By Margaret Hopper
"I love it here!" said Beth Lougee, the principal at Silver High School, after finishing her first year in New Mexico. The record shows she has been a quick study to discern what changes were needed for improving offerings and helping students meet graduation deadlines, leaving the fewest behind in the shortest period of time.
When asked what she learned first, she admitted that support for teachers and help to adjust attitudes were big priorities. She was hired and came to Silver shortly before the 2013-2014 year began in August, so she had to hit the ground running. Further, she said she already had a great job at a great school in Wyoming, which she hated to give up, but she knew she could adjust to new circumstances, and she did.
First, she said she listened to everyone who wanted to talk with her. There were parents, teachers and other staff, students, community, so many who wanted to see needs met and changes made. Not only did she listen, she says she encouraged those with the interests and needs to be a big part of the solutions. It was important to bring those willing to help into a position where they could do so.
It appeared that in the past people asked those in higher positions to "fix things." But she said she saw real competence in much of the staff and decided to build team vision as soon as possible. These local, experienced people knew what was needed, and they could give extra energy in the effort. She felt through her intuition that they should leave the small, private groups with limited options and develop broader, problem-centered efforts, involving more teachers who needed similar solutions. Communications needed a boost; all positive input was welcomed. Listening was encouraged and rewarded.
Lougee believes the new beginnings are gathering momentum, but still in process, she says. Initially, rooms for science, English and other subjects were randomly scattered and there was little sense of department, but she said she was able to get them together under ideas-searches even if geography wasn't working. One change being made over this summer break is moving teachers of like subjects closer together; a majority of instructors are moving into different rooms to improve the department plan.
Lougee says she keeps reminding all staff that any real changes usually take three years to bring the necessary elements together in the proper mix. The first year, you build the foundations; second, you put the bricks in place; third, you adjust and finish the project so new improvements can be added easily, without much upset later on.
For instance, in the case of developing departmental thinking, Lougee had the group look at the entire range of skills they needed to teach, take the initiative of claiming a part of that load, and making plans to cover the gaps. Some trading resulted: ideas, specific students, tutoring time assignments, whatever would help. The plan was to cover needs and raise scores. To make this even easier, she created common planning times among instructors of certain subjects so they could work out these issues without outside help.
This coming year, she will continue the shared planning times. She says it works.
Another near-panic necessity that surfaced quickly after she started was the tracking of seniors who wanted to know if they would graduate. Instead of making this a one-on-one problem with a counselor, Lougee said she learned that Marcella Marquez was very well informed in the area. She encouraged Marquez to create a computer grid or listing that would make most requirements known at a glance, one including every senior. As requirements were finished, new information could be added to that master list with a quick entry.
Within 48 hours, she said, Marquez had a workable system ready for trial. Lougee showed a sample. She says it reduced time and effort greatly and resulted in having a large number of students "cleared" of requirements by March. Teachers concentrated on those needing more help, and by graduation time, only three percent still had unfinished work. This last group should finish in this September to December period.
Another focus was atmosphere in general. In the first week she said she heard plenty of negative talk, from students to staff, all the way up. Blaming was an epidemic. She asked teachers to take the lead and insure that communications could be positive and still get the job done. "We can't eat our own!" has become an important phrase on campus.
Is Lougee tired? Yes. Definitely. But she claims to be energized by the great changes that are underway and wants to see them at stage three, "Completed." When asked about her personal endurance, she said her first teaching assignment was with high school-aged SPED and emotionally disturbed students; four years of that. She has worked in Alaska, Wyoming, Colorado and now, New Mexico. She has two BS degrees and two Masters. She is qualified to work in a state education department or as a district superintendent.
The work here at Silver is challenging, she says. With the present staff and the new ideas being generated, she believes the district can upgrade in a few short years to match the quality of students from many other states. The important ingredients are to allow good teachers to use what they already know and to innovate for excellence. That has to be teacher-led; it cannot be mandated. Freedom is key.
Another major ingredient is to create that positive atmosphere where people can learn from the mistakes they make and go on to better things, she said. Students, too. They must not be restricted or ridiculed for the past. Lougee insists she has seen some upward movement for students who were once isolated and who are beginning to rejoin the mainstream. The
atmosphere is improving and the direction is right.
Education is so much more than a test score. Freedom to think, freedom to be. She says she is not the one who makes great changes; she gives others the freedom to carry out their visions of something better. She will encourage and support. But the blueprint for scholastic success is within the majority of classroom teachers who need to be heard and given a chance to improve the work their students attempt. Giving more people the creative freedom to make improvements and unlock the restraints students deal with will improve the district. That's what teachers are about. Beth Lougee wants them to do it.