It takes enterprise, hard work, and a resourceful, steady support system to build a successful school, especially with the challenges arising from remote learning and the pandemic. Wilson STEM Academy, now five years old, weathered it all to become a successful immersion magnet school in North Carolina.
After closing in 2008, Wilson Middle School reopened as the newly imagined computer science immersion magnet school, Wilson STEM Academy. Within three years, it grew into a sought-after magnet school, offering partnerships and STEM-based courses, unlike any other schools in the larger Charlotte, North Carolina area.
Jeff Cook, the founding principal, contributes success to the input and ideas from talented faculty, community STEM organizations, and especially Dr. Jones, a STEM programming consultant who supported their initiatives from the beginning.
Sourced from local STEM organizations, Jeff and the staff selected the core habits and skills needed to develop scholars into effective candidates for STEM-based careers. According to Jeff, the school actively develops scholars into creators instead of consumers of computer technology. The mission and vision of the school evolved from there, but like most schools, not without their share of challenges.
The COVID-19 pandemic presented many challenges both during remote learning and especially after scholars and faculty returned. They found a need to rebuild systems and the school community. “It was a drain on everyone,” according to Jeff.
We had to take a pause and ensure we were being intentional about supporting the wellness of our faculty so they could support our scholars and families, and being able to retain high-impact staff was paramount.
To meet these challenges, Wilson STEM Academy partnered with BetterLesson and utilized 1:1 coaching to help build a strong sense of community relationships and form the systems to meet and exceed lofty academic goals.
The instructional leadership had four goals that guided their efforts:
- Meet and exceed academic growth targets
- Maintain a sense of belonging in the community
- Build strong family partnership
- Create high-level support systems to help staff achieve goals
Keep reading to see how they activated these goals into action!
Meet and exceed academic growth targets
Online learning during the pandemic stressed students and faculty alike and took the joy out of learning. Upon returning to the classroom, leadership noted how scholar stamina around productive struggle almost disappeared. With the help of BetterLesson coaching strategies, the leadership worked intentionally to infuse project-based learning opportunities that not only trained scholars to persevere when the work got hard but also brought back a sense of satisfaction into the learning process.
One of the projects tasked scholars with creating a Wilson STEM Academy museum. Students visited a local museum for ideas, then tasked with creating artifacts to exhibit in their gallery.
Maintain a sense of belonging in the community
Student and teacher well-being continued to be a priority. With intentionality, leadership created a welcoming atmosphere to encourage individual freedom and confidence to explore and be creative. This helped teachers and students alike feel comfortable enough to take risks and advance the learning process.
One example: each day, students viewed an 8-10 minute community connection video followed by a discussion circle that was often run by students. This activity provided a strong, welcoming start to the day and resulted in proven growth from this first-period initiative.
Build strong family partnerships
Jeff Cook and his entire leadership team prioritized connection points with families from the beginning. They offered a variety of engagement opportunities like family STEM nights, drive-thru resource events, and the establishment of a family advocacy group called Wilson PRIDE (Parents Rising In Defense of Education). Giving families unique and recurring ways to engage led to the authentic engagement of families as partners in creating a strong school community.
Create high-level support systems for staff to reach goals
Wilson STEM leaders recognized that improved student achievement directly results from a well-supported staff. Faculty are not only supported around curriculum and content but also benefit from social-emotional wellness initiatives.
One adult, whether an ILT staff member, a mentor, or a colleague, is always available to attend to staff needs. Meetings intentionally recognize and honor members, and in the Fall, a Wellness Day is set aside for the staff’s emotional well-being.
BetterLesson coaching as a means to success
As a school leader, Jeff recognizes the impact of executive coaching on his own planning, design and improvement. With his BetterLesson coach, he had a partner who helped keep the mission and vision front and center without getting lost in everyday minutiae. Jeff explained,
Having that thought partner who isn't connected to the district gives me the freedom and confidence to explore ideas and be creative. And having someone who can package these ideas and follow up in a way to help with implementation is so important. It's easy to get lost in the weeds.
The impact of BetterLesson coaching extended beyond Jeff. After experiencing the positive impact on his practice, he offered teachers coaching support for key strategies to reach the school’s academic goals. Jeff feels the most potent thinking time happens in the summer when staff is removed from everyday calendar activities.
During past summers, he chose ten trailblazers to take part in short-cycle coaching and drive selected instructional initiatives throughout the following school year. In year one, coaching focused on AVID WICOR strategies, and in year two, the concentration centered on formative assessment and differentiation. Teachers created innovative beginning-of-the-year units incorporating aligned strategies, and as a leader, Jeff supported implementation with workshops and professional learning communities (PLCs).
During walkthroughs, Jeff saw lots of lab-based experiences. Scholars participated in mock trials, Socratic seminars, and more. These cognitively complex lessons were possible because students knew they were cared for, and teachers had structures and routines in place to empower students to take ownership of their learning.
All indicators pointed to success.
90 percent of scholars met or exceeded growth targets. Suspension data considerably dropped and attendance rates rose. Wilson STEM Academy was the only middle school in their district to move up a letter grade, gaining recognition at the state level.
This success speaks to the commitment of the entire Wilson community. At a time when many schools are struggling with teacher retention, Wilson STEM Academy’s retention rate remains high.
Once we hired staff who understood our mission and vision, the excitement grew. It doesn't matter what their skill set is initially. If they have the heart, we can grow and develop those educators.” shared Jeff. “And with the help of BetterLesson, we've done that well!
BetterLesson provides expert, personalized leadership and teacher coaching for actionable changes aligned with your goals. When a school understands that strategically leveraging coaching, both for their leaders and their teachers, in the pursuit of their goals and in alignment with their vision, we can see sustainable growth occur, like we see happening at Wilson STEM Academy.” shares Romain Bertrand, BetterLesson Solution Designer and Jeff’s coach. “And by that I mean growth measurable in student achievement of course, but also in joy of learning in and of belonging to an inclusive and positive culture.
BetterLesson and Wilson STEM Academy are continuing their partnership into the 2022-23 school year. If you’re a school leader looking to expand your capacity and provide your school or district with the sustainable improvements needed for student success, schedule your call with BetterLesson today!
Interested in hearing more about how Wilson STEM Academy exceeded their goals with BetterLesson? Check out our webinar Teacher Leadership Career Ladders: Improve Teacher Retention and Early Career Success where Jeff will share more about their success.Register Now