Failure Is Not An Option
In the summer of 2007, Maplewood High School in Nashville, Tennessee, was a building in trouble. The school had not met state academic benchmarks for eight consecutive years. Students were not motivated to learn and improve, and there were numerous suspensions for discipline problems. Teacher morale was low, turnover was high, and an alarming number of students were simply not graduating. It was enough to cause the Tennessee Department of Education to take the school over from the district and implement an immediate improvement plan.
Part of that plan included hiring a new principal—someone with experience who knew how to turn a school around. For that role, the state turned to Dr. Julie Williams, a 1995 Milken Educator who, as principal of Hunters Lane Comprehensive High School in Nashville for 10 years, had demonstrated highly effective leadership. Under her guidance, Hunters Lane became the first school in Nashville and the second in Tennessee to offer the prestigious International Baccalaureate Program. Though she had retired in 2004, the state asked if she would be willing to come out of retirement and lead Maplewood in its revival. Williams agreed.
Over the next year, Williams implemented a wide array of changes in the way things were done at Maplewood. Many of the changes were difficult, and there was initial resistance from students and staff. But it wasn't long before the effects of those changes became apparent.
Students who in the past had come just shy of passing their tests were not only passing them but scoring advanced. As student achievement increased, so did teacher morale. In the middle of summer 2008, Maplewood learned that it had achieved Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) under No Child Left Behind (NCLB) for the first time in years, an official confirmation of improvements they had been seeing throughout the school year—improvements that many hadn't even known were possible.
This is the story of how one person can make a huge difference—especially when that person is a Milken Educator.
Most people think of retirement as a time for rest and relaxation: idle days spent gardening or lounging in front of a television set.
Dr. Julie Williams's version of retirement hardly fit the stereotype.
She had remained quite active, working part time for the Tennessee Department of Education's Exemplary Educator initiative and helping teachers and principals improve student achievement at high-needs schools—including, from time to time, at Maplewood. She was also an adjunct professor at Belmont University in Nashville and did some work in accreditation.
Dr. Julie Williams (front row, center, in white) with her staff at Maplewood High School
Williams—whose brother-in-law is Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent David L. Brewer III—says she learned a great deal during this time.
"I think it helped broaden my focus as far as school improvement," she said.
Just three weeks before the start of the school year, the Tennessee Department of Education called Williams, asking if she would be willing to take over as principal of Maplewood. With little time to decide, she took the assignment because, she said, "I liked the challenge of it all. I knew part of what the school needed because I had been there. And I felt that they could make some improvements if they implemented certain things."
Working with a relatively inexperienced teaching staff (almost two-thirds of the school's faculty had been teaching for less than three years) and $1 million in state funding, Williams immediately hired three mentor specialists in math, English and science. These were seasoned educators whose expertise was needed to align Maplewood's curriculum with state standards. They also worked in the classroom with teachers, providing support, training and advice to help improve instruction.
Williams also worked hard to motivate students, creating after-school clubs and ensuring that every student was involved in a club. She also organized schoolwide assemblies and invited guest speakers to inspire students to improve.
One important strategy she implemented was something she had learned during her retirement period. Through the student teachers she had supervised as an adjunct professor at Belmont University, she had been able to visit "some of the best schools in Nashville, private and public," where she observed something that struck a chord in her.
"The teachers treated the kids differently," she said. "We talk about high expectations, but at these top schools, I could see it."
When Williams became principal of Maplewood—a school where 85 percent of the students are African-American and even more are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch—she saw that many of the students had "pretty much just been written off." Some had even been classified as special education students, even though it was clear they weren't.
So to raise expectations, as she had seen in some of those "best schools," Williams adopted a new theme for Maplewood High School: Failure is not an option. It wasn't merely a motto. It was a standard to which she held everyone—both staff and students.
"In order to be called an Improving School, we only needed to raise our scores by 10 percent," said Williams. "I told my teachers that I expected 100 percent to pass. And they looked at me as if I was crazy."
To convince them that it was possible, Williams showed them the student data she had been studying. Many of the students at Maplewood had scored just shy of passing. Williams showed her teachers that if they could just get those students to pass, "we would almost have 100 percent. They began to see that."
Data was a significant part of Williams's strategy for turning Maplewood around. Williams and her staff conducted frequent pre-assessments throughout the year for every student and constantly examined the results to drive instructional strategy.
"We went through the data with a fine-tooth comb," said Williams. "I knew every student who wasn't doing well and what scores they were making."
She even confronted students in the hallway, telling them, "‘Look, you're on the bubble—you only made 65 on that last test.' And they would look at me, surprised that I knew that information."
Tutoring was provided for students who were falling behind, though it was not always easy to get them to take advantage of it.
"Sometimes we had to take the kids practically kicking and screaming—they didn't really want to do the extra tutoring," said Williams. "And we did it during the school day. We had tried it after school, but the students just wouldn't stay."
Williams also encouraged her teachers to allow students to make up work and retake tests until they passed.
"The students knew they were going to do it over and over until they got it right," she said.
One of Williams's greatest challenges lay in changing the culture of the school with respect to discipline. Before she became principal of Maplewood, the primary method for disciplining students was suspension. As a result, the school had a very high suspension rate, year after year.
Williams felt this was an ineffective way of dealing with the situation.
"Suspensions just don't work," said Williams. "If suspension worked, we would have had the best students in the world, because we had more suspensions than any other school.
"If our focus is to get students to pass the test, then the first step is, they've got to be here," said Williams. "In a high-poverty school, where students are either working after school or they don't have the assistance at home, you can't just keep beating your head against the wall by giving homework and giving homework and have students either not do it or not understand. We need to maximize the amount of time that we have them."
So Williams and her staff began exploring alternatives to suspension that wouldn't take students off campus, such as detention and meetings with parents.
"I spent a lot of time in one-on-one conversations with parents," she said. "I felt that it was fruitful, because that's the only way to get to people: that one-on-one contact."
One of the most difficult things about changing how the school dealt with discipline problems was changing the mindset of faculty and staff.
"It's a cultural change," said Williams. "I had to talk with my teachers and assistant principals—and still do—to get them to understand that the kinds of things that we were suspending for weren't helping the students. Why suspend the students for five days when they're going to come right back and be behind?"
Sometimes, Williams says, all it took to resolve a conflict with a student was a simple conversation.
"Talking to students worked just as well as anything else," she said. "They just want to know that somebody cares about them. They know what they've done wrong, so to be able to say 'Okay, go and sin no more'—that's good enough."
In December 2007, students who had previously taken and failed one of the state tests retook the examinations. The results from those tests showed dramatic gains in English and biology—almost 100 percent passed. However, the scores in math showed little or no improvement. After closely examining and analyzing the data from those tests, Williams and her staff determined that the extra tutoring had been more intensive and sustained for English and science than for math. So Williams increased the amount of tutoring that students were receiving in Algebra I.
"I was encouraged by what had happened in English and biology," said Williams. "I felt we were on the right track."
When the scores came back from a benchmark test given in the spring, several of the math teachers were excited to learn that 80 percent had passed.
Williams told them, "That's not good enough. We've got to have 100 percent."
As Williams and her staff continued to challenge students to improve despite their resistance, an interesting thing began to happen. Students became invested in their achievement.
"As time went on, they bought into it in a big way, to the extent that they wanted to pass," said Williams. "I told some of the kids, ‘If you don't go to your class and put forth your best effort, then you're not going to be able to pass the test.' And the kids would come up to me and say, ‘Dr. Williams, I'm going to pass that test and you're going to see.' "
Two days before the state test at the end of the second semester, Williams convened students and staff for what she called an "inspirational time." She had invited six guests from "all walks of life" to speak to the students. Some were college athletes who had overcome difficulties to achieve success—people with whom the students at Maplewood could identify and who could show them that success was possible for them.
"At the end of that motivational time, I think the students felt, ‘We can do this,' " said Williams.
When the scores from the test came back, there was not only a higher percentage of students who had passed the test, but more students scored at the advanced level than ever before—including some who had been labeled "special education."
"We surpassed our own expectations," said Williams.
As important as it is to hold people to high standards, Williams also knows the importance of celebrating victories along the way.
When the improved state test scores came back at the end of the year, Williams organized a schoolwide assembly in which she equated her students' academic successes with the football team's victories the previous fall. The team had won second in the state in its class.
"What I told the kids was that this was as big as that win, if not larger," said Williams. "And we want to celebrate it just as we had celebrated our football victories."
It was a hard-fought victory. Williams admits that "there were many discouraging moments when I questioned myself. I couldn't let anybody else see my own doubt. I just kept to the plan of teaching, reteaching and encouraging.
"You have to keep focused," she added. "I had been a principal for 10 years before my retirement. So I know that there were a number of initiatives that I could have taken, different things that could have been done to make this a world-class school. But I was absolutely focused on one thing, and that was passing those tests. I knew that it was very important for the school and that it had to happen for us to move to the next level."
Williams recently began her second year as principal of Maplewood, choosing not to go back into retirement just yet.
"One of the requirements of No Child Left Behind is that you have to make AYP for two consecutive years before you can come off the [Schools In Need of Improvement (SINI)] list," she said. "So I felt I owed them at least one more year."
There is no shortage of challenges ahead for Williams and Maplewood. She will be working with 16 new teachers on her staff and a building that is being physically renovated. She would also like to see improvements in the school's ACT scores, as well as "a lot of other needs that we have to attend to." But the work that she and her staff and students have done this past year, along with their renewed excitement and motivation, are sure to help make the challenges ahead easier to tackle.
"I think we all feel much better about ourselves," said Williams. "The students are absolutely ecstatic. You can just see it on their faces."
For more information, contact Dr. Julie Williams at email@example.com.
Don’t miss any new articles and updates from Milken Educator Awards: