Go Slow to Go Fast: Change Through Focus
Principal, Burroughs Elementary School, DC Public Schools
This piece was originally published on the blog at Getting Smart on Jan 9. 2024.
These are hard times for educators. Students are striving to make gains after the biggest disruption to student learning in the history of American education. Students and adults have significant social-emotional needs, staffing shortages are real, and districts are confronting everything from budget shortfalls to political battles. From my own experience as principal of Burroughs Elementary, it is possible to make significant gains in student outcomes and create a joyful, sustaining school culture – by narrowing your focus.
Our school serves a wonderfully diverse community a stone’s throw from the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. When I first became principal, I had these grand ideas of eight or nine initiatives that we were going to focus on throughout the year. But what I noticed as the year went on was that we were not getting great at any one specific thing. It just felt like we were maintaining the status quo.
Around that time our school and area superintendent started working with a coach from Relay Graduate School of Education. She encouraged us to pick one or two areas of focus and stick with them for the year. And she gave us a tool to help with that: A leader’s Playbook, which is both a document and a process that helps school leaders identify their highest-leverage priorities and build their teachers’ skills in those areas.
We started by looking more closely at student work and classroom practice to identify one or two areas of focus that were likely to make a meaningful difference in student learning. Then we spelled out exactly how we would use our time to build the team’s skills — whether through professional development sessions, weekly team meetings, student work analysis, coaching cycles, and more. Creating a Playbook kept me centered on my priorities and plans to address them – day by day, and week by week.
The first year we tried this we landed on the priority of strengthening small-group instruction in order to provide more targeted instruction. That year we saw meaningful improvements in student learning – something we hadn’t seen the year before. I saw that when you don’t focus on too many things, the team really takes ownership. When the instructional team coaches their peers on just one or two things at a time, both the coaches and the teachers get really good at it. We utilized coaching cycles and planning meetings with teachers that allowed them to grow and thrive. And we had a monthly focus on small-group instruction during staff meetings. And that builds confidence.
Once teachers became experts in teaching in small groups we shifted focus to more personalized small group instruction. We set up groups based on need and flexibility, ensuring they were meeting students where they were, instead of having them remain in the same groups throughout the year. Later we shifted again to dig deep into student discourse, helping students learn to clearly articulate their ideas, listen to others, and test their thinking – in both ELA and math. Teacher feedback was also crucial here. We worked individually with educators who requested help in this area to provide personalized coaching, to build on top of other priority areas. Student discourse is now one of the cornerstones of our culture at Burroughs, as it not only deepens student understanding of the material but contributes to a collaborative, warm culture. With student discourse now established across grades, we’ve recently prioritized challenging but quick writing tasks, so teachers can monitor and respond to student work more frequently.
Vicki Bullock, a K-5 Math Instructional Coach at Burroughs Elementary School has seen the value of having students articulate what they are doing, ask questions, and listen to each other – especially in the math classroom. She likes to remind her teachers, “If the students can’t talk about it, they can’t write about it.” Through professional development and feedback sessions, she coaches teachers to ask students,” What do you see? What do you notice?” before they simply dive into solving a problem. Students then learn not just to focus on their own ideas, but to listen to others, which helps expand their thinking and teaches real-world soft skills.
In October 2023, the nonprofit EmpowerK12 named Burroughs Elementary School a “Bold Performance School.” This was the second year in a row we received the honor, which goes to schools that have made academic strides and serve predominantly “priority students — students designated as at-risk, students with disabilities, and students of color.” We’re really proud of our results – in 2022-23 our ELA proficiency grew by 11%, and math by 17%.
While not perfect, things are feeling good at Burroughs Elementary. Teachers are in good spirits. The kids are in good spirits. Of course, there are a lot of factors that contribute to school success – from establishing a positive, safe, and structured school culture, to high-quality curriculum, to teacher content expertise, to working closely with our instructional superintendent, Tenia Pritchard, and our Cluster 3 peer schools (two others of which have also been named Bold Performance Schools). We know that prioritization and focus has created a sense of unity and purpose at our school. We give educators the time they need to internalize and refine key skills – a practice we also want to model for our students. We will keep narrowing our focus to the few things at each moment where we know we can improve. We’re in it for the long haul.
Taking it Back to Your School
LeVar Jenkins has been the principal at Burroughs Elementary School since 2016. Previously, Jenkins served as assistant principal at Plummer and H.D. Cooke Elementary Schools, a DCPS special education coordinator, and a teacher with Fairfax County and Prince George’s County Public Schools. Burroughs Elementary School has been recognized as one fourteen schools in the District of Columbia that are outperforming their peers. Jenkins received his bachelor’s degree from Tuskegee University and his master’s degree in education with a focus in special education from Bowie State University. He is an alum of Relay's Leverage Leadership Institute and has been coached by Relay's Leadership Programs team.
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