School Turnaround: How One DCPS Principal is Seeing Outstanding Growth
It’s 8:20 am on a Friday morning in March, and students are entering Moten Elementary School, located in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, DC. They stream in calmly and happily, greeted by a cheery “Good morning!” from several staff stationed by the door, and make their way to the cafeteria. This morning, they’ll hear who earned the Artist of the Month awards. Every time a student’s name is called, the others clap and whoop appreciatively, looking genuinely proud of their peers. After the ceremony, a girl runs up to the Principal, Akela Dogbe, to give her a hug.
All of this is part of a carefully crafted school culture, one designed to create a sense of belonging and safety. The word “Artist” in fact, is an acronym referring to the school’s culture motto:
- A: I act with love
- R: I respect myself, teaching, and learning
- T: I tap into my talents
- I: I influence with integrity
- S: I use safe hands, feet, and words
- T: I take responsibility
It wasn’t always this way at Moten. When Principal Dogbe arrived at the school in 2017, she noticed that culture was a challenge. “When kids were getting off the bus in the morning, it was chaotic and unsafe,” she says. There were a high number of suspensions. And their academic achievement was in the bottom 5th percentile in all of District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS).
As a new principal, she knew she needed to address culture and create an instructional focus- but she just didn’t know how to put it all together.
Principal Dogbe had extensive experience in education, in roles as varied as classroom teacher, a career-and-technical education curriculum manager at Chicago Public Schools, learning specialist in a Montessori school, and as an assistant principal at a DCPS school that had seen impressive gains in student proficiency. Yet being a principal was different. It was a hard first year.
By the end of school year 2022 (results for this year are still pending!), she has a very different story to tell:
- Moten 5th graders outscored the district average on the interim math assessments (ANET) by 13%.
- Their suspension rate dropped by 90%.
- The number of students reading on grade level in K-1 increased by 40%.
- In the 2018-19 school year (the last year when PARCC was administered), the whole school had grown by 11% in math and 7% in ELA.
Not that Principal Dogbe is content to stay at this place - “The work is never done! You can always get better. We have to keep going until 100% of kids are performing at their best, to close all the gaps,” she says. But she can take some comfort in knowing that their growth trajectory is 3 to 4 times most other schools in the district. And it took a lot of deliberate work to get here.
A Detailed Plan for a Safe and Inclusive School Culture
In her second year, one of the changes she made was to opt in to Relay’s first DCPS cohort of the Instructional Leadership Professional Development Program (ILPD). Through the ILPD, she got summer training with a group of peers, a coach who worked with her throughout the year, and follow-on “intersessions” with her fellow leaders. (This was a modified version of Relay’s traditional ILPD, which is a summer-only program. The National Principal Academy Fellowship is closer in structure to the DCPS ILPD)
The thing she got immediately was a sense of structure. “I needed structure. I needed a way to maximize talent in my building quickly, to impact student outcomes quickly. The work we did, it changed my whole trajectory as a principal.”
She started applying structure to school culture first. “Culture is the quickest win. Everyone wants the school to feel good for kids. People go to summer PD, and we talk about culture, but no one knows what to do.”
She and her team started by breaking down six key transition moments in the day: morning arrival, start of class, lunch, recess, hallway transitions, and dismissal. They watched videos of other schools, and talked about what aspects they would want to keep for their own school. They mapped out exactly where the adults would be, and how to create a sense of community, or harambe. “We can take these dreams and put it into something concrete,” she says. “We can make this school happen if we just plan it minute by minute.” Such a plan can be captured in what Relay calls a “Playbook” - such as the Strong Start Playbook. Principal Dogbe and her team planned the roll out to the whole school, incorporating opportunities for teachers to “co-construct” the plan.
One of their routines is the “sacred seven”. During the first seven minutes of every class, students enter quietly, eat their breakfast, do their “Do Now” and then grab a book. “They appreciate a moment to chill out in the morning,” Principal Dogbe says. “It’s a time when we know it’s calm. They are very used to doing the chimes and meditation.”
She also emphasizes how important it is to ensure that all teachers and staff buy in to, and consistently practice, their safe and secure culture.
“It takes the focus off a 9 or 10 year old to determine how the school runs. That’s not their job. It’s our job as adults. This system gives the kids clear expectations, structure, and consistency, which they need. You have to get the adults on board. The kids just respond to the culture you create.”
Once a culture is created, the students participate in keeping it going. Principal Dogbe relates how recently, a student transferred in from another school. He was having some behavioral challenges in music class. The students stepped in to help him, saying “We don’t do that. That’s now how we interact here.” The school leader was very proud.
Instructional Focus: Observation, Feedback, Data, Reteaching
Once classes started on that Friday, there were very few students in the hallways. One student, however, was having a particularly bad day. She seemed to be crying as she came in to school, and emerged from class a few minutes later accompanied by an aide, still upset.
She bumped into Assistant Principal Paul Schneider, who was walking the halls. He stopped what he was doing to connect with her. “Cara, what’s going on? Do you want to talk about it?” She nodded, and they moved into a small room to talk.
This, too, is a part of the culture. Assistant Principal Schneider says it’s about, “Being present, knowing their names, consistency, showing respect.”
Once these conditions are established, the next most important thing - the heart of the scholastic enterprise - is academic achievement. The driver of academic achievement is a consistent instructional focus. And one of the cornerstones of that focus, at Moten, is observation and feedback.
“What Relay did for me was to provide a starting point. There are four levers: culture, data, observation and feedback, and planning. It was transformative,” says Principal Dogbe. By the second year of the ILPD, the group was focused on data, observation, and feedback systems. It was there that she learned the phrase “feedback is love.”
She models this for her teachers when they see her own supervisor come into the building and give her real-time coaching. She and her instructional leadership team have also taught their staff specific structures for giving feedback productively, like the “See it, name it, do it” approach and language like “It was effective when…” and “Next time, try…”
“I thought I knew data-driven instruction, but there was so much more to learn,” says Assistant Principal Schneider, who also attended the ILPD. “The approach has really refined how I run weekly meetings with teachers. We create and use Playbooks, like one focusing on Academic Rigor, to align us all on our priorities - what to look for in classroom instruction, and if we see gaps in student understanding, what to do about that.”
Some teachers and coaches might have felt uncomfortable at first with so much observation and feedback, and some “scripting” of these conversations. Assistant Principal Schneider says, “It did feel confining at first. But when you see the impact, you adjust. You see that it works. And then, you come to rely on it.”
Principal Dogbe sees the impact of a coherent instructional model: “If teachers are doing the data meetings, if they’re monitoring the learning, and then they are reteaching exactly what they need to do, to target the misconceptions - those gaps just close.”
Assistant Principal Schneider has another way of describing it, “Routines and systems are the oil that makes things run smoothly.”
A Culture of Learning, at All Levels
Moten Elementary comes alive in so many ways. There is student artwork all over the walls – in part thanks to the Kennedy Center, which sponsors “Art Turnaround Schools.” (A program initiated by First Lady Michelle Obama). In one math class, students were using their math skills to investigate and solve a (fake) crime. The school partners with local nonprofits such as DC Scores to promote sports, the arts, and community service, and with other local nonprofits to provide wrap-around services to families.
Principal Dogbe didn’t grow up thinking she would be an educator - she thought she would work in journalism, at a magazine. But New York City didn’t suit her, so she came back to her native Virginia and found her calling in teaching. And now, she says, one of her greatest joys is working with her teachers:
“I love developing adults - seeing them become amazing teachers and leaders. I like the data meetings because I get to watch their eyes get so happy when they finally close the gap for those few kids. That’s what gets me excited.”
With some structure and focus, Moten is creating a culture of academic achievement, safety, belonging - and fun! - for all students.
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