Devon Willis-Jones' dedication to the education profession spans over 15 years. Prior to joining the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching as a senior specialist, then assistant director for Louisiana, Willis-Jones earned the 2016 Milken Educator Award as a data-driven principal who faced challenges with optimism and determination. When she took over at Jeanerette Elementary School, a high-poverty campus in Iberia Parish, the school had just earned an F rating. Only 40% of students scored at or above grade level on state assessments.
Undeterred, Willis-Jones created a plan rooted in her prior experiences as a classroom, mentor and master teacher. In these roles, she was an integral part of a school team that used models supported by the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET) to provide teachers with leadership opportunities, job-embedded professional development and educator evaluation, observation and feedback. Willis-Jones currently serves as Senior Specialist, Louisiana, for the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.
Focused on renewing Jeanerette Elementary's commitment to these principles to change the school's culture, she enlisted faculty and staff to share in her vision of "Success and Nothing Less," adopting research-based, proven processes focused on improving instruction and student achievement. Willis-Jones asked parents to trust her and keep their children at Jeanerette Elementary, moving her own daughter to the school to reinforce her commitment.
Working with the school's master teacher, she coached weekly professional development meetings, modeled and team-taught high-quality lessons, provided teachers with high-quality feedback, and tracked student data to identify growth. The school's leadership team met often to monitor instruction and student growth and started regular "learning walks" (classroom visitations), which included school, district and state personnel and generated immediate and ongoing feedback for both teachers and school leaders.
Willis-Jones' effort to create a thriving environment at Jeanerette Elementary succeeded: In her first year as principal the school earned a B rating and was labeled a "Top Gains" school by the State, erasing the stigma that had dogged Jeanerette for years. The percentage of students scoring at or above grade level rose to 65% for English Language Arts and 87% for math. Never complacent, Willis-Jones pushed the school to maintain its B rating the following year, despite new assessments.
The improvements are visible in the level of engagement in Jeanerette's classrooms. Students use "accountable talk" to discuss deep, cite-based guiding questions and explain their mathematical thinking. When fifth-graders read a story in which farm workers strike and boycott for better working conditions, they decided to organize their own boycott to "lobby" for more recess. Willis-Jones turned the student action into a win-win opportunity for learning and motivation: She let the students submit their concerns and told them that if academic performance improved on benchmark assessments, she would extend their recess period.
Willis-Jones began her career in special education. When she became the master teacher for Pre-K through second grade at Johnston-Hopkins Elementary School, also in Iberia Parish, Willis-Jones dove into early education with gusto, working hard to ensure she understood developmental abilities in the early grades. She worked collaboratively with the school's leadership team to analyze data, field test, and plan for professional development meetings. Through her teaching of the instructional rubric and conducting action research on literacy strategies, she helped reverse the school's negative trend on the DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills); the research she did at Johnston-Hopkins is still being used by teachers there to improve students' foundational reading skills. Colleagues say she presented her findings so authoritatively in meetings that one would never know early education wasn't her original area of expertise.
Teachers were excited to report the results they were seeing from the new strategies; at the end of the year, the first grade had achieved its highest growth in reading proficiency and met the 80% benchmark target for the first time in the school's history.
Willis-Jones is known as a "behind the scenes" educator who insists on instructional excellence and never hesitates to share best practices. She has modeled her feedback practices and the school's method for progress monitoring for district administrators. Teachers are attracted to her school to apply for open positions because they know Willis-Jones has made Jeanerette Elementary a supportive place to learn their craft. Willis-Jones also understands that making a difference in students' lives means contributing to the community. Whether it's a parade, church event or health fair, Willis-Jones ensures that Jeanerette Elementary is represented.
Willis-Jones received a Bachelor of Arts in education with a concentration in special education from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in 2004 and a Master of Education in administration and supervision from Jones International University in 2012.
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Masters Degree: Administration and Supervision