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Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Last Chapter

       (This represents the end of the series of posts that began on March 21st and chronicled the story of a school improvement process at an inner-city junior high school)

     One aspect of the conversion of junior high schools to middle schools was captured in the surveys that the district’s central office anonymously administered to parents, learners, and staff throughout the city. These instruments were designed to obtain feedback on what people thought about their junior high school in an effort to create baseline data in the form of a pre-test and post-test with respect to what they felt about middle schools after the following year. 
     The results, published throughout the school district, provided convincing evidence that Mann was held in much higher esteem by it’s parents, staff, and learners than any other school was by their similar constituencies.xiv 
     One of the most personally satisfying moments for me during this wonderful experience was the opportunity to model praise and reinforcement with the staff. There appears to be some general misunderstanding among secondary level educators that the warm and fuzzy notes of praise for learners is something that is confined to little kids at the elementary level. Mysteriously, the need for such a tool disappears during the summer between sixth and seventh grade. 
     A climate where everyone recognized the need to work together was necessary if we intended to stimulate significant change. An important aspect of such a goal includes a healthy exchange of recognition and praise. As in most cases, the leader must accept the responsibility for inviting change by willingly demonstrating the desired behavior as an example. 
     With that in mind, I sequestered myself in my office one Sunday afternoon with the names and addresses of the parents of each and every staff member at Horace Mann. I composed personalized letters of praise that acknowledged the tremendous success of our school. In addition, every letter contained a specific contribution made by the particular individual. These notes were then forwarded, unknown to the staff members, to their parents with a concluding, “thanks for instilling the values and beliefs in (insert name of staff member) that have resulted in significant contributions here at Horace Mann Junior High School.”  
     Very soon thereafter I was visited by a succession of individuals, several with eyes welled up with tears, who came by the office and described their surprise when contacted by their proud parents with news of receiving a glowing note about their “child”, many of whom were in their forties and fifties and long since confused as a kid anymore.  
     I still keep the gratifying letters I received from the parents of staff members who wanted to share the pride they felt about their offspring. One parent letter in particular stated that although their son was a hardworking and successful person he had never distinguished himself to the degree that he excelled at anything in high school,… but they always knew he was special and the letter I had sent to them confirmed this belief – even though they had to wait until their son was in his thirties. 
     Two heartfelt notes were received from a couple of custodians. One was an admission that disclosed how she had always been embarrassed to admit where she worked. But not anymore. She was so proud of the progress at Mann that she now brags about where she works. The other was by a custodian whose father was a bus driver with the school district. He claimed that on the day his father received the letter he went into each and every school he picked up children and broadcast the message to all who would listen.    
     Needles to say, there was a dramatic increase in notes of praise sent home by our staff members to their learners. It proved to be like a small pebble dropped into a pond, its ripples of concentric circles expanding far beyond the point it was dropped. 
     Another sign of our acceptance by the greater community was the reference that the mayor of Amarillo made at a breakfast meeting of civic leaders sharing an interest in revitalizing the economically beleaguered city. He cited the specific accomplishments of the school (academic pep rallies) in transforming itself and claimed that Horace Mann Junior High was an example of what could be done across the city.xv  
     When everything was done at the end of that first year we had a school we would want to attend if we were teenagers, a school we would want to have our own children attend, and a school where we were proud to work. Most of all, we had, as one student proudly declared in the school survey, a “school of hope.” 
The End 

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