A weekend interview with Connie Kolosey, new principal at Azalea Middle School
Azalea Middle School has the lowest percentage of students reading at grade level (47) and doing math at grade level (38) of any traditional middle school in Pinellas. It was recently put in the “intervene” category in the state’s accountability system. And if that wasn’t enough, 111 of its students took advantage of public school vouchers last month to transfer to other schools. Reporter Ron Matus spoke with new principal Connie Kolosey, who was the district supervisor of secondary reading until tapped for the Azalea job, about how she plans to turn things around. The interview was edited slightly for length and clarity. (A story on Azalea Middle is scheduled to appear in tomorrow’s St. Petersburg Times.)
What do you see as your biggest challenge? And what do you plan on doing about it?
I see the biggest challenge in the field of instruction.
And the way that’s come to me is in my work previously. I was the supervisor of secondary reading. And just so you know, before that, I was here as assistant principal for six and a half years, so I’ve been at this school. A lot of the work in the past five years when I’ve been at the district has been in the SIG (school improvement grant) schools, Boca Ciega, Dixie Hollins, Lakewood and Gibbs. A lot of my time was spent at those schools. Spent a lot walking through their classrooms. Spent a lot of time talking with their administrators, their instructional coaches, their teachers, the state, various state representatives who have come in through the DA (differentiated accountability) office. So I’ve had a lot of time to make observations about what’s the missing piece. There’s no doubt in these schools that behavior gets in our way. Absolutely. But the other side of that observation is, we have to be ready to bring on the instruction and have our A game every single day in the classroom.
And I’m a little bit contrary, in that the common wisdom is you have to get behavior together in order to have instruction. But those two things go hand in hand. You can’t wait for them to sit down and shut up before you start teaching. When you’re ready for them, when you understand who your clientele is – a lot of frustration comes in in different expectations. If I’m expecting them to come in and sit down and just be hanging on my every word, I’m going to be super frustrated. When they talk out. When they don’t immediately show me the respect I feel I deserve. That sets up a negative cycle in the classroom. So working in a school like Azalea is not for everybody. You could be an excellent teacher in a lot of different schools and have a really tough time here.
If instruction is your biggest challenge, what are you going to do differently? Is it different techniques? Or people? Or a combination of both?
I believe we grow good teachers. I don’t believe you graduate from college and pop in and there you are, you’re good to go. I myself, although I started teaching as an (older) adult and did a full internship … I struggled terribly with discipline my first year. I grew into being a good teacher. So part of my administrative focus is to help these teachers grow into being great teachers. And so we do that in a couple of different ways. One of the great things is, because we are an intervene school, the state says that the district has to give us instructional coaches. And having been the supervisor of secondary reading, when I supervised the reading coaches … that is a tremendous resource. Because it’s a person that can stand in the classroom side by side with the teacher. My coaches are all excellent teachers who have had successful classrooms. But when they walk in that other teacher’s classroom, that’s not going to guarantee excellent success. I myself am a great teacher, but if I walked into these classroom cold, that doesn’t mean I can instantly take over and be fabulous. And so it’s a learning process. It would be easier if we were building widgets and everything was exactly the same. But each situation is a different set of human beings that you have to interact with. So the instructional coaches give us a great opportunity. I’ve got a full time math, a full time science, a full time reading plus another three quarter reading. That’s a lot of coverage. My role, as an administrator then, is to set the expectation with the teachers. These coaches are going to be talking to you. They’re going to ask you for an appointment. My expectation is you meet with them, you work with them, you invite them into your class and you co-learn with them. It really is that role of learning together. And I’ve said this to my assistant principals as well: We collectively are going to be the best teachers we can possibly be.
You touched on discipline. The suspension rates were the second highest. The arrest numbers were the second highest. So how do you get a handle on that?
Well one of the things that’s really different – and this was in place before I got here, and I’m so thankful to the process that got it set up before I got here - … we’ve gone to an 8-period schedule. And we’re doing A-day, B-day blocks. So on Monday we have one, two, three, four. And on Tuesday we have five, six, seven, eight. But what’s remarkable about my staff here is unlike the high schools – the high school teachers are teaching six out of eight, so they get a planning every day – we’re teaching seven out of eight. My teachers voted, 95 percent of them voted, to take a planning every other day in order to accommodate this 8-period schedule. I have been completely blown away by the dedication of the people on this campus, the teachers and the assistant principals. How hard they work. We have so many of the pieces, the loose ends are just kind of flying. And my job is to okay, put them together.
Does the schedule help with discipline?
It does help with discipline. Because middle schoolers don’t handle transitions well. ... Last year they had seven periods and the teachers taught six out of seven. So every 45 minutes, the bell rings and we go running around the halls screaming.
And that’s where some of your issues would come up?
Of course. Unstructured time. Plus, I’ll be glad to show you our hallways. We’re in house pods. Sixth grade, seventh grade, eighth grade. And we had four minutes passing time. So, you would have four minutes to go to the room next door. That’s just too much free time. So now we have three minutes. And we only have four periods a day. So that gives us … three or four less opportunities to go running around screaming.
You expect to see results from that?
It’s already so much quieter. So much quieter. Part of the payoff for the teachers on that, to sweeten the pie for them, we went from three lunches to two lunches. So we have two 45-minute lunches. So the teachers do have a 45-minute break during the day. Even on their day that they are teaching straight. And the contract says they need 30 minutes. So they’re getting an extra 15 in there.
Anything else you’re doing with discipline?
That’s a start. In the past, when I was here, we implemented Positive Behavior Support. I guess they’re calling it Response to Intervention problem solving. But the concept is basically the same. We all come together and agree (on) our guidelines for success. So our school has established three guidelines for success, which are responsibility, respect and safety. So then almost anything you think about with regards to discipline is going to fall into one of those three categories. And we can help students understand, “Is this thing I’m doing right now being responsible? Is this thing being respectful? Is this thing being safe?” So developing a common language. One of the things middle school prey on is inconsistency between adults. When adults are inconsistent, there’s lots of room to play.
So how do you fix that? How do you get everyone on the same page?
I’ll tell you, it’s a huge challenge. And it’s a huge challenge this year because I have about 20 brand new teachers. I’ll tell you, I left here in 2006 and about a third of the staff is the same.
So how do you deal with that challenge? With all that turnover, how do you get all the newbies on the same page?
Again, my instructional coaches are a huge help. The fact that we can say to them, “Here you go, these are our guidelines for success.” For example, we’ve established a schoolwide attention signal. I raise my hand, “May I have your attention please?” And I hold my hand in the air. Very simple. Been used in a lot of places. A lot of times people would scoff that it would work. Some teachers don’t have any attention signals. That’s bad. Other teachers have attention signals, but every teacher has a different one. What we’re doing here is everybody has the same one. So no matter what I’m class in, “May I have your attention please?” We practiced it for the first time ever with the seventh and eighth grade, the big lunch with the older kids in it. And we had them within like 10 seconds. 550 kids. Quiet. It worked. And it was because every single one of their teachers, god bless their hearts … the kids knew that’s how we get quiet. It’s that common language. There’s a lot of power in a common language. It’s not rocket science really. But it almost never gets done.
I want to switch gears on you. The Opportunity Scholarship transfer thing. If I remember right, 111 kids decided to transfer. How big a deal was that? And what’s the impact going to be?
It’ll have an impact this year. But in the long run, they’ll come back. And they’ll come back because Azalea’s no longer going to be a D. That’s a tremendous blow. All of a sudden, my kid is going to the first D middle school ever in Pinellas County. It’s bad press … Never mind that we missed it by six points to be a C. Which we’ve always been a C. If we had six more percentage points. That might be two kids answering three more questions. Who knows exactly what that is. The fact that we missed it by that much all of a sudden kicks us into this whole thing of being a D. And then the fact is, both our math and reading scores are down over the course of five years. And then the math, more than 65 percent were not proficient. That was the trifecta on that one. And then the accounts of the behavior concerns. All of that bad press. … I’m fortunate my children survived middle school and they’re successful adult men now, but even when I was a parent, the thought, the prospect of sending my baby to middle school was just scary. I talk to the parents who come in and they’re scared because they hear things.
I hear you when you say you’re going to turn things around and they’ll be back. But in the short term does it make a tough job tougher? I haven't looked at the demographics yet of those who left ...
We suspect that the demographic of the kids who left are the kids we didn’t want to leave.
If that’s true, doesn’t that make your job that much tougher?
Yes it does. No doubt. … But kids have been coming back now. How many and which ones, I don’t know. I’m going to get that data. I also intend to reach out to the people who left.
What are you going do do?
I don’t know. I have to find out what I can do legally. But in one way, I had a parent come sit in a courtyard, coming out of a parent meeting, and he shook my hand and said how happy he was and what a great eighth grade guidance counselor I have. And I said, “Go tell your friends.” And he said, “I will.” That’s what thing I’m going to do. I’m going to take care of the people that are here. Because people talk. And you know, I can say anything. But if you tell your friends, that means something.
You mentioned when we talked briefly on the phone something about customer service. You said that was something that was important to you, and something you were going to be working on. I don’t usually hear that term come up in the context of school improvement. So what does that mean?
It means when parents come to school, and they have a concern, we deal with it like we would if we were a business. I mentioned to you I was an (older) adult when I started teaching. And so I had a number of business opportunities before I started teaching. And I was in fact the office manager for a large customer service department. So some of those same things that you learn when your salary depends on keeping customers, we can apply here too. We do deal with the public. And a lot of times when they come to us, they’re frustrated. They’re frustrated by the system, the bureaucracy, the red tape, somebody else that was grumpy to them. And it’s no different than any other business that you see. But if we can adopt a mindset that says, "This person has a need, how can I help them?" I personally pride myself, if they come in angry, I’m going to send them out smiling. … I don’t want to make an angry person angrier. …
We do have a fundamental like program that we’re starting. I think it’s good. And even just that gives parents some sense of confidence that kids can be a part of something special that will in some way insulate them from their perceived madness. Parents want to know their kids are safe. Bottom line. They want their kids to learn. They want to know their kids are safe. And that’s fair.
This is your first job as principal. Would you rather have had an easier gig first?
Oh no. This is the school I always wanted.
Why is that? It sounds like a pretty tough job.
First of all, I loved my job when I was here. Everybody wants to say, “Oh it’s so much worse. Oh the kids are so much worse. Oh society’s going to hell in a handbasket.” The kids are the kids. In fact, so far, these kids seem maybe as a group nicer than the ones I had. I don’t know. Kids are kids. There’s a great quote, I wish I could find out who it is … it’s all about how bad kids are these days. And it was written in the 1400s. … So there’s that constant, “Oh, this is the worst yet, oh my God, it’s never been worse than this.” Well, pffff.
I started to talk to you about PBS that we put into place before. Some of the factors that happened to us before were we were in an old building. We had 900 students. They built this beautiful building for 1400 students. We moved in with 900 students, rattling around. Then the choice thing came in. And they filled us to 1400 or 13-something. And all of a sudden, over half the students came in to us had never been on our campus before. So usually you get some buy in because you train the sixth graders and then they become seventh graders and then they become eighth graders. So it was 750 kids that had never been on our campus before. Most of those kids were kids from the south county schools who had been bussed to Osceola, Fitzgerald, you know. So now we brought them into zone, and ended up with some neighborhood things. Because neighborhoods that hadn’t gone to school together were now going to school together. It was a very tumultuous time. This is like 2003.
So some of that settled out?
Oh yeah. It settled out. But we put the PBS system into place really solidly. And we brought our referral rate at that time down to half of what it had been. So I saw that it worked. At the time, I implemented the teaming concept, with my seventh grade team. And I processed even fewer referrals. Because the teachers were meeting with parents. So what I know is, if you put processes in place, if you really think through systems … If I have a problem, rather than saying those darn teachers, those darn parents, those darn students, if I approach the problem to say what’s my process for dealing with this, what do I have in place here to handle this, then it takes all the people thing out of it and I can set up structures where people can be successful. And I know it works because I did it here before. That’s why I felt great about coming back here. It’s because I saw it happen. It isn’t like pie in the sky. It really did happen.