Gregg Wieczorek has logged thousands of miles on the road and in the air this school year in his role as president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, popping in on principals and school leaders across the country.
The goal: to see bright spots and innovations as K-12 leaders power through the ups and downs of the ongoing pandemic. He has also been able to lend an ear to principals in a time of uncertainty and unpredictability.
“There are a lot of great ideas out there,” said Wieczorek, whose travels have taken him from Hawaii to Maine and from Iowa to Mississippi. He’ll pump the brakes this month after his 50th state visit, to Alaska.
“You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time, if you know other people,” he continued. “I am trying to connect principals from all over the country, to talk about things that they are doing in their schools, to help other principals.”
Wieczorek has seen a lot about how schools are creating rich experiences for students on his stops: from a Wisconsin high school where nearly everything on the lunch tray—including the beef and the lettuce—is grown by students, to a New York high school where an on-campus day-care center allows high school students to work in the center and start earning credits toward a college degree.
Sometimes, Wieczorek picks the school to visit based on whether he will already be in a particular area—like last October, when he made a swing through the Northeast and packed seven visits in Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont into two days.
Other times, he leaves his home in Wisconsin, with the expressed intent of seeing principals in action.
The former principal of Arrowhead Union High School in Hartland, Wis., he knows many of the principals he’s visited. The rest are selected by seeking out leaders of the highest-performing schools in a region.
He keeps a short travelogue of sorts, with dispatches from the road. The NASSP will compile the lessons from the road and distribute them to members when the tour wraps up.
Here are some key observations he’s drawn from three specific visits along the way.
New Albany, Miss: community partnership and career-readiness
Wieczorek discovered that a career-readiness program had strengthened the bond between the school and the community during a visit last September to New Albany Middle and High schools.
In 2018, the district launched an initiative, IMPACTO—or Industries as a Means to Prepare for Academic, Career, and Technology Opportunities—to boost post-secondary readiness. It includes dual enrollment, field trips, leadership lessons, and the opportunity for students to complete a 100-hour paid internship between their junior and senior years.
It initially partnered with at least 20 businesses for the initiative, in which students learn the importance of soft skills such as teamwork and punctuality, but also the tools of the trade where they’re working, including finance, health care, marketing, and physical therapy. The district, meanwhile, partnered with the local economic development planning agency to handle payroll and liability insurance for students during their internships.
What struck Wieczorek was how that initial partnership strengthened the relationship between the school and the community—something that’s not always a given.
The number of businesses participating in the program has nearly doubled, and many of those who’ve gone through the program have found employment at participating businesses. The latter was not part of the program’s initial aim, Wieczorek said.
The New Albany superintendent has capitalized on this and now includes the businesses in many of the district’s outreach and promotion efforts. This has increased community interest in the schools, Wieczorek said.
“In many communities, once your kid is out of school, the only thing you’re connected to is the Friday night football game,” he said.
New Albany, he said, is doing a good job telling the district’s story, and “a good portion of their community understands that, and they’ve bought into why it is important for them to support the schools.”
In many of the communities he’s visited, “you don’t see that kind of connection with the school, and, therefore, you don’t see the support in the school that you’d like to see,” Wieczorek said.
Sergeant Bluff, Iowa: teacher collaboration and peer editing
A peer-editing program for teachers at Sergeant Bluff-Luton High School has helped improve teaching practice.
Once a week, a group of about five teachers from different departments meet to review an assessment, a presentation, or a lab from their colleague and give feedback and critiques to make it better and more accessible to students.
“Our English teachers do peer-editing with kids on writing,” Wieczorek said. “Kids will be writing, and you’ll have three or four students look at it, and give them feedback on their writing to make it better. They do the same things with lessons.”
The lead teacher gave Wieczorek the example of a chemistry teacher who was confident that his students understood the concepts in class and during discussions, but their low test scores suggested otherwise.
When the chemistry teacher brought a copy of the exam to the session, one of the first observations from an English teacher was, “What level is this written at? It’s awfully scientific.”
It turns out, the exam had been written at a college level for 10th and 11th-grade students. With input from his peers, the teacher changed the wording on the exams, though the essence of the questions remained the same, according to Wieczorek.
“All it took was a different teacher, from a different department saying, ‘Hmm, this is written at a higher level than it should be,’” Wieczorek said.
Such an approach requires an investment by the district, however, for training teachers on how to review their peers’ works — for example, what to look for and how to offer constructive feedback. There must also be time built in to develop trust. It took three years for that to happen in Sergeant Bluff.
“It’s an approach that requires significant trust, when you’re going to be that vulnerable to say, ‘I am struggling with this, this is a lesson I’m struggling with,’ and take constructive criticism on it,” he said.
York, Maine: getting the most out of advisory period
Most schools have built-in student advisory period —an hour or so a day when students get help with subjects with which they’re struggling.
That was the case at York High School, where four years ago the school launched extra academic supports for students in small group settings of 10 to 12 students.
But a few things were different from the typical advisory period. For one, students were matched with a staff member—librarians and counselors also participate—for the entire four years.
”The beauty of that is that you never have a student who goes though that school who says, ‘I was not connected to at least one teacher,’” Wieczorek said. “Because they will all have that connection with that teacher, who is their advisory teacher.”
Another key difference: The school started adding once-a-week social-emotional activities to the advisory period. Officials noticed that with the addition of the SEL activities, academics improved more than when only tutoring was offered, and they’ve continually increased the number of days students are exposed to SEL activities.
Students in the program will have social-emotional activities every other day next school year, Wieczorek said.
While this may not be a mind-blowing discovery—schools have had advisory periods for years—many have not added an SEL component to support students, he said.
That observation applies to many of the things he’s seen during his school visits.
“Some of it is really simple stuff that no one has thought of before and no one does because it’s so simple,” he said.