School & District Management

In Sharp Focus

By Lynn Olson — September 13, 2005 9 min read
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Beth G. Unfried’s role as the principal of Kenwood Elementary School has changed dramatically in the past four years. The expectations in the 26,000-student Clarksville-Montgomery County district began to shift in July 2001, when Sandra L. Husk became the superintendent. On Husk’s first visit to the principal’s 830-student school here, Unfried says, “She started asking me these questions. Like, ‘What do you do when a child doesn’t learn?’ and ‘How do you know when a child is mastering these skills?’ ”

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“When she left, I felt so lousy,” remembers Unfried, who found herself struggling to answer. “But today, I can say with confidence that I am the instructional leader of this building.”

Before that time, the principal says, “I was the facilities manager, and I was busy. I felt good about what I was doing. I was keeping the peace. Sometimes we made good test scores, sometimes we didn’t, but everyone was happy.”

The same cultural transformation is taking shape across this Tennessee school district, located just over an hour north of Nashville, thanks to a concerted effort from the top that has focused on making student achievement the centerpiece of everything the district does. While the transition is far from finished, it illustrates the powerful role that district leadership can play in improving teaching and learning in classrooms.

Founded in 1784, Clarksville, along the banks of the Cumberland and Red rivers in north-central Tennessee, was the state’s first incorporated city. Its sleepy downtown, dominated by law offices and antiques stores, boasts restored brick sidewalks, period lighting, and historic architecture. But the county’s small-town atmosphere is giving way to rapid development along Interstate 24 at the Tennessee-Kentucky border, fueled, in part, by the nearby Fort Campbell and the relatively easy commute into Nashville.

Superintendent Husk describes her first fall in the district as chaotic.

One of her first tasks was to cut the budget by $4 million. In September, two planes toppled the twin towers of the World Trade Center, and thousands of local U.S. Army families began saying goodbye to husbands and wives deployed overseas. It was the year the state began enforcing mandatory class-size limits in grades K-12. And 2001 was the same year Tennessee lawmakers required that test scores be reported separately for different racial and ethnic groups.

Suddenly, a district that had coasted just above average on state tests discovered that African-American and low-income students, in particular, were not doing very well. “I don’t think that’s a major surprise,” says Husk, “but it was something that had not been seriously talked about.”

One of her first moves was to reorganize the central office. Well-respected principals were promoted to become the chief academic officer and the directors of human resources, instruction, and assessment.

Sallie Armstrong, the director of the newly created office of curriculum and instruction, began working with teachers to arrange the state curriculum into what is called a scope and sequence, including units of study and a pacing guide to show what teachers should be teaching.

“We didn’t have a guaranteed and viable curriculum because no one had led instruction that way,” says Armstrong. “Teachers were going from the front of the textbook to the back of the textbook.”

In 2002-03, Clarksville-Montgomery County embarked on a districtwide literacy initiative, including the use of the same reading textbook for all its elementary schools. It also adopted a common approach to teaching writing in kindergarten through 12th grade, the “Six Traits of Writing,” developed by the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory in Portland, Ore.

To help carry out its “balanced literacy” approach, the district hired 11 full-time literacy coaches, who model instructional strategies in schools and work with teachers to analyze student-performance data. The coaches visit classrooms and consult with teachers daily, provide professional development, and take part in school improvement and literacy teams at schools. Three consultants provided initial training and continue to work with the district on the reading and writing programs.

The Clarksville-Montgomery County School District

Superintendent: Sandra L. Husk

Enrollment: 26,000 students
65 percent white
28 percent African-American
5 percent Hispanic

Poverty: Nearly 40 percent come from economically disadvantaged homes

Results: The proportion of students proficient or above on state language arts tests increased in the following categories:

Elementary and Middle School
Proficient or above

2003 : 88%
2004 : 91%
2005 : 95%

Proficient or above

2003 : 83%
2004 : 87%
2005 : 91%

Economically Disadvantaged
Proficient or above

2003 : 82%
2004 : 85%
2005 : 92%

Proficient or above

2003 : 85%
2004 : 91%
2005 : 91%

Now, asked what Kenwood Elementary’s motto is, a 3rd grader pipes up: “Reading is the cardinal rule.” Students’ work, labeled by which state academic standard it addresses, papers the hallways. Every classroom has a “word wall” of vocabulary, writing folders for each pupil, and a posted schedule of the standards to be learned that day.

In one classroom, 3rd graders work in “literacy circles” to answer questions about Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing by Judy Blume. In the gymnasium, younger children race across the floor to slap a “high five” on large letters laid on the ground, as they spell out a word posted on the overhead projector. In the art room, students draw illustrations based on the book Why Is Blue Dog Blue? by George Rodriguez. When they’re finished, they can go to the reading center, tucked away in a corner, to read independently.

Schoolwide events celebrate children’s reading success, such as a “vote for books” campaign that culminated in a delegates’ assembly where students voted for their favorite books.

The school has added two reading specialists and a reading lab, staffed by three teacher aides, to work with children individually and in groups.

Grade-level teams meet weekly to focus on specific problems or issues. They turn in their minutes to the principal. Teachers also have volunteered to do “quick visits” to each other’s classrooms—initially focused on whether the classroom environment showed evidence of the district’s reading and writing initiatives; more recently, to look for evidence of good instructional strategies.

Unfried, the principal, has gotten lots of support for such changes. Along with about 80 of her colleagues—drawn from both the instructional and noninstructional ranks of district employees—she attended a yearlong Leadership Academy to build leadership capacity across the school system. Last school year, she and other building principals—along with selected assistant principals and teachers—also participated in “professional learning communities,” led by five of their colleagues, to encourage collaborative problem-solving focused around teaching and learning. This school year, all principals are fostering professional learning communities in their own schools, modeled on what they have learned.

“The work that the directors do with the principals looks very similar to the work that principals are doing with teachers and that teachers are doing with students,” explains Husk, who argues that the system had to create a cohesive culture focused on high expectations. “So it’s pervasive, not just in the classroom and throughout the school, but vertically in the organization as well.”

That unifying focus, across both the instructional and noninstructional sides of the house, is most evident in the district’s use of data to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of its practices. Clarksville-Montgomery County, in fact, has earned certification under an internationally recognized standard for companies that effectively monitor and adjust their work processes based on data.

Every department and every major initiative is driven by such feedback, the superintendent says. “I think we have to expand how we think about data,” she adds. “It’s not just annual high-stakes student tests. It’s much broader and deeper and richer.”

Last year, for example, the district set a goal of delivering all newly adopted textbooks to schools by the first day of class. While it didn’t quite reach that target, 88 percent of textbooks were delivered by day one, and 100 percent by the third day of school. The maintenance department set a goal of completing all work orders within 20 days on average.

By the end of last school year, it was down to six days. Under a contract with Kelly Services, of Troy, Mich., which provides temporary staffing, the district improved the proportion of classrooms staffed by qualified substitutes when teachers are absent from 93 percent in 2003-04 to more than 97 percent by the end of last school year. “The complaints just went away,” says Bruce Jobe, the director of human resources. “It’s changed overnight.”

That same focus on data permits the district to track the fidelity with which schools carry out instructional strategies. All of its major initiatives—such as the writing program—were designed around a three-year implementation schedule, with benchmarks set for each year about the types of activities that should be observed in classrooms, initial and intermediate outcomes, and the evidence schools should provide if the program is on track.

The district relies upon such tools as principals’ ratings, surveys of classroom teachers, daily activity logs kept by its literacy coaches, and classroom observations by its consultants and instructional-management team to monitor what’s happening.

Clarksville-Montgomery County is less experienced than some other districts in its use of periodic assessments to help inform instruction, often known as “benchmark” tests. But it is moving fast.

In the 2004-05 school year, it gave its first benchmark assessments in language arts and math in grades 3-10, aligned to state academic-content standards. Those tests were being revised over the summer. This school year, the district planned to add science tests. The tests are given three times each year and are built with the help of teachers and principals. Educators have access to the results online, through a Web-based assessment platform developed by the San Francisco-based Edusoft.

Clara Patterson, the district’s director of educational services, says state test results are simply too little, too late, “so we started talking about the fact that we needed a consistent way of monitoring, on a regular basis, where children are at this point in time.”

Through the Web-based system, teachers also have access to state test results and information from DIBELS, the individualized, diagnostic reading assessment used by many districts across the nation. They also can build their own classroom assessments.

Margie Ford, the principal of Norman Smith Elementary School, says her school’s literacy coach provided an item analysis of the test results to each teacher last school year. “We’re going to take it a step further this year,” she adds. Teams of reading and math teachers, across grades K-5, will meet after each benchmark test to review the scores and come up with schoolwide suggestions for addressing any weaknesses. The school also plans to develop short, monthly reading and math tests, through Edusoft.

“We’re headed in the right direction because our system now has a vision,” says Smith, who’s headed the school for 15 years, “and we’re working as a whole.”

That vision is starting to produce results. All of the district’s 30 schools met their achievement targets under the federal No Child Left Behind Act in 2004-05. Based on Tennessee’s “value added” model, which examines how much growth individual students make from one year to the next, the school system showed above-average growth for its students in language arts and math, and exceptional gains in social studies and science.

Kenwood Elementary students made far more progress than expected in both math and reading.

“This was a totally different world a few years ago,” says Principal Unfried, recalling the previous lack of focus on instruction.

A version of this article appeared in the September 14, 2005 edition of Education Week as In Sharp Focus


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