Student Voice Is Essential for School Improvement

I’ve written before at some of the good things happening at Namaste Charter School. But today I’ll be writing about some of the challenges my child’s school is currently facing.

We’re in a leadership transition, which is always a tough time for any school. In summer 2014, Namaste’s founding principal made way for a successor. The transition was thoughtfully planned, with the new principal serving for a year alongside the founder in an administrative role close to the school’s mission of promoting health and wellness. When the successor took over, the founding principal continued to provide financial and fundraising support for an additional year.

Everyone hoped the transition would be smooth and successful. But the recently released 5 Essentials report on Namaste shows exactly what was working and wasn’t at our school as of last spring, when teachers, students, and parents took surveys. Namaste’s traditions of involved families and strong teacher collaboration weathered the change, but the leadership change appears to have weakened the level of instruction, at least in the middle school, where students themselves are surveyed.

The student survey asked students in grades six through eight to comment on the level of difficulty and challenge they experience in their math and English classes. Our middle schoolers are telling us teachers could be asking them more challenging questions both is class and on tests. Even more worrisome, the measure of “academic personalism” has taken a nosedive in these transition years. That tells us the extent to which students say their teachers are taking the time to to notice whether a student is struggling, explain something in a different way, or take other steps to help them catch up.

Though my child is only in first grade, I know many of the middle school teachers and the I know the middle school has been through some changes that may help explain what the survey results are telling us. While the 5 Essentials surveys are a great tool to help schools improve, understanding a single school’s results requires time and thoughtful analysis from those in the know at the school level.

Fortunately, Namaste’s board already saw the signs that change was needed. Just as in business, where 40 percent of executive transitions don’t work out, school leadership transitions don’t always prove successful, either. Whether district- or charter-run, schools in leadership transition deserve leaders who will pay careful attention to results and make mid-course corrections as needed.

Next week, a new interim head of school will start work with our teachers. The founding principal has agreed to resume a more hands-on role as Namaste continues its search for the right person to succeed her.

I’m hopeful that as these leaders work together to help our school navigate the rough waters of success, they will listen carefully to what our middle-school students are telling us and find ways to address the issues they are raising.

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Maureen Kelleher

Chicago Unheard blog manager Maureen Kelleher also serves as a senior writer and editor at brightbeam, a nonprofit network of education activists demanding a better education and brighter future for every child. Before joining the brightbeam team, she spent a decade as a reporter, blogger and policy analyst. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. A former high school English teacher, she is also the proud mom of a middle-schooler. Find her on Twitter at @KelleherMaureen.

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