The origin stories of successful schools start with a similar script. Leaders and staff envision a new and better reality, define that reality in a mission, and then plan for how to actualize that mission. Unfortunately, the final step is where potential success stories start to falter. Though many schools start with aspirational visions, only some are able to successfully turn that vision into a meaningful, sustainable educational model.
Though all schools face unique challenges, I would argue that a common trend of successful schools or school systems is the adherence to effective, efficient, and consistent structures that weave together to fulfill the mission. Though the idea of structure might initially feel stifling, at Classical, structure has proven to be the foundation of our innovation and success.
Below I describe structures at Classical that have contributed to our achievements as the highest performing non-CMO charter network in New York City.
Highly Organized Classrooms
We believe in the old adage, “a place for everything and everything in its place.” When classrooms maximize space and ensure safe, efficient navigation, instructional time is conserved, individualized student support occurs seamlessly, and collaboration between teachers and operations is optimized. Key features of an organized classroom include designated storage locations and labels for easy access of materials, classroom libraries that are organized by reading level and genre, and consistent posters that reinforce procedures and support the curriculum. All of these features help to build a purposeful, safe, and joyful learning environment and facilitate scholars’ access to resources.
Time Saving Procedures
At Classical, we carefully choreograph activities to maximize learning time. Although structured procedures can initially feel unnatural, when simple systems like passing out papers, accessing materials, or using the classroom library are clear, consistent, and structured, the pay-off is tremendous. For example, if a class can line up in 15 seconds instead of 60, 12 times a day, more than three days of learning time can be dedicated to instruction. When students know exactly what to do to save time and be respectful of other scholars who are still working, learning time is maximized in a way that respects the individual learning needs of all students.
The number of students and staff in our school building during the day necessitates careful scheduling. Coordination takes time and requires meticulous planning to optimize mastery of content. At Classical, we create our schedule with built in flexibility that allows us to seamlessly move scholars into varying levels of support throughout the year as their needs change from one skill orto another. This allows us to quickly offer tailored instruction to all scholars without needing to shift everyone’s schedule.
Classical’s curriculum is where our emphasis on reliable structures shines brightest. At Classical, every lesson, for every day, in every grade, and every subject is based on careful data reflection on past scholar performance and created by master teachers before the start of the year. This structure ensures that every teacher, regardless of experience, is prepared to teach scholars rigorous, assessment aligned curriculum that is proven to set scholars up for success.
Consistently High Expectations
While most schools have a code of conduct, the consistency to which scholars and staff are held to those high standards can vary. At Classical, teachers invest time teaching scholars what the expectations are and the rationale behind them. The result is a calm, respectful and focused environment that maximizes student concentration and provides ‘psychological safety’ that all students deserve and sadly too few actually experience.
At-Risk and Other Interventions
As a teacher, I struggled to differentiate instruction and deliver the best possible lesson to all my kids in one sitting. Therefore, it was important to me to structure Classical’s model in a way that ensures scholars who have extra instructional or emotional needs get the appropriate services. To accomplish this, we test scholars’ growth in reading and math frequently throughout the year to quickly identify and address skill gaps through our At-Risk Reading program, counseling services, and tailored small-group support.
Professional Development Program
Classical’s secret sauce, if there is any, is in our professional development program. It’s systematic and develops all teachers into successful leaders of scholar growth. Experienced instructional coaches observe all teachers on a weekly basis and provide direct, constructive feedback. Professional Development sessions are carefully planned so that teachers can select the sessions they feel are most relevant to their growth. Classical also pays for new teachers admitted into our ClassiCorps Teaching Fellowship to earn their Masters in Teaching degree from Relay Graduate School of Education free of charge. Our systematic approach to professional development means that all teachers who are eager and willing to grow can be immensely successful in a short period of time.
Business and Operations
We believe that when teachers are given the time and space to simply focus on teaching, students are better set up for success. Therefore, we’ve structured our administrative support to focus on the “other stuff” so that teachers can spend more time differentiating instruction, and less time fiddling with the copier. At Classical, the Operations Team uses consistent structures to efficiently deal with supply requests, make and distribute copies, grade and track school wide assessments, monitor and maintain the cleanliness of spaces, and much more. Additionally, our Business Team’s adherence to strict financial management procedures allows us to maintain financial stability, avoid budget cuts, and provide salaries that attract and retain the best talent. Once again, structures and systems provide a sense of organizational safety, which is key to Classical’s model.
Operating a successful network of high-performing schools isn’t easy and there isn’t a one-fix-fits-all formula. However, by taking a critical look at the fundamental systems and structures that define a schools’ model, teachers and administrators can implement meaningful improvements quickly and ultimately improve student outcomes. In the end, seeing structure as stifling is a limited perspective. In fact, solid structures are sometimes exactly what organizations need to break free from the strain of inefficiency and accelerate sustainable growth.
This post was contributed by Mr. Lester Long, Executive Director of Classical Charter Schools. As a non-CMO charter network, we rely on the thoughts, opinions, and innovations of our staff to move our mission forward and provide an excellent academic option to families in the South Bronx. To hear more from our staff, check out the next post! Or, click here to learn more.