Editor's note: This is an edited version of an interview that originally appeared on The Gradebook, the Times' education blog. For the full version visit www.tampabay.com/
Ridgewood High School has begun the process of turning itself around after years of receiving D grades from the state. Working with a team from the state Department of Education, Ridgewood has crafted a plan that targets everything from student attendance to teacher lesson planning.
Principal Andy Frelick, now in his second year at Ridgewood, recently discussed the state's review of the school's plans, as well as his goals for Ridgewood and the surrounding community.
How did things end up when you got to the end (of the recent state review)?
Well, I felt we are moving forward. It was real positive. We told the teachers when we went through the three days of training this summer that we were offering a GPS, a road map, and we feel like we've had a great start to our journey. Our positive behavior support model is working schoolwide and we're working with students and staff on expectations and positive reinforcements for those expectations. …
It seems like people in the community don't like to hear anything bad about Ridgewood at all.
Right. That's correct.
I'm wondering what kind of feedback you're getting from people when you say, "Look, things weren't going so great and we're trying to fix it." Because what we're hearing is, "Things were always great. What are you talking about?"
There's a lot of pride in the community about Ridgewood. I think our student is different today than the student of 10 or 15 years ago. I believe we need to get them more involved in the process to engage them. Those things are working. Some people have been doing that naturally for years. We're proud of the kids here. We need to challenge them more and increase the rigor.
Do all the teachers go along with that?
Pretty much. They're all working hard to achieve that goal. They're meeting to plan. … (Barbara Blackburn) wrote a book about how rigor is not a four-letter word. And basically she states that she chooses to focus her efforts on teachers because they're the most powerful change agent in the school. And so if you look at that, our teachers are meeting in professional learning communities weekly, sometimes twice weekly, talking about the instruction.
But we have to realize, too, we introduced some of the new concepts the last week of July, the first week of August, to the teachers. So we told them we don't expect the end product on Aug. 16, the day the kids walk through the doors. We're working on the work, and we're working on making things better for students in the classroom and trying different approaches.
I have heard some people say, basically, that teachers can have the best lesson plans in the world but if the kids don't want to learn, or don't want to try, then what good is it? How do you get the kids to care?
One thing we stressed as we began the year is the three R's for us are relationships, relevance and rigor. We asked the teachers to do relationship building with the students, really throughout the year but to focus the first few weeks. That's part of our schoolwide goal with positive behavior support, to set up a good, strong network of support for the students and then show the students the relevance of what they are doing in the classroom. If it's relevant, the kid will be involved. And 95 percent of the students do everything you ask them to do. They're enthusiastic and they want to learn. I think with more guided practice, so they're more actively involved in the classroom, they'll get a lot more out of it.
And then sometimes by the time someone gets to high school, a student might feel defeated because they've been struggling for so long. So we've put some steps in place to try to serve a student who is frustrated or maybe has difficulty reading.
It sounds like an awful lot of work for a school to do. Doesn't it feel sort of overwhelming? Or is it what you think schools have to be at this point?
I think schools have to be this way. I think it's overwhelming because it's new. I think most teachers have good practices. I think one of the cases with collaborating is the first-period teacher needs to speak the same language as the sixth-period teacher. So kids don't have six different sets of vocabulary to figure out during the day. We have asked teachers to do a common syllabus and have consistency from one class to another. I guess, imagine when you were growing up and you have both parents there and they had two sets of rules, then you were confused as a kid. Or different sets of expectations academically. So we're trying to be consistent across the board.
It sounds like a plan. I hope it works. I'm sure you do, too.
It's not a question of hoping. Schools that have put these practices into play have moved the whole school forward. And I think the whole philosophy behind what we're doing — we'll do the gradual release model, we're putting more responsibility on the kids for learning, but also if we expect more we'll get more. … It will take some time. We know it's a growing process. … We're making a lot of improvements. I'm happy with where we are.