This post reprinted in its entirety (Part 1 of 2) courtesy of Pensacola Today available online at http://PensacolaToday.com and President/CEO Randy Hammer. February 22, 2015
Robert Grimm arrived at North Charleston High School in 2011 with a crystal clear picture of the looming challenges facing a new principal.
Literacy rates were lamentable, discipline problems ran rampant and an abysmal 43.5 percent of students graduated in four years.
Another challenge, no less daunting: Sticking around long enough to see his improvement plan reach its fruition.
North Charleston High School changed principals like the weather. Seven in 11 years had come and gone before him.
“They called it, ‘The principal-killer school,’” says Grimm, a wry smile breaking across his narrow face framed beneath a close-cropped crew cut.
“This is where they go to die.”
In 2012, the Grim Reaper came knocking on Grimm’s door. Rated “at-risk” for three consecutive years, North Charleston was on the brink of closure.
Grimm drove to Columbia, the state capital, to plead his case to the South Carolina Department of Education.
Grimm didn’t think he said much, but whatever he said, they liked it.
“I assured them that we would make progress,” says Grimm, who became the school’s first principal in more than a decade to last past two years.
“It’s unfair to label the students without giving them an opportunity to have a leader who’s going to help them along the way.”
True to his word, Grimm has been an impetus for change and improvement at North Charleston High School.
With the help of dedicated teachers and diligent students, Grimm has helped students at the at-risk, perennially low-performing school achieve the highest learning gains in the Charleston County School District.
North Charleston High
The relatively small school in the historic district of North Charleston in the past three years has outperformed all six high schools in the city.
Grimm credits the school’s success mostly to setting benchmarks, analyzing data, recognizing and focusing on at-risk issues.
Grimm welcomed the help from Pensacola-based Studer Education in his efforts to improve the school.
Janet Pilcher, Studer Education senior executive, said she worked with Grimm while providing training to School District leaders.
She’s been impressed that Grimm, in his four years as principal, has improved scores on Studer Education’s employee engagement survey from an average of 3.50 to 4.15 out of a 5.
“He recognized talent, rewarded high performance and set high expectations for all teachers to follow,” Pilcher said. “He has recruited a team of teachers who have great passion and do worthwhile work.”
Grimm said he uses the feedback to make adjustments at North Charleston. “It’s not all positive, but I’m constantly striving to get better scores because it makes them happy,” Grimm says. “If the teachers are happy, I’m doing a good job.”
Most of all, he cites the importance of hiring and retaining great teachers.
Working in education is a special calling that requires ordinary people willing to go extraordinarily above and beyond the call of duty.
At North Charleston that means meeting students’ needs before school, after school, visiting their homes or trying to find a place for them to call home.
Sometimes it means getting a child a hot meal or warm clothing. Or Christmas presents and Thanksgiving dinners.
The school has a federally funded afternoon, after-school dinner program for students who may be hungry or homeless.
There are tutors for students who needed more help in certain areas. On occasion, teachers have pooled money to buy a suit for a child to attend a family member’s funeral.
“Looking at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, if they need something on the bottom of the triangle in order to be successful on the top, we provide whatever is on the bottom,” Grimm says.
One of the most important things a principal can do, Grimm says, is hire and retain the best teachers to do the best job possible to inspire, engage and embrace students who need someone to show them along the way. Tony Eady is among his finest, Grimm says.
Eady is one of the few teachers Grimm kept on staff when he took over as principal.
Using the data to get better
The first Student Concern Specialist in the district, Eady has worn many hats in his 22 years at North Charleston.
Among the skeptics when Grimm became principal, Eady says he watched the school change for the better.
“I’ve been here a long time, at its worst and at its best,” says Eady, explaining his job as the “eyes and ears for the principal.”
“Mr. Grimm has moved that standard way up, and he holds everybody accountability, making sure you involve yourself with the kids.”
For Grimm, it’s all about his students, each day, every day.
He wants to know where they live and how they live. Whatever he can do to help them succeed in school and in life, he wants to try to do it, he says.
Part of that requires tracking students through databases that provide a profile to track academic progress and proficiency, as well as finding any deficiencies or detriments that could hinder their chance of succeeding.
A former math teacher, Grimm crunches numbers and tears data apart.
Teachers examine every student in every class to find out where students live, how they live and the best approach to help them learn and improve.
“We’re constantly searching for new and improved ways to assist kids,” Grimm says. “If what we’re doing, we stay stagnant, then we stop doing it and try something different. We’re constantly striving to get better.”
The numbers — and the rest of the story
Despite the immense challenges, Grimm refused to make excuses.
He doesn’t want anyone else to use the racial and economic disparity gap as an excuse to accept low performance and under achievement in schools.
“Don’t tell me that students can’t learn, because every student can learn,” says Grimm. “It’s our responsibility to find out how they learn, what we can do differently, and then to do it.”
Whatever they are doing, it’s been working. Since 2011:
- The End-of-Course rate soared from 26 percent to 66 percent.
- The High School Assessment Program rate — until this year a requirement for graduation — increased from 48 percent to 61 percent.
- The enrollment in Advanced Placement courses went up nearly 12 percent, to 22.7 percent. The median high school average is 15.3 percent. Attendance is more than 96 percent.
- Suspensions are almost non-existent, at 1.1 percent.
The improvements are more than statistics. It’s about changing a culture of failure and showing that schools that serve at-risk, disadvantaged students can make the grade and strive for success.
While the graduation rate in 2014 remained relatively low at 54 percent, it’s up 10.5 percent points since 2011.
Those numbers, Grimm says, are deceptive because many of the students who come in as freshmen transfer to other schools in the district or the country, but the state still counts them against the school graduation totals.
The school has been rated At-Risk for more than decade.
Even that can be misleading, Grimm says.
North Charleston missed moving up to Below Average by one student’s test scores.
If four students had earned a passing grade, the school’s rating would have climbed to Average.
“The way the state calculates grades puts us at a significant and unfair disadvantage,” Grimm says. “We have to overcome some barriers that other schools don’t have to overcome.”
Grimm was well aware of the obstacles before he took the helm as principal.
North Charleston High School had a bad reputation. Most of it, frankly, was true.
—Read the remainder of the article at Pensacola Today or return here tomorrow to What’s Right for “Part 2″ of When education is a priority, every child can learn.
Special thanks to Randy Hammer from Pensacola Today for connecting with us via email about our request to reprint this post for WRIE readers. Reprint courtesy of Pensacola Today, Pensacola, FL, http://PensacolaToday.com.
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Filed under: How to Lead…, Our Partners, Service Excellence Tagged: #leaders, @CCSDConnects, CCSD, Continuous Improvement, Excellence, Grimm, Leadership, North Charleston High School, Pensacola Today, Reggie Dogan