Twice in a Lifetime
A Milken Educator Award and Lowell Milken TAP Founder's Award mark Tracy Spies' leadership of Milam Elementary from steep challenges to boundless potential.
Surprising a teacher with a national honor and accompanying fanfare typically happens only once in a lifetime. Well, what if it happens twice?
Just ask Dr. Tracy Spies (TX '10), principal of Ben Milam Elementary School in Bryan, Texas. Last fall Spies was told to plan a school visit by none other than Governor Rick Perry, only to learn that the Governor was visiting to surprise her as one of 53 recipients of the Milken Educator Award. "The Milken Educator Award is a shock," Spies said as she tearfully accepted the recognition—and its $25,000 cash prize. "I'm not flashy; it's not me. I come to work and do what I do for my kids because it is right."
And it is working. Greeting her "kids" every day, rain or shine, has helped Spies create a bond with her students that for many, started at four years old when they were just entering kindergarten. She follows her greetings by frequently observing her students' classrooms during the day to reinforce lessons and ensure that they fully understand the concepts. "They love to read, they love coming to school, and they love being successful," said Spies.
Tracy Spies, a principal at Ben Milam Elementary School, receives $25,000 from Milken Family Foundation Co-Founder Michael Milken (left) and MFF Chairman and Co-Founder Lowell Milken (right) at the 2011 Milken Educator Forum in Santa Monica, CA.
Stephanie Mosqueda (right), Texas TAP Coordinator for Program Development, congratulates Milam Elementary School Principal Tracy Spies.
Come spring, this success was acknowledged again, under similar pretense, with the prestigious Lowell Milken TAP Founder's Award, presented annually to one school for exceptional implementation of TAP: The System for Teacher and Student Advancement. TAP is a comprehensive system of career advancement; ongoing professional development; rigorous teacher evaluation and accountability; and performance-based compensation.
This time, Spies and her TAP Leadership Team of administrators, mentor and master teachers were honored before 1,500 people at the National TAP Conference in Los Angeles, California.
"We just sat there, dumbfounded," Spies told WTAW-AM, Bryan's local radio station, upon returning from the conference. "We knew we were growing, we knew we were improving, but we were all shocked to be recognized for how far we've come."
Looking at the progress today, it's hard to believe that at one time Milam's motto, "All things are possible," seemed close to impossible.
Upon becoming principal at Milam in 2006, Spies had to hire 14 new teachers to replace those who left because they didn't feel supported in the classroom. The school was plagued by a revolving door of program after program, leaving staff with no concise vision or plan of action. Compounding matters were the challenging demographics of the school itself. Milam is situated in an impoverished neighborhood, sandwiched between opposing gangs. Ninety-four percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch; nearly 60 percent are limited English speakers; and 86 percent are identified as "at-risk." There was no question that Tracy needed systemic school reform.
Fortunately for Milam, TAP was introduced to the district in 2007. Spies became one of the first to jump on the bandwagon. "I had never seen or been involved in a reform effort that was so systemic, complete and comprehensive," she said.
The school approved TAP implementation for the 2008-09 school year, and has never looked back.
Through intensive mentoring and collaboration on effective strategies, every teacher focuses on helping all students succeed—no matter the challenge. Spies shares her leadership responsibilities with master and mentor teachers who lead weekly TAP professional development "cluster" meetings. The leadership team helps Spies conduct regular observations to coach teachers and help them improve. Through TAP's system of performance-based compensation, teachers are rewarded with bonuses for strengthening their skills and increasing student achievement growth.
"Hand-in-hand we create highly effective classrooms through support and coaching on the TAP Instructional Rubric; develop strategies for immediate use that are designed to be effective with all kids; and push each other to be more reflective and improve every day."
Even after adding fourth grade in the 2008-09 school year and fifth grade in 2009-10, Milam met state student achievement benchmarks. What's more, Milam exceeded value-added student achievement growth targets for both school years compared to similar schools in the state. The school has also been able to retain effective teachers.
"Together we have created a vision and a long-term plan to improve teacher effectiveness," said Spies. "Hand-in-hand we create highly effective classrooms through support and coaching on the TAP Instructional Rubric; develop strategies for immediate use that are designed to be effective with all kids; and push each other to be more reflective and improve every day."
Teachers appreciate the culture change at Milam, too. "Our kids are getting a better education because of the TAP system," said TAP Master Teacher Sara Borchgardt. "If you take a look at where we began three years ago, it's a drastic difference."
Introduced in 1999, TAP impacts more than 20,000 teachers and 200,000 students. For more information, visit http://www.tapsystem.org.
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