Category Archives for "Schools and the Environment"

Who said great teachers are hard to come by?

In September, K-12 Online discussed how leadership factored into the success of a school. Although essential for quality education, research revealed that leadership was second only to teaching among all school-related factors that contribute to student performance.


Essentially, the single most important factor in determining the quality of education a child receives is the quality of his or her teacher. A good teacher improves a child’s test scores in the classroom, enhances his or her chances to attend college, increases his or her potential to earn more money and decreases the likelihood of teen pregnancy, according to a 2011 study, conducted by economists Raj Chetty and John N. Friedman of Harvard and Jonah E. Rockoff of Columbia.


Teaching is one of the most complicated jobs today! So what makes for a quality teacher? Think about your best teachers. Their techniques may have been different, but more than likely, they all had some sort of connective capacity. They were able to connect themselves to their students, their students to each other, and everyone to the subject being studied.



Characteristics of Great Teachers

Over the next few weeks, we will take a look at some of the most important characteristics of great teachers. It is not meant to be an all encompassing or definitive list. Many excellent teachers may possess only some of these traits, and consider others not mentioned to be just as valuable. The characteristics detailed below are just a guideline to help teachers create and sustain connectivity in their classrooms – a universal characteristic of great teachers.


#1. Great teachers set expectations of success for all students.

Since the famous Rosenthal experiment in the late 1960s, the Pygmalion effect—the observation that teachers’ expectations for their students affect how well students learn—has been well documented. Great teachers expect that all students can and will achieve in their classroom, and they don’t give up on underachievers. There are so many factors in a students’ life, that it’s impossible for a teacher to guarantee success to all, however, if you give up on your students, adopting a fatalistic, “it’s out of my hands??? attitude, students will sense your lack of commitment and tune out. The main objective for a teacher is to create a climate for success in your classroom to meet the needs of all students.


#2. Great teachers have clear, written objectives.

Effective teachers have lesson plans that give students a clear idea of what they will be learning, what the assignments are and what the grading policy is. Assignments have learning goals and give students ample opportunity to practice new skills. The lesson plan serves as a road map and may be altered depending on classroom needs.


#3. Great teachers have a sense of purpose.

A RAND study conducted more than 30 years ago found links between student achievement and teachers’ sense of value—their belief in their students’ ability to succeed, as well as their own ability as teachers to help those students succeed. You can’t be good in a generic sense; you have to be good for something. As a teacher, this means that you know what your students expect, and you make plans to meet those expectations. You, too, have expectations about what happens in your classroom, based on the goals you’re trying to achieve. If you want to prepare your students for employment, you expect punctuality and good attendance. If you want your students to become better readers, you allow time for reading and provide access to books.


#4. Great teachers are prepared and organized. They are in their classrooms early and ready to teach. They present lessons in a clear and structured way. Their classrooms are organized in such a way as to minimize distractions.


#5. Great teachers engage students and get them to look at issues in a variety of ways. Effective teachers use facts as a starting point, not an end point; they ask “why??? questions, look at all sides and encourage students to predict what will happen next. They ask questions frequently to make sure students are following along. They try to engage the whole class, and they don’t allow a few students to dominate the class. They keep students motivated with varied, lively approaches.


Watch for our next post where we highlight more characteristics of a great teacher. Join our discussion. What characteristics do you think embody great teachers?


Raise Money Online – Increase Donations by 30%

In addition to being educators, teachers and admin have the never-ending task of hand wringing and scrounging to provide the simplest school needs. But the effort it takes is sometimes not worth the payoff. One of the easiest and most effective ways to increase school donations is to raise money online.

Online giving has proven to increase donation amounts by about 30%. Parents can make a one-time donation or set up recurring payment plans. An online system allows parents to use a debit or credit card, which typically increases donation amounts and set-up is easy through either your school web store or by adding a “Donate Now??? button directly to your site. It provides individuals a simple, accountable and personal way to address educational needs and raise money online.

Another great fundraising tool for schools is is an online charity that makes it easy for anyone to help students in need. It connects public school teachers with people who want to support classroom learning.

Public school teachers from across America can post classroom project requests; anything from pencils for a poetry writing contest to instruments for a school recital, balls for P.E. class, or iPads for online book access. Donors can then browse project requests by location or subject, or even search for a particular school, and give any amount to the one that inspires them. Once a project reaches its funding goal, delivers the materials to the school.

Fundraising does not have to be a time consuming, shake-down job. There are tools available to help you raise money online!

How to Help – Top 10 Steps for School Districts to Manage Their Funds Efficiently

A policy guide, “Spending Money Wisely: Getting the Most From School District Budgets,??? released by the District Management Council in May 2014 lists 10 high-impact opportunities that it says helps school systems “do more with less.???

The policy guide was created for those wondering how to help districts thrive, rather than just survive, within the constraints of their new fiscal realities. “For most of history, school budgets went up faster than inflation, and we managed ourselves well, given that reality,??? said Nathan Levenson, the council’s managing director and a former superintendent of the Arlington, Mass., schools. “That reality has changed. It is a world of shifting rather than of adding and, as a result, it requires new strategies and different types of data systems.???

On that list was the ability for schools to target new investments by eliminating inefficient and unsuccessful strategies. What may seem like a new investment being extracted from your current budget may actually be SAVING you dollars by allowing your school or district to eliminate inefficient procedures and redirect funds for other uses.

One such example is online registration. Online registration allows schools to eliminate outdated paper-based methods that are costly and time consuming. Implementing an online registration system saves the average school approximately $20 per student, however many schools don’t even realize the per student cost that’s involved with paper-based online registration and how these costs can be reallocated to cover the initial investment of a system. It really is about shifting rather than adding!

How to help? Here are the top 10 steps that school districts can take to manage their funds more effectively

1. Calculating the academic return on investment of existing programs
2. Managing student-enrollment projections to meet class-size targets
3. Evaluating and adjusting remediation and intervention staffing levels
4. Adopting politically acceptable ways to increase class size or teachers’ workload
5. Spending federal entitlement grants to leverage their flexibility
6. Adopting more-efficient and higher-quality reading programs
7. Improving the cost-effectiveness of professional development
8. Rethinking how items are purchased
9. Lowering the cost of extended learning time
10. Targeting new investments by eliminating inefficient and unsuccessful strategies

SOURCE: “Spending Money Wisely: Getting the Most From School District Budgets
Mr. Levenson said districts must work to both balance the budget and secure more and better services to improve student achievement.
“You can and you must continue to improve your schools even if you’re not going to have more money,??? he said. “One of the first steps is for leaders to believe it’s possible.???

Interested in finding out just how much online registration can save your school? Contact us for a no obligation school savings assessment to learn more.

Successful School Leadership: A Conversation with an “America’s Best High Schools” Principal – Part 4 of 4

We conclude our Successful School Leadership series with a look at autonomy versus centralization. Just how much freedom should a school have? Take a look at our other posts on successful school leadership and let us know what you think:

Part 1: Leadership within a school

Part 2: School leadership as it relates to educating diverse groups of students

Part 3: The accountability of educational leaders


Autonomy vs. Centralization

A report written in 2011 by Erin Dillon, a senior policy analyst at Education Sector, studies the correlation between the success of a school and its autonomous capacity. The report suggests that as a whole, successful schools tend to be more autonomous in school management, staffing, and instruction. Greater autonomy can free educators to try new approaches with instruction, staffing, and schedules so they can respond quickly and more effectively to student needs. With expanded autonomy, districts let the schools themselves—the principals and the teachers—make big decisions like how to spend the budget, what curriculum to use, and how to hire and train teachers. As the theory goes, those who know students best are best able to direct resources and take actions on students’ behalf.

The surge in charter schools and other autonomous school reforms points to the theory that granting schools more flexibility can yield more innovation in school management, staffing, and instruction and thereby lead to greater performance levels by students. Not all schools, however, have the capacity to render the resources and effort required by autonomy with actions that improve student learning. Often times, schools don’t have the proper leadership, staff, or vision to make good independent decisions. Union contracts, legal constraints, and financial realities can also limit autonomy, preventing schools from making substantial changes.

So the key question is this: Just how much freedom do you give a school? There are several ways to approach school autonomy (success-based, site-based, partnership schools, collaborative, etc.), so how do you reach a point where individual, autonomous schools are capable of making decisions to improve student performance and where the district can give them the support they need to do so? And is autonomy in school reform really the answer?

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, based on interviews with the leaders of five highly successful charters, identified seven “autonomies” essential to success: freedom to develop a great team, freedom to manage teachers as professionals (including giving them merit-based raises), freedom to change curriculum and classroom structure, autonomy over scheduling, financial freedom, freedom of school boards to focus on education instead of politics, and freedom to define a school culture.

But the struggle to make autonomy work must be approached with caution. There must be a balance between autonomy and centralization. It is proven that when those closest to the children are capable of making decisions, student performance improves, as is the case in many charter-based schools. However, there are proven cases whereby increasing centralization and reducing autonomy has led to improvement as well.


In studying winners of the coveted Broad Prize for Urban Education, a $1 million award given annually to an urban district demonstrating high student achievement and progress in closing racial and economic achievement gaps, most of the public school district recipients showed significant gains in test scores, particularly among low-income and minority groups, and significantly narrowed the achievement gaps between these groups and white and/or higher-income groups, respectively.

But these improvements did not come from granting schools more autonomy. On the contrary, the districts sought to standardize practices across the district and increase central office control, building a stronger accountability system and focusing on strengthening and energizing its personnel and leaders.

Does the success of these Broad-prize winning districts mean that centralization, rather than autonomy, is the most effective strategy for school reform? Yes and no. Although centralization took place across a district, the common factor among these schools was that each allowed programs, intervention plans, and capacity-building initiatives to be implemented to meet the needs of individual schools.


Steve McLaughlin, Director of Curriculum and Instruction for Newport-Mesa Unified School District in Orange County, California, agrees with the notion that it takes a healthy balance of autonomy and centralization for a school to be successful.

As a district that serves schools at varying ends of the socio-economical scale, Newport-Mesa has made great strides over the last few years in striking a delicate balance between autonomy and centralization. Their increase in statewide test results and overall academic performance is proof that their approach and philosophy of “All kids are successful” is working.

In order to narrow the disparity between schools in lower socioeconomic communities and those in more affluent ones, Newport Mesa has had to maintain a clear organizational vision while providing the appropriate support to individual schools so that they may better serve their communities.

“It’s important for schools to understand the needs of their communities,” explains McLaughlin. “Schools are a resource to the community, and the more welcoming, approachable, and accessible they are, the better they instill the ‘we are here to serve you’ mentality.”

But this type of support and communication has to begin with the district. This service-oriented model must come from the central office and continue to be instilled into each site in a way that is meaningful and achievable. “Because our sites present varying backgrounds, it’s essential for them to have the ability to create local programs. A district must offer guidance, support, service, and accountability and then work with individual schools to personalize the framework,” says McLaughlin. “It’s imperative for districts to use data to cultivate conversations around school needs and then work with the staff to develop programs that help target identified areas.”


Autonomy is a mantra among highly successful schools, and few leaders of the most successful charter schools and district schools would say that they could have achieved highly effective results under typical district rules and regulations, but autonomy is NOT the shoe that fits every school.

Leadership at any level takes time, but the one thing that effective leadership cannot stand without is trust. Trust trumps everything. And everything flows from trust — learning, credibility, accountability, a sense of purpose, and a mission that makes “education” bigger than oneself.


Do you have good leadership at your school or district? What practices implemented by school leaders have had the greatest impact on your school, staff, and students? What leadership practices should be changed? Please share your comments below.

Successful School Leadership: A Conversation with an “America’s Best High Schools” Principal – Part 3 of 4

So far, our blog series on successful school leadership has covered leadership within a school and school leadership as it relates to educating diverse groups of students. In part three of our conversation, we discuss the accountability of educational leaders.


Accountability: Every school is unique in its own right; however, schools share special challenges and opportunities that require effective responses from educational leaders. One such example may be with policies designed to hold schools more accountable. Leadership practices that help schools succeed when they confront various forms of accountability mechanisms may include:

– Creating and sustaining a competitive school.

– Empowering others to make significant decisions.

– Providing instructional guidance.

– Strategic planning.


In the case of University High School (UHS), providing instructional guidance and empowering others to make significant decisions are accountability tools highly regarded by UHS leadership. An example of this is shown as Galen Hunsicker, professor of zoology at Vanguard University for 20 years and currently a science teacher at UHS, points to three main practices that have had the greatest impact on teachers and staff:

  1. An open door policy and giving the teachers a “heads up” regarding upcoming issues or events.
  2. Continuous positive support for effective teaching strategies through summer reading (Teach Like a Champion) and regular, thought-provoking articles sent via email.
  3. Having confidence in the staff’s professionalism and streamlining issues to save teachers time in doing what they do best: TEACH. The UHS administration excels at this! “For example, two years ago during WASC accreditation, our UHS leadership developed focus groups each with an effective teacher leading the discussion,” Galen explained. “Near the end of this process, the leaders of these groups came together to hash out our action plan, which was circulated for editing by any teacher, and released as a final hard copy. We all felt great about our input, time management, and our individual value. At no time was there a sense of a top-down style or a central controller. We all had a voice, all of us were important, and as a result, I believe we became more cohesive and more aware of who we really are.”

Galen went on to say that all UHS administration leads with vision, but they also guide and engage… not micromanage. “In my 42 years of teaching at over a dozen colleges and two high schools, University High School is a unique place, for I have never been in such an organized, positive, and uplifting environment.”


We know that school leadership is most successful when it is focused on teaching and learning, but there is still much more to learn about the essentials of quality leadership, how to harness its benefits, and how to ensure that there is a holistic approach to placing good leaders into bad systems so that they are able to contribute and enrich in a way that is meaningful rather than having a system that will tear down even the best of them.

But leadership goes beyond just teachers and principals. Schools exist within a district, and effective leadership must occur through networked interactions in which schools and districts work cooperatively towards a common goal. School leaders cannot effectively change their poli­cies, programs, and practices without “permission” from their districts. A district’s specific actions impact schools and their capacity to implement school change and attain higher standards.


We’d love to hear examples of accountability from your teachers up through the district!

Successful School Leadership: A Conversation with an “America’s Best High Schools” Principal – Part 2 of 4

Last week, we introduced you to our blog series on successful school leadership and discussed leadership within a school. This week, we take a look at leadership as it relates to educating diverse groups of students.


Educating Diverse Groups of Students: Many school leaders work with populations that are increasingly diverse and may not be experiencing success in school. This includes children from low-income families or whose cultural backgrounds or characteristics fall outside of the mainstream. Evidence suggests that successful leaders of schools in highly diverse contexts focus their effort on five sets of tasks:

– Building powerful forms of teaching and learning.

– Creating strong communities in school and strengthening school culture.

– Expanding the proportion of students’ social capital valued by the schools.

– Nurturing the development of families’ educational cultures.

– Identifying and articulating a vision and building collaborative processes that foster open communication.


It goes without saying that leadership practices and the management of a school have a direct correlation on student culture and the expectation for students to achieve higher standards.

It is a challenging necessity to keep students engaged at any level, but in communicating with teenagers and trying to understand “the nature of the beast,” it becomes even more difficult to instill a love for learning in them. So how does University High School (UHS) manage to do so? UHS principal John Pehrson sums it up with the following: “I think we instill ‘it’s cool to be good at whatever you do.’ We celebrate accomplishments. We expect kids to behave and succeed in a certain way and kids respond accordingly. We honor strong character and deal with weak character in a dignified way. We initiate conversations and discussions on meaningful and higher level topics. We attempt to steer conversations and actions from ‘self’ to ‘others’.”

Galen Hunsicker, professor of zoology at Vanguard University for 20 years, and currently a science teacher at UHS, is no stranger to the tactics and necessary nurturing required to keep students engaged. When asked about the school’s student culture and how it contributes to higher standards, Hunsicker replied, “Just look at the fantastic spirit within the more than 100 clubs on campus! When teachers are completely valued within their respective disciplines, then naturally, they feel encouraged to explore new ways to teach concepts. When the administration models positive and creative leadership, so will teachers in the classroom. All of this funnels down to our precious students, who then will be encouraged to explore, to create, to analyze and think more critically. What follows will be greater willingness for students to own their success and reach for higher standards.”

An Open House with welcoming arms

A good first impression makes a difference! Your first Open House or Back-to-School night gives teachers an opportunity to create a personal connection with parents, gain parents’ support, and establish ways for continued communication throughout the school year.


Before deciding what to do for your school’s open house, walk through your school building and classrooms with the eyes of a parent. Pretend you are walking in for the very first time.  Do your hallways offer a welcoming presence?  Are your restrooms clean?  Are your classrooms colorful and reflective of students work?



Most parents want to see an organized building/classroom with friendly and welcoming teachers and staff.  They are not typically concerned about how many science tests are given, or what materials you use to teach math.  Parents generally want a good understanding of what their child’s school year will be like, how issues will be communicated and handled by teachers/staff, and what they can do to help ensure their child has a successful school year. Here are some ideas to incorporate into your next open house.


Open House School Ideas

Open House

Five Ideas for Open House

Tips for Open House and Back to School Night

Host a Successful Open House



First Impressions Matter

First impressions are lasting impressions. It takes just one-tenth of a second for an individual to make a judgment about someone or something, and most likely, that first impression will never change.

In the case of a school, how can you ensure that you are being judged accurately? How can you make a good first impression on parents? Successful schools do it all the time; they make themselves distinctive and memorable.


More and more, school choice is becoming a powerful element for parents, students, and teachers. It is the reason that a parent will travel across town to a different neighborhood daily in order for their child to attend a school outside of their immediate school zone. So what do successful schools do to create a good first impression and make traveling across town compelling enough to parents? Here are a few tips:

Your frontline should be a pleasure

There is nothing more frustrating to a potential parent than calling a school for information and hearing an unfriendly, unenthusiastic, unknowledgeable voice on the other end. On the phone or in person, your frontline staff should be courteous, helpful, and if needed, empathetic. Make an anonymous call to your school’s admissions office and see how you are treated. Email the admissions office and see how promptly you are answered. Note the quality of the response. Does it represent the atmosphere and feel that you want from your school?

School tours and visits weigh more than you think

Nothing sways a prospective parent more than a school tour. Your best people should be put on this important part of the public relations process. Make sure your tour guide is extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the school. Parents like to see students in action, so plan tours during the time of day that most closely portrays "a day in the life" of a typical student. Have examples on hand that show accomplishments, events, or activities that set you apart from other schools.

Rehearse the entire experience so that you get it right. Take a tour with your designated tour guide from the perspective of a parent. When inspecting a school, parents don’t miss a thing and are easily impressed by enthusiasm, knowledge, and courtesy. Ask questions as if you were looking for a school for your own child.

Your website is your school's welcoming center

A school’s website is usually the first thing a visitor sees. A good website is cohesive, informative, and easy to navigate. Keep it simple and appealing with a logical flow of information and messaging. And most importantly, make sure your website is providing timely, up-to-date information. A school's website should reflect the school's strength and character and speak to its audience appropriately.

Laborious registration = unhappy parent 

First impressions count in marketing your school just as much as they do in any endeavor. Are parents spending hours waiting in long lines to register? Are they required to fill out stacks of paperwork before even setting foot on your campus? Do they have to make several trips to your office over the summer to turn in paperwork? These types of activities create a negative first impression. No wonder parents aren’t excited about signing up for the PTA, volunteering as room mom, or contributing to your annual fundraiser. You’ve given them a bad first impression, so for the rest of the school year, they do whatever it takes to stay away.

Not only does an online registration system help increase enrollment and streamline the application and registration process, but it also portrays a stress-free, open, inviting environment for your parents.

When it comes to schools, school choice is a powerful element that can help create the conditions for a successful school. Families make relocating and home purchasing decisions around which schools they want or don’t want their children to attend. Don’t pass up an opportunity to show your best side. Put your best foot forward in the beginning so that parents receive an authentic impression.

What are you doing to make a good first impression and portray a stress-free, open, inviting environment to your parents?

Are You a School Choice School?

Americans are looking for schools they can trust. Confidence in public schools is on a decline, and an increasing number of parents are opting out of neighborhood schools and entering the chaotic, developing marketplace of school choice.

Charter schools, other public schools within a district, Montessori schools, religious-based schools, and even homeschooling have all become viable options for parents trying to find a healthy, high-functioning learning environment for the education of their child – all in all, a school that is successful.

school choice school

But the elusive recipe for school success is extremely difficult to convey simply and clearly. Yes, test scores are a valuable measurement, but in many cases, they are overvalued.

One paragraph doesn’t tell the story of a book. Similarly, one test score doesn’t tell the tale of a school. Using one tool that is as limited as a one- or two-day test doesn’t accurately portray a school's success.

Although test scores are important, rarely should they be the sole determinant for examining what makes a school successful. A school is a cohesive entity that relies on many factors to ensure a better education for all students.

Research shows that there is not a single thing that schools can do to ensure high student performance. However, research also shows that high-performing schools tend to have similar characteristics that make them successful.

K-12 Online has shared some insight from a few of our successful schools. Take a look at our blog series on successful school leadership.

Top 10 New (School) Year Resolutions for 2014

As a new school year starts, administrators and teachers are gearing up to implement lesson plans that will meet or exceed the year’s school resolution. Just as we make our own unwelcomed but necessary new year’s resolutions at the turn of the year, so does a school or district at the beginning of school. A resolution typically centered around some big initiative that is focused on whatever education problem plaguing the nation at the time. 1973775_med


In some cases, it’s a new name for an existing problem that has already been tackled by a predecessor initiative.   For example, 1:1 laptop initiatives have now become BYOD so that every child has access to a computer. Or “online learning???, changed to “blended learning???, transformed to “flipped classrooms.???


Nonetheless, every year there are a set of infinitives that keep administrators scrambling throughout the year to meet benchmarks and exceed targets so by the end the school year, they have maintained par and have a feeling of accomplishment.


So to properly kick-off your school year, here are 10 current initiatives (in no particular order) for the 2014-15 school year.   And while there are an array of initiatives that focus on numerous topics, we made this list on a broad scale.


Take a look at the list and let us know what you think: Are there any initiatives we’re leaving out? How many of these initiatives has your school implemented?


  1. Common Core for 21st century learning to teach critical thinking and problem solving skills.
  2. STEM for global competitiveness.
  3. Adaptive Testing to better pinpoint a students learning level.
  4. Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) to provide all students an internationally benchmarked science education.
  5. Flipped Learning where students gain first exposure to a topic outside of the classroom and use classroom time to assimilate the knowledge.
  6. Digital Literacy Skills so students understand how to take information from a computer and use it in multiple formats.
  7. Environmental Education to reduce environmental impact and costs and increase sustainability.
  8. Healthy Schools Programs to boost the nutritional value of meals served at school.
  9. Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) so learning experiences can be more personalized to the student.
  10. Race to the Top to spur innovation and reform in state and local K-12 districts.