The Secret of One Priority School's Success

Charles H. Wright Spelling Bee 

Charles Wright Academy—Detroit Public Schools

Since being identified as a Priority School in 2012, the Charles Wright Academy team has stepped up to the plate and hit a home run regarding the improvement of student achievement and school climate. Principal Kimberly Davis and her Leadership Team shared the secrets of their success.

“We were shocked!” explained Principal Davis. “We had no idea how we got on that list. We were at the bottom and reached out to Michigan Department of Education and Wayne RESA to help us understand [what priority school status meant]”.

In 2012, Charles Wright Academy was ranked at 0% on the State Top to Bottom List. In 2014, the Wright Academy has climbed to the 34th percentile and showed significant growth on state assessments. Brenda Heath, 4th grade teacher, says, “Teaching at a Priority School has taken me out of my box to be a better teacher. It has been a blessing, not a curse.” The team acknowledges it has been hard getting to this point but believes that they have set a standard for excellence. Other teachers are now asking to work at Charles Wright. Michelle Thornhill, math teacher, 3rd and 4th grade, explained, "What has led to the success at Charles Wright is not just one thing. We build relationships with students, each other and parents. It’s not a formal cultural model, but we all do it.

No Excuses

In 2010, Principal Davis explained, the district closed and/or re-purposed approximately 30 schools resulting in significant redistricting. Traditionally a neighborhood school, Charles Wright students were considered walkers. The community was heavily involved because of a strong parent connection and parent-teacher partnership. The redistricting prevented students from being able to walk to their neighborhood school and now between 13 to 15 busses transport students to school each day. “We have the highest percentage of homeless students than any other Detroit Public School,” said Davis. Teachers realized they no longer had the intimate connection to their neighborhood families. Staff noticed attendance issues began to increase. Both Michelle Ballard, 3rd grade teacher, and Ms. Heath agreed that the school committed to a winning environment, saying, “We decided to put away all the excuses.” To address these changes, teachers implemented parent workshops regarding strategies designed to help students with homework and science projects. “We started a homework huddle at lunchtime,” explained Ms. Ballard. They wanted to ensure that students received the support that they needed to be successful. This focus on no excuses is shared by the Charles Wright staff. Tawana Jordan, 2nd grade teacher, explained, “I had a student with poor attendance, so I came in early to call his mother to be sure to get him up [for school].” Jordan further explained, “She asked me why I was calling her so early, and I told her if he didn’t come to school I’d call her even earlier the next day!”

Coaching All Students

Ballard, Heath, and Jordan described the commitment to the students of Charles Wright saying, "We’ve been accused of treating these kids like they are our own. This is not a job, it’s a ministry. As teachers, we’re coaches, we have to win. As a teacher I feel I am coaching my team. I tell my students if they follow my play, they will win academically. We provide quality feedback to every student and model everything we expect them to learn. We follow the gradual release model of  ‘I do, we do, they do.' Students every morning are individually welcomed with a special greeting. We say good morning, you are loved here, you are welcome here, and you’re going to be successful."

Instructional Systems

The Wright team embraced the requirements of Priority Schools and admits that they have taken full advantage of all of the supports offered. The team has attended training on Professional Learning Communities, Instructional Learning Cycles (ILC), Formative Assessment and Wayne RESA sponsored content institutes. The team recognized instructional shifts had to be made. Weekly grade level team meetings were an integral component of the school’s Reform/Redesign plan. Ms. Ballard and Thornhill said, "Grade level team meetings allowed us the opportunity to value each other, share strategies, to trust each other and take risks. Grade level team meetings also promoted vertical alignment and an opportunity to challenge each other."

Being a Priority School forced the team to implement strategies such as ILCs that they otherwise would not have used. Other schools are asking the Wright team to share their strategies. They describe the Priority School process as forcing them to be more reflective, open to new thinking and ideas. The use of data is the foundation for their teamwork. Data walls required by the district were implemented fully at Wright and used as a model for other schools. Service planning required of Priority Schools allowed them to be reflective in identifying their needs. Tiffany Taylor Tait explained that, “WRESA helped us in assessing our needs. They treated us with respect and told us they knew we could be successful. We looked at our school data and identified overlooked students.”

Culture is key to success and the Charles Wright staff is committed to building relationships with parents, students and each other to be successful. Their work is much more than a job. Principal Davis shared that, “This is the best team of teachers you could ever work for. I work for them. They are the last cars to leave, even on Fridays.”