School Transformation from the Ground Up

When I arrived at Halstead six years ago, it was a failing school.  It was a place where some good instruction was taking place, poor instruction was more prevalent, and in some classrooms there was no instruction taking place.  The mentality was us against them; teachers blamed parents for not sending their children to school ready to learn and parents blamed teachers for not liking their children.  The children were stuck in the middle…amazing students who were and continue to be eager to learn.  What was the problem? An absolute lack of vision.  No one knew where the school was going, there was no shared belief system, and people were working in absolute isolation.

I often say that there are five major pillars to school transformation: vision, relationships, culture, professional learning, and expectations. All five of those components must work together for a school to thrive and for students to meet with success.  We began with vision and from that work the other four areas emerged.  The vision work was interesting because it revealed to the entire school how people felt about the building, our students, and our community.  During one of our first meetings, we were having a wonderful conversation about what we wanted our school to be.  Teachers shared positive ideas that were the antithesis of what was the current reality. 

Then one teacher chimed in with a negative comment, “This all sounds great and everything but, it is not like we are preparing these kids for Princeton or anything.” Silence fell on the group and all of those positive teachers jumped on this teacher’s gloomy bandwagon.  It was imperative for our teachers to understand that we are preparing our students for whatever they want to make of their future.  After a year of conversations, we created our vision and core belief.  This was done through a collaboration between parents, students, and teachers.  At the beginning, I was the keeper of that work and it was my responsibility to hold everyone in the building accountable for what we agreed upon.  However, over time, that responsibility has shift from me to the teachers but it has taken work, time, and persistence. 

I can remember one pivotal point when this shift began, a teacher came to me and said, “Mrs. So-and-So was yelling at her kids today.”  My response was, “What did you say to her?” The teacher looked at me as if to say, “That’s not my job.” I reminded the teacher of our core beliefs and vision and expressed that the situation would be handled and she had the choice of how to handle it.  The choices I gave here were, “Either you talk to her about it or I talk to her and tell her that you told me.” In an effort to save the relationship, the teacher opted to have the conversation herself and came back to let me know that the conversation was much easier than she thought because she had the core beliefs to fall back on and referred to them to guide the conversation. 

The school now runs in a manner that teachers hold each other accountable for how this building operates, the expectations we hold for the entire school, and the responsibility we each have to make each day count.  Once that shared vision was in place, the other four components began to fall in place through strategic work.  Without those four pillars, the vision is merely words on the wall.  The five components together make the vision a living, breathing, aspect of the building.  As we transitioned to 1:1 it was a logical next step for Halstead Academy because we had spent 5 years developing the ground work necessary to support the initiative.  I am a true believer in the fact that if a school holds the five pillars of vision, culture, relationships, professional learning, and expectations at the forefront of all work, a building can take on any initiative and will meet with success.  


Jennifer Mullenax – Principal at Halstead Academy -Team Halstead - Halstead Academy is a Title I school located in Baltimore County, Maryland. Halstead Academy, once a failing school, is now a model school in Baltimore County. The past year, Halstead served as a "Lighthouse School," which means it piloted the system's 1:1 initiative that provides Intel®-based 2 in 1 devices to students in grades 1-3.  The county has named this initiative S.T.A.T (Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow) and its focus has been on transforming teaching and learning.  In this blog, readers will hear about lessons learned from Mr. Beal's second grade class' first year of implementation and how the school will begin year two when the 1:1 initiative goes school-wide. 

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