In this Accelerate Your Performance podcast episode, Dr. Janet Pilcher invites Dr. Angela Bush, principal of Erwin Middle School in Birmingham, Alabama, to discuss how she has moved her school from low-performing to now the top-ranked school in the Jefferson County School District for attendance. They were also ranked #5 out of fifteen middle schools in the county in 2022 by US News. Listen now to hear how Angela uses scorecards to close the achievement gap, strengthen team alignment and accountability, build strong relationships within the community, and boost engagement through reward and recognition.
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Janet Pilcher: Hello, everyone. Welcome to today’s Accelerate Your Performance podcast. I’m your host, Janet Pilcher. Thank you for tuning into our show today.
This podcast is all about leadership, and I don’t mean leadership as a position. It’s about how we can all see great leadership in action so that we can all be leaders in our organizations, and the focus of leadership is connected to our Nine Principles Framework highlighted in my new book, Hardwiring Excellence in Education.
Let’s dive into today’s episode. I’m pleased to welcome back Dr. Angela Bush. Angela serves as the Principal of Erwin Middle School in Birmingham, Alabama. That’s where she has served, and she is in a new role this year.
In this role as principal, Angela has made notable strides to move the school from a low-performing school to a model high-performing educational institution in the school district, city, and state.
Over the last four years at Erwin, Angela has moved the school’s attendance to the top-ranked school in Jefferson County School District from the lowest chronic absenteeism rate. Additionally, during the 2022, 23 school year, for the first time in history, Erwin Middle School earned a passing score on its State School Report Card.
Under her leadership, U.S. News ranked Erwin Middle School as #5 of the 15 middle schools in Jefferson County in 2022.
Throughout Angela’s 28 years, as a professional educator and administrator. Her success has been highly attributed to building positive and meaningful relationship. Her life’s philosophy is when you value people, you will always yield positive results.
Angela prides herself on always putting the best interest of students first. She currently serves as an Area Director for Jefferson County Schools for multiple schools are under her supervision.
It’s with great pleasure that I welcome Angela to our show today.
Angela Bush: My pleasure and thank you for the opportunity to share again on your show.
Janet Pilcher: Sounds great. So, we always start with just reminding our audience and listeners to about who you are. So, if you’ll just tell us a little bit about yourself, and how you got into the field of education. We’ll start there.
Angela Bush: Okay. Well, I’ve been in education for 28 years. I served 9 years as an ELA, debate, and creative writing teacher. I’ve also served our central office for about 11 years as a supervisor, where I was a hearing officer for major disciplinary infractions, the truancy officer.
During that time, I also served as a federal program specialist and our school district’s McKinney-Vento liaison. After that, I went on to be a principal for 8 years at the Elementary and Secondary level.
And I’m happy to say that I was just promoted to Area Director, where I now supervise and support 15 elementary principals and schools.
So, how I got into the field of education. Actually, I always wanted to be an attorney, so I majored in English literature. However, I graduated from college a little earlier than expected, and I was not quite prepared to take the LSAT for law school.
So, my mom gave me some options. Number one was there was no gap year.
Janet Pilcher: [laugh]
Angela Bush: Get a job and go to graduate school. Although I decided. Okay, I’ll get into a fifth-year degree program for English education. I figured that would buy me some time to get my mom off of my back.
The Dean of the English Department allowed me to teach English 101 to income and college freshmen.
Also, during my first semester in this fifth-year program, I did a practicum at a high school where I observed and supported the classroom teacher by holding small groups with students. It was at that point that I knew I loved the interaction with students, and I knew that I was walking into my purpose.
Janet Pilcher: Yeah, isn’t it funny, Angela, how you know I mean. And it’s just- it’s what hits you in your heart, isn’t it? You know.
Angela Bush: Yes.
Janet Pilcher: Yeah, it’s- what a great story! So glad that you made that choice to go into the profession. You know, I wanted to connect with you today to tell the story behind the story of your story in the book, Hardwiring Excellence, my new book, Hardwiring Excellence in Education.
And it’s in Principle 7. And it’s really about looking at alignment, you know, alignment of our behaviors and goals to our values. And you did that so well.
And I want to focus on- as you’re focusing on student success. When you’re principal at Erwin Middle School and your improvement journey, you use the scorecard really well, and I highlight some examples from your scorecard.
You use the scorecard from your outcomes, your actions to your progress metrics, I mean, it’s very clear how well you did that. So, you know. Can you tell us how you use that scorecard to help close the achievement gap? And you know, what that did for you at Erwin Middle School?
Angela Bush: Okay. So, throughout our entire school improvement journey, our leadership team relied heavily on our school scorecard as a tool. And we used it as a tool to help us define what success looked like at Erwin Middle school to set goals and to determine what our leading measures would be.
We also use that scorecard as a tool to align our school improvement work with what our school district’s values work. We also use it to monitor our actions, to celebrate those early wins, and then to just simply make adjustments when needed.
With our scorecard each individual member of our leadership team, they help lead and sponsor strategies that we all together employ to eliminate barriers and to just simply celebrate our success with our students, teachers, and the community.
Now for us, this was a key component in building our leadership capacity throughout the entire building. With our scorecard, we were committed to huddling every 30 days.
We committed to that cadence, and with the huddling every 30 days we looked at our overall school goal. However, each member of our leadership team they helped sponsor a critical action, and then they reported out on their own individual actions.
And as we began to just completely get into our school improvement work, we began to remove those numbers and look at our faces when we were looking at our data. That helped us more so with really understanding who we were serving and why we were serving those people.
That school scorecard also helped us with accountability, reliability, and consistency as we progressed.
And I’d like to give you an example, because actually, our school’s scorecard, we started in 2019, and I’m really proud to say that with the consistent implementation of our school’s scorecard over the last 4 years Erwin Middle School has been able to experience a high level of success as we worked to close that academic achievement gap.
Now, when we began our school improvement work, and we created this improvement scorecard. Our leading measures were at that time just academics and attendance. However, over the last 4 years, we added student behavior.
So, let me give you a few examples for academics, attendance, and behavior. For academics, through accountability, reliability, and consistency we earned our first-ever passing score on our State School Report Card.
Now this was monumental because it was the first time that any of the 4 schools in our school’s feeder pattern had ever earned a passing score on the State School Report Card.
Janet Pilcher: Wow.
Angela Bush: Looking at our second leading measure, attendance, at the beginning of our school improvement work in 2019, we were in the bottom 4 of 57 schools for school attendance. Now, again, through simply employing the scorecard consistently, we are now the number 1 of 57 schools for school attendance.
Janet Pilcher: Woohoo!
Angela Bush: Which means we have the best school attendance in the entire school district. And our last leading measure for behavior, through huddling every 30 days we knew that we needed to address our students’ behavior. However, our leadership team decided that they would address it through mentoring programs.
So, we created mentoring programs for boys and for girls. And with the implementation of the school scorecard, we targeted 45 of our most at-risk girls and boys for academics, attendance, and behavior. However, we call them Erwin Middle School Ambassadors.
Through the implementation of this program, all of our students improve 24% academically. Overall, we saw an 85% increase in school attendance. And we saw a 75% decrease in our disciplinary infractions.
And this was big for us, especially with middle school. You have a lot of girl drama. So, we were really pleased. But again, it was that school scorecard that helped us to remain focused and consistent in our school improvement work.
Janet Pilcher: Yeah. Gosh, you know, I just want to. You know, you deserve a standing ovation for just the accomplishments there. But one thing, I mean such a model, Angela, for what, how, you use the scorecard. And really not just- It’s not just results, but it’s a process, right? It is an execution process.
And one of the things I think was really important that you said is, you just didn’t look at the numbers, but you looked at the students behind the numbers. But you- it it’s not impersonal. It’s personal because you’re looking at who’s behind those numbers.
And you’re building your actions with young people and really providing the great support that you need in order to get those results.
So just. And it also- The other thing that I just I love about your story is sometimes when you’re in situations like you are with the- with coming in at low performing areas across the board and being categorized that way.
Sometimes we build excuses, but there’s no excuse. I mean, you didn’t use the scorecard to say, Hey, we’re not b- we’re not- we’re not gonna have an excuse for why we are the way we are. We’re gonna really achieve results. And you and you showed you and your team working hard showed how you could do that.
It is just an unbelievable accomplishment and a testament to your leadership. So, let’s, you know, really kind of talk about that. You talked about comply. I love the, you know, the consistent practices, right?
This Principle 7 is about alignment and consistency of those practices and solid execution. So, you applied consistent practices to move Erwin Middle in a positive direction.
You know, how do you and your team stay accountable? And how did you stay accountable in that alignment? You know when it comes to achieving goals? How did you? How did you stay focused on that?
Angela Bush: Okay? First of all, I would have to say is that we totally allowed the school scorecard to drive our entire school improvement journey. We have applied this process to every challenge and barrier that we face along the way.
And we did this by each year we ensured that we had a diverse leadership team for input and to ensure that we were cascading all the information across the entire faculty and staff.
Yearly, we established goals based on our data from the previous school year. We used that scorecard consistently to assign leader action items, and then, most importantly, that we huddled that huddling cadence of 30 days.
We use that time to remove barriers, to discuss, to vent, and look at our challenges so that we could continue to close that academic achievement gap.
Also celebrating those small wins. I must say that at Erwin Middle School that’s one of the things that we have really been intentional about celebrating those small wins.
And what we found is that this all created shared ownership with that scorecard. People were actually able to see, and track, and monitor like our purpose. Why were we doing this? Look at our worthwhile work, and to know that what they were doing was actually making a difference.
It’s one thing to have a conversation about it but to be able to see it in black and white, in numbers or a graph, that what you’re doing is making a difference, and to be able to see it throughout the entire school with the students, parents in the community that was huge for us.
Now, each year we were intentional in empowering a different group. We wanted to eventually engage all of our stakeholders.
For us, for year 1, 2, and 3 we merely focused on engaging the teachers, the students, and the community. That was our focus. However, year 4, we were intentional in engaging and empowering our parents.
We knew that we wanted to track the data because we were moving the needle academically. And we could see a significant improvement in our student behavior. However, attendance for us was still a major concern. So, beginning of year 4, we had a 26.8 chronic absenteeism rate. That was not good.
As a leadership team, and as a school we knew that we had to be intentional in engaging our parents. We had everybody else on board. So, as a team, we added an action item of a parent university to address attendance issues. This was an action item that was added to our school scorecard.
Our goal for that parent university was to ensure that our parents understood how all the pieces of the puzzle connected, and when I speak in terms of all the pieces I’m thinking about attendance, academics, and behavior.
I like if you would give me a minute. I want to kind of discuss our apparent university.
Janet Pilcher: Yeah, please Angela.
Angela Bush: The entire leadership team was totally vested in this action item. Our whole goal was to remove all barriers. We knew that we needed to get our parents in the building.
However, as a leadership team, we took time as we huddled, and oftentimes it was more often than 30 days, but we talked about the barriers, and we knew that we had to remove the barriers.
Some of the things that we offer for our parent university when discussing the berries, we offered free food. Every family that showed up received a meal that night. We offered free childcare. We had every teacher in our building to volunteer to stay for the parent university, and they kept children in their classrooms.
We also had free haircuts for any student that showed up that night with their parent. We had about 18 vendors to participate. We had entertainers. We were able to give away over 100 gift cards to our parents, and then we had one big give, which was a complimentary stay at a spot here called Ross Bridge.
And this was really huge for us, because normally when we have an after-school activity. We have about 60 or 70 parents to show up, and we have about 640 students. But for our parent university, we had over 350 parents to attend 300 students.
And when we had them in the building, we also provided opportunities for job- for job searching. We had our career in job opportunities center here. So, parents were able to apply for jobs on-site that were close in proximity to the areas where they live.
We also had the sheriff, Sheriff Pettway, of the entire Jefferson County area. He was here, and he talked to the parents about connecting the dots.
He really allowed them to see that when your kids are not in school during school hours, they were able to see how the crime rate increased during that time.
We also had Dr. Richards, who’s our curriculum and instruction director, and she came out. She shared information, and she was so helpful because oftentimes you can say things to people, but when someone else comes in from the outside and say the exact same thing, it resonates with them.
And that’s what we experienced when Dr. Richards came out. She was able to connect with those parents so they could see how their daily school attendance impacted their classroom performance, their behavior, their grades, and how all of it equated to how well our students performed on those state assessments.
And this parent university was so successful that the next day our office experienced an overwhelming number of phone calls and parent visits to the school because at this time they wanted to get another copy of their child’s report card, their attendance and their State Student assessment report.
So, it was extremely helpful, and it was helpful for the leadership team to see that we put a lot of work and effort into this. But it actually worked. And for us, that was the turning point. When we got our parents involved again. Like I said, that was in September.
We went from 26.8% of a chronic absenteeism rate from September 2022 to 9% May of 2023, all in one school year. And that was because at this point, we had everybody actively engaged, empowered and involved.
Janet Pilcher: So good, so, so good. And again, just a beautiful example of how you’re striving for a result. You strategically are doing something, executing that really well, and building those relationships with people is key to how you achieve those outcomes.
And you know, Angela, I know you know, as you think about how you were able, in your fourth year, to build the parent university and for it to be successful. I know that you spent a lot of time in those first 3 years building business partners, partnerships, and engaging with the community so that you could tap into them to provide those support services during parent university.
So, I’d love for you to talk a little bit about cause something some people may say. Well, how did you know? How do you get all of those resources? Well, you didn’t. They just didn’t happen. You worked at it.
So, I’d love for you to talk about the intentional ways that you work with your business partner, and build that community piece that showed appreciation to your staff and your teachers. And you know just the examples that you’re proud of on those partnerships.
Angela Bush: Well, I like to say that building those trusting relationships that has been the theme from year one through year 4 here at Erwin Middle School, and not just from myself, but our leadership team.
And again, it has cascaded throughout the entire faculty and staff. So, we’ve all been very intentional in engaging the community.
However, my first year, after about 3 months here, I took some time, and I took one day, and I drove around the entire community, and I wrote down every business church entity that I saw because I knew I needed to follow up with them.
I wanted to have those transparent conversations with them. So, as I follow up with each business, local church, or entities that I saw had meet scheduled meetings, and with them, we simply talked about how the local school is an extension of the community. And the community is an extension of the school.
Basically, what happens in the community impacts the school, and what happens in the school impacts the community.
For us with those transparent conversations, I was very honest with them at that time. 4 years ago, we were a low-performing school, low teacher attendance, low teacher morale, low performing school academically, low student attendance.
We had never had a passing grade on our State School Report Card, which was a black eye to the community. So, my conversation with them was, how can we partner together? And we were very strategic in our plan to move our school forward, and they were committed to partnering with us.
In return, we provided- we committed to providing them with monthly updates on our academics, attendance for our teachers, and for our students, and for our student behavior. So, every group that agreed to partner with us, they had a monthly update as to where we were as a school and how we were moving.
Let me give you some examples of our partnerships. It warms my heart as I talk about this because these have been consistent partnerships through year from year one through now. And this includes those Covid, those Covid years.
Janet Pilcher: Yeah, that’s right, Angela.
Angela Bush: We were able to create teacher incentives through these community partnerships. Consistently, from year one to now we have been able to provide teachers with 3 catered meals monthly. We have three $50 gift cards monthly to give away to teachers for perfect attendance, and as a result, for the last 3 years, our teacher attendance has steadily increased by 5%.
Additionally, each teacher receives a $25 gift card from local restaurants for actively engaging and participating in our local school professional development. So, whenever we have PD teachers know they have opportunities to win something. However, every teacher leaves with at least a $25 gift card. And again, those are through community partnerships.
For our students, this has been really huge for us. We’ve been able to create student incentives through our community partnerships monthly. For the last 4 years, we’ve been able to give away three $100 gift cards for perfect attendance for our students. Their names go into a drawing.
We also have a very crucial partnership with our presiding judge at Family Court. She’s the judge who hears all the truancy cases for the greater Jefferson County area.
She’s attended our attendance pep rallies. She actually partnered with our organization, and they provide monthly gift cards, incentives for our students for perfect attendance as well.
Weekly, we provide snacks for each student with perfect attendance. Each student gets a chip or a drink if they were present Monday through Friday. Yearly, we have about $225 gift cards for students with the most academic growth in reading and math.
We give away twelve $25 gift cards each semester for students with the most academic growth in reading and math, and quarterly we partner with a chef who provides a pancake breakfast for the homeroom class with the highest school attendance.
Janet Pilcher: Fantastic.
Angela Bush: We’ve been so, so successful through these partnerships, but more importantly the students are able to actually see that I can actually accomplish these goals. I am worthy. They now have hope, and they feel valued. They know that education means something because they are now able to actually track their own progress.
And lastly, I’d like to speak about our mayor, the mayor here consistently for the last 4 years, he has provided our school with a $25,000 donation, and that’s been for student incentives, teacher incentives, and just for the overall general school support.
Janet Pilcher: Angela. It’s just amazing. I mean, it’s- your leadership, I mean, you’re such a model. I you know I’ve said that to you before. But as I continue to hear especially the detail and the specifics of your story. It’s such a story to tell.
And you know what I love about your story is you. It’s it-. You can do it. I mean, that’s you know. It’s just shows that you. It’s sometimes we don’t have hope for really being able to take some of the difficult situations and moving them in a positive direction.
And you know you show, yes, we can.
This is what we should be doing in every school where we have those difficult situations and moving them forward because our students look at what- look at the- look at the true difference.
You know that you’re making in the lives of these students and families and your community. And they’re loving being a part of that, so just such fantastic work in a in leadership. I just, I hope that people who are listening take all this back and look at ways that they can execute, to, to the, to the pieces and parts that you talked about and really make a difference and change and make that change.
Those behaviors build the behaviors and the alignment and consistency practice and make those changes. So, you know, as we close today is reflecting on your years as an experience leader.
You know, I just- let’s just kind of take it away from your school. But just looking at from a leadership perspective. You know, what do you feel makes a great leader? What do we need in leaders as we continue to try to move forward and transform our systems.
Angela Bush: I think for me, what has been most important is keeping people first because I truly know, believe, and understand, and have the results to prove it. That when you keep the people first you add your culture and then your strategy, you will always have results.
My- my mantra is when you value people, you will always yield- yield positive results, and I’m just extremely proud of the work that our entire faculty and staff has done here at Erwin Middle School because their work is really a testament to what we can all do together when we first value people and operate and function as a team.
Janet Pilcher: Yes, and you led that, and you led it so well, and you are such an example of how we can do this work and do it in a way that really makes a difference for those that we serve, our teachers, the people that we serve, our teachers, our students and their families in a broader sense for you, the community
You are true, truly a great leader, Angela. I’m so appreciative of the work that you do, so appreciative of the opportunity to partner with you and to work alongside you at- with our team working alongside you, as we learn, and we all learn together so that we can be at our best your true example of that.
Thank you so much.
Angela Bush: Thank you. Thank you for this opportunity and the opportunity to work with Studer along the way.
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Janet Pilcher: I think you can see the significant difference that Angela and her team has made at Erwin Middle School over the years. The connection with students of families in the community, all of those connections are extraordinary in the way that they produced results. And Angela has kept her eye on those results.
But one thing that she talked about that’s really significant is when she looks at a data point, she understands there’s a person behind the data. And yes, her focus on people and helping people be the best that they can be is what drives Angela, each and every day.
You know, one thing that I love is, as we look at the book, Hardwiring Excellence in Education and chronicle the stories, you see those same types of stories throughout the book. Just like Angela’s story, it’s the story behind the story that we’re talking about today.
And one of the things we’ve been able to do is offer a virtual book club about leadership, I’d love for you to join us. It’s connected to the book, Hardwiring Excellence and Education, and we have a great time connecting with leaders throughout the country and having engaged conversations with each other and learning from each other.
So, I hope you’ll join us. Our next book club meeting is next Monday at 2pm Central Standard Time.
You’re welcome to jump right in and join us in each meeting. We’ll go chapter by chapter as we dive into each of the Nine Principles. So, to register, head over to studereducation.com/hardwiringexcellence.
And as always, I thank you for tuning into this episode of Accelerate Your Performance. If you like this podcast and you think it could be a value to somebody else, please share it with others. We’d love to hear from you and hear your feedback, so please connect with us at any time.
I look forward to connecting with you next time as we continue to focus on the Nine Principles Framework so that we can be our best at work.
Have a great week everyone.