you don’t do anything with it, it’s just a data room,” Holloway said. “And so the new push is to do data profiling. Memphis City (Schools) has always been data-rich but implementation-poor.”
Improving implementation means getting into a teacher’s habits.
“Most of the time we teach to our dominant teaching style,” Holloway said. “If I’m a lecturer, I’m going to lecture. But you can’t lecture the second grade. You have to understand that they have learning styles. … You have to be able to switch that teaching style and make it fit the learning style.”
Harris went through the “New Leaders for New Schools” development program for those who want to be principals. She began as a substitute teacher in 2003. Last school year, she had 480 students at Cromwell; last week, there were 615, growth she attributed to a set of attendance zone changes in the general area.
“I am up for challenges. I think this is my personal character,” Harris said. “We’re at a point where we’ve had some success. But most recently we had a little regression for a variety of reasons. … It’s not personal. It’s about student achievement.”